Reflections on the Third Global Foresight4Food Workshop in Montpellier 2023

By Bram Peters, Food Systems Programme Facilitator

Strike? What strike?

Amid the turbulence created by strikes in France, a diverse and committed group of people still managed to get to and from the Third Global Foresight4Food Workshop in Montpellier from 7-9 March.

Perhaps, as foresight practitioners, we should have seen it coming! You would think that foresight practitioners who make it their business to look into the future might be better at anticipating turbulence, or at least a substantial level of social upheaval.

Why go through the trouble to come anyway? Because food systems are in turbulence as well. Never has there been a more urgent need to transform food systems. More than 3.1 billion people globally do not have access to healthy diets. The impact of climate change in the form of droughts and disasters is increasing. Agri-food systems are responsible for one-third of greenhouse gas emissions. The Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia war in Ukraine have shown how integrated, yet fragile, the global food system is.

We need foresight in food systems transformation

Yet, “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic” (according to futurist Peter Drucker). That’s where foresight comes in.

We need a long-term perspective to explore alternative pathways to reach desirable or avoid undesirable food system changes.

Following from the UN Food Systems Summit in 2021, many countries are searching for ways to navigate change and develop anticipatory policy to guide them.

As such, the issue on the table was: how can the foresight community of practice offer support and relevant advice to food system stakeholders?

Creating a safe space to think, connect and engage

In Montpellier, Foresight4Food brought together a diverse group of foresight practitioners, researchers, users of foresight and implementors of food systems approaches to discuss how foresight can contribute to national level food systems transformation pathways amid all this turbulence.

The Masterclass on the 7th generated a lot of energy, a shared language, and many practical explorations of tools and methods. The main Workshop on the 8th and 9th saw interactive exchanges, presentations of valuable projects and sharing of insights.

Masterclass on foresight and scenario analysis learning, held on March 7

Among others, organisations such as FAO, CGIAR, GFAR and CIRAD shared ground-breaking applications of foresight thinking linked to food systems. There were cases from Asia, Africa; thematic cases on food systems data; new and past initiatives; dashboards and multi-stakeholder processes.

Researchers and data experts, such as from Wageningen University and Food and Land Use Coalition, shared innovative tools and models to advance new ways of projecting trends.

Critical perspectives were shared. Insights were brought from Africa and Asia, such as by Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa, and much more.

Moving the needle: developing our forward agenda

We, as Foresight4Food team, gained a lot of energy and motivation to continue fostering this vibrant network.

A few pickings of things we want explore moving forward. Develop and encourage ‘Communities of Practices’ through active partnership principles. Make a meta-analysis of existing food system foresight cases and comparative insights and lessons. Create guidance for foresight community on the process of actually doing foresight for food systems. Develop key principles for quality approaches and a toolbox to support implementation.

Thankfully, even in the face of the French strikes, a quality characteristic among foresight practitioners is the ability to be adaptable and flexible – as is needed when you work with the complexity of food systems.

Management and participants of the Foresight4Food workshop in Montpellier

By Jim Woodhill, Lead Foresight4Food Initiative

How can we understand the multiple dimensions of transforming food systems? On top of the disruptions to peoples’ incomes and food supply chains caused by COVID, the Russia war in Ukraine has pushed fertilizer, energy and food prices to all-time highs. Millions are falling back into hunger and poverty. Even in the affluent world, many poorer people in society are being forced to use food banks, eat lower nutritional value food, and make tough decisions between using their dwindling financial resources to pay for food or keep their houses warm in winter.  

This situation underscores the conclusions of the UN Secretary General’s 2021 Food Systems Summit that highlighted the need for a far more resilient, equitable and sustainable food system. Heads of state universally declared that a transformation of food systems is needed to cope with climate change, tackle hunger and poor nutrition, reduce poverty, and protect the environment.

But what does food system transformation actually mean? In this blog, I outline a framework (Figure 1 below) for thinking about food systems transformation. It is based on WHY change is needed, WHAT needs to change, and HOW change can be brought about.

