This blog was written by Charles O'Malley, Senior Systems Change Advisor at the Green Commodities Programme.

UNDP works across food and agriculture systems in multiple countries around the world, touching the lives of hundreds of millions of people involved in agriculture, food production and food supply chains.

Creating a sustainable food and agricultural system is one of the most critical challenges that we face as a species. Food production and consumption has multiple and wide-ranging climate and biodiversity impacts. We cannot solve any one of these issues on their own, but must address them together. While there are many encouraging developments the overall trends are still in the wrong direction. While billions of dollars are being invested to make food and agriculture more sustainable, these investments are dwarfed by the level of investment in ‘business as usual’ approaches. The bulk of market and policy incentives are still pushing food systems in the wrong direction. So a critical challenge is to figure out how we can become more effective in shifting food and agriculture systems on to a more sustainable basis.

2021 sees the first UN Food System Summit. In the lead up to the summit, countries are being encouraged to convene food systems dialogues, to look at the many complex challenges that food systems face. A critical part of this is to consider not just the what of change, but the how of change.

Many of the technical solutions already exist and many of the potential policy interventions are already known. The question is, how do we accelerate adoption of new approaches technologies, improve farming practices and adopt policies that are aligned with climate and biodiversity priorities when there are multiples incentives to keep existing approaches in place?

In June and July of 2020, UNDP convened a group of leading systems thinkers and international development practitioners to inquire together into how we can accelerate systemic change in food and agricultural systems more effectively. Together we explored the questions: what do we mean by systemic change? What gets in the way of it? How can we be more effective at catalysing systemic change and influence the institutional, policy and financial incentives to keep the status quo in place.

We are now embarked on the second cycle of that co inquiry, looking at the issues and challenges of systems change in practice, exploring a range of cases from around the world, where food systems transformation is being attempted. What we can learn from those examples.

We are also looking at questions of systems leadership. What mindsets and approaches and tools and techniques are most effective for supporting more transformational change in food systems? How can we work more effectively in conditions of complexity and uncertainty when the impact of different interventions is impossible to predict and when we need to be able to iterate and evolve our strategies for change in real time.

As we approach the UN food system summit later this year, the co-inquiry is aspiring to clarify the ‘secret sauce’ of the how of change. How can governments collaborate more effectively across different ministerial agendas? How can public private collaboration be broadened and deepened? How can we build more effective alliances, coalitions and partnerships? How can we both mobilise the resources of large institutions and companies in the food and agriculture sector, but also ensure that the voices and perspectives of small farmers and communities are heard?

While there is much work to be done, there is also a sense of a renewed global focus on social and environmental challenges in food and agriculture. We are optimistic that the UN Food System summit can provide a strong platform for a decade of accelerated and more effective action on food systems. A critical component of this will be building the capabilities of governments, the private sector and partners to work together more effectively to harness the technologies we already have available – and to incentivise and mobilise the investments that are required.

If you are a practitioner with a good understanding and keen interest in what it means to work systemically through multi-stakeholder collaboration, please contact Charlie O’Malley at [email protected] to hear about future opportunities.

A copy of a short report from cycle one of the co-inquiry is available here. A report on cycle two will be published in May 2021.



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