Introducing food systems transformation

“Food systems” has provided a new framing for a more integrated approach to the issues of food security and nutrition, agriculture, climate change, environment and rural poverty. This systems view makes a lot of sense as, one way or another, how we consume and produce food is central to all the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Billions of people work in the agri-food sectors, everyone needs a healthy diet, food is central to culture, food trading and retailing are huge markets and agriculture is the biggest user of land and water resources.

This systems perspective is bringing together a plethora of associated ideas, language and concepts. Terms such as food system outcomes, transformation, transition pathways, resilience, equity, trade-offs and synergies, living income, nature positive approaches, agroecology and the true-cost of food are just a few of these. The emerging food systems discourse is also giving more attention to power structures, the political economy, stakeholder engagement and dialogue, empowering excluded voices, market externalities, coalitions, economic incentives, and data needs.

Before explaining the framework, let’s ask what is meant by a transformation of food systems. Transformation means a complete or radical change of something in form, function or appearance. So, transforming food systems means fundamentally changing how they operate to dramatically improve environmental, health and livelihood outcomes for society at large. This requires fundamental changes in the behaviour of consumers, investors, agri-food sector firms, farmers, researchers and political leaders. In turn, a dramatic shift in economic and social incentive structures is needed, with the true cost of food embedded into how markets function. To avoid future risks these fundamental changes are needed with urgency.

To-date, and perhaps not surprisingly, much of the debate and political narrative has focused on what needs to change and why. The more difficult question of how change can actually be brought about has so far received less attention. Perhaps this is because such discussion cannot avoid difficult political-economic issues of long-term collective interests versus short-term vested interests. We are still a long way from having sufficiently detailed strategies, plans of action, policy commitments and investments to bring about the transformation. How to get from WHY to HOW?

WHY transform food systems?

Why food systems need to change has been well analysed, is clear to most stakeholder groups, and is increasingly articulated by political leaders. The problems and longer-term impacts and risks of the way food is currently consumed and produced is well-evidenced in terms of the negative consequences for health, the environment, and equitable economic development. If this interconnected set of issues is not tackled effectively and promptly the risks of dire longer-term social, economic and political consequences are high.

Food value chains contribute about a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. Agriculture and fishing are by far the largest causes of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation. These impacts on the environment cycle back to undermine the Earth’s very capacity to produce food for the long run.

Further, it is increasingly clear that the SDGs and in particular SDG1 – no poverty – and SDG2 – zero hunger – will not be achieved without a fundamental change in how food systems function.

The work of the Food Systems Summit brought a much wider understanding and acceptance that the numerous development issues linked to food can only be effectively dealt with through a cross-sectoral and systems-oriented approach. An additional critical aspect of the food systems framing is an acceptance that these issues are of equal importance for countries in the Global North and the Global South.

Foresight and scenario analysis can make a vital contribution in helping to explore the ways food systems might change and with what risks and opportunities for different stakeholder interests.

WHAT needs to be transformed?

The desired outcomes from food systems have become well-articulated in terms of three main areas:

  1. ensuring food security and optimal nutrition for all.
  2. meeting socio-economic goals, in particular reducing poverty and inequalities.
  3. enabling humanity’s food needs to be met within planetary environmental and climate boundaries.

Overall, food systems are recognized as needing to function with the properties of being resilient to shocks, sustainable over the long-term and equitable in terms of the costs and benefits to different groups in society.

Across these food system outcomes and properties, there are inevitable trade-offs and synergies, which bring with them the potential for both conflict and collaboration between different interest groups. While the broad directions for desired food system outcomes and properties are relatively well established, the nature and extent of these synergies and trade-offs is much less well understood. More work is also needed to establish specific criteria, directions for change and targets for food system outcomes, which will be necessary to guide transformation at national or local levels, within sectors or across business operations. More attention needs to be given to how the criteria and targets for food systems transformation align with those of the SDGs.  

The Food Systems Summit and the work of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS), in particular its recently adopted Voluntary Guidelines of Food Systems and Nutrition (VGFSyN), have identified underlying values and principles that should guide the processes and outcomes of food systems transformation. These include human rights (incl. the right to adequate food), sustainability, resilience, transparency, accountability, adherence to the rule of law, stakeholder engagement, gender equality, and inclusivity (particularly for women, youth, indigenous groups and small-scale producers).

Food systems that deliver on the desired outcomes and properties, and function in adherence with the underlying values and principles articulated above, can be considered as sustainable food systems.

HOW can food systems be transformed?

The transformation of food systems will require a focus on transition pathways, largely driven at the national level but connected with local processes and enabled by larger-scale system shifts at regional and global scales. Four main transitions can be identified from the Food Systems Summit deliberations:

  1. a consumption shift to sustainable and healthy diets.
  2. an equitable economic shift to ensure food economy producers and workers, have a fair living income including being able to afford healthy diets.
  3. a shift toward nature positive approaches for food production, processing and distribution which have a net-zero climate impact and operate within a sustainable and safe zone of utilizing natural resources.
  4. a shift towards mechanisms of resilience for food systems which can ensure societies a large to not risk food insecurity and that groups who are poor or vulnerable are protected.

Desired food system outcomes can potentially be achieved through multiple different pathways and scenarios with numerous different trade-offs and synergies. For example, consumption shifts could be influenced by food prices and taxes, public education, product labelling or shifts in food marketing practices. Resource efficiency and circularity could be achieved by a number of measures, including consuming (at a global level) less animal protein, adopting agroecological approaches, energy efficiency, water management, reducing waste, or new technologies which reduce methane emissions from cattle farming. Equity for those working in the sector could be improved through various combinations of increasing food prices, implementation of labour and land tenure rights, improved social protection, improving overall rural economic development or creating greater economic opportunity outside the food sector.

Developing and assessing the options and scenarios to enable transitions is where a vast amount of investment and work is needed if food systems are to be sustainably transformed. The Food Systems Summit process identified a significant number of “game changing solutions”, ideas that could contribute to developing viable transition pathways. Further assessment and work will be needed to refine, prioritize and build on this contribution from the Summit.

Scenarios can help identify potential trade-offs and co-benefits of those solutions across intended food system outcomes. The principles of equity and inclusion are especially important to consider when analysing options and trade-offs. For example, gender equality is not guaranteed to improve with increased income from food systems activities, so attention must be paid to gender-transformative and inclusive value chain development.

Generating viable options for transforming food systems will require systemic innovation that connects processes of innovation across the domains of technology, institutions and social norms, and politics and governance. Food systems transformation will be impeded or enhanced depending on the constellation of power relations across societies and the agri-food sector. This is particularly salient where influential actors are prepared to defend vested interests at the cost of changes for the wider collective good. Such systemic innovation will require profound paradigm shifts and completely new approaches to policy coherence.

Insights from systems theory and transition theory have much to offer in terms of how to guide and broker change in complex (food) systems. For example, encouraging, supporting, linking and scaling up “niche” innovations that can respond to new needs, challenges and opportunities. This requires adaptation to local contexts that can be supported by territorial approaches to development. Over time, such innovations can help to disrupt existing and unsustainable food systems “regimes” (attitudes, policies, power relations, market relations) and enable more sustainable alternatives to become embedded.

The Food System Summit has helped to identify numerous factors that can be considered as enabling conditions or structural constraints for food systems transformation. Systems change involves “nudging” systems in desirable directions by working to amplify enabling conditions and dampening structural constraints. This requires attention to the underlying political economy. Strategic alliances and political leadership are needed to help shift understanding, narratives and power dynamics.

FAO’s new insightful scenarios for the future of food systems

By Bram Peters, Foresight4Food Global Facilitator

What drivers can trigger food systems transformation? How can we move beyond business as usual in the face of rising food insecurity, environmental degradation and economic instability? The good news is that we can shape food systems to be more resilient and sustainable. The challenge: trading off short-term benefits in search of longer-term outcomes. FAO developed four future scenarios that explore that explore these questions and how we can navigate such paths.

End of 2022, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published the reportThe Future of Food and Agriculture – Drivers and triggers for transformation’. The key triggers and drivers for transformation are identified based on a diverse and wide range of literature and expert knowledge and then applied to four scenarios to achieve the FAO goal of ‘Four Betters’: better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life. Trade-offs over time and the key use of policy triggers are at the centre of the report’s conclusions. This blog dives into these drivers and futures, and delves into the key implications of this report.

In Search of ‘Four Betters’

FAO strives for ‘Four Betters’: better production, better nutrition, better environment and better life. How to achieve such a vision, and how will this look in the future?Much depends on how drivers play out, how stakeholders tackle trade-offs, and how certain triggers are turned into policy options and implemented. The recent report makes clear that the historical development paths followed by high-income countries, drawing from hegemonic power, colonial wealth and unsustainable practices, are impossible for current low- and middle-income countries to follow. This requires a mindset shift regarding taking responsibility, sharing burdens and investing in a new type of focus on the long-term objective.

Difficult-to-navigate trade-offs and choices include:

  • Short-term productivity gains against greater sustainability and reduced climate impact; “Better production starts from better, critical and informed consumption, but producing more with less will also be unavoidable”.
  • Efficiency against inclusiveness; for instance, “technological innovations are part of the solution – provided new technologies and approaches are also accessible to the more vulnerable”.
  • Short-term economic growth and well-being against greater long-term resilience and sustainability. In concrete terms, this means “selling the message that well-off people have to lose out economically in the short run, in order to reap environmental benefits and resilience for all in the medium and long term is counterintuitive in this short-termism era”.

These are difficult but essential messages. The report highlights the importance of realising that food systems transformation is an inherently political and cultural process. Promising drivers and triggers for change are occurring globally, but must be harnessed and adapted. Let’s have a look at some of the drivers identified. Drivers are categorised as ‘overarching, systemic drivers’, which often include global, geopolitical and demographic elements, ‘drivers affecting food access and livelihoods’, and ‘drivers that affect food and agricultural production and distribution processes. Drivers within these categories affect agri-food, socioeconomic and environmental systems (Figure 1.1).

Captured in an agri-food system framework (partially based on previous work from Foresight4Food), some predominant drivers include scarcity of natural resources, epidemics and ecosystem degradation, cross-country interdependencies, inequalities, big data use and control, geopolitical instability, food prices, public investment and consumption and nutrition patterns. Cutting through these drivers are ‘risks and uncertainties’, as many drivers can turn into hazards, risks and cascading crises.

FAO 2022 Future of Food Model

New Future Scenario Narratives

Radically divergent futures can emerge if the interactions of drivers, changes in individual and collective behaviour, the materialization of natural events, risks and uncertainties, and the influence of public strategies and policies play out differently. FAO developed four scenarios from the near future to the end of the century and explored the implications of each for food systems. The FAO ‘Four Betters’ were used to formulate four visions and narratives of the future. Using a ‘back-casting approach’ (where a number of aspirational visions are developed and it is then explored what future pathways could lead to these futures). The FAO team explored how each of these futures could be reached through combinations of key drivers, interconnections between agri-food, socioeconomic and environmental systems and ‘weak signals’ of possible futures.

By imagining alternative pathways and priority trigger points, the four scenarios are not defined as separate destinations to get to by moving along four different train tracks. Instead, each future

scenario could be reached at different points depending on the strategic policies and decisions implemented, the trade-offs in policymaking, and unless irreversible processes are triggered.

Trade-offs now and in the future will offer wicked dilemmas for decision-makers. Foresight thinking highlights that certain current decisions may lead to short term results but can increase medium and long-term uncertainty and, in the worst situations, foreclose certain long-term futures. See various conflicting policy objectives in Table 2.2.

The four scenarios are visualised on a juxtaposition of 2 paired FAO ‘Betters’: ‘Better nutrition/Better life’; and ‘Better production/Better environment’. These betters were paired to enable visualisation and relative positioning of futures vis-à-vis each other in a matrix.  

The four scenarios include:
1.     More of the Same (MOS)
2.    Adjusted Future (AFU)
3.    Race to the Bottom (RAB)
4.    Trading off for Sustainability (TOS)

More of the Same involves muddling through reactions to events and crises while doing just enough to avoid systemic collapse, which will lead to the degradation of agri-food systems’ sustainability and to poor living conditions for many, increasing the long-run likelihood of systemic failures. Adjusted Future entails that some moves towards sustainable agri-food systems will be triggered in an attempt to achieve Agenda 2030 goals. Some improvements in terms of well-being will be obtained, but the lack of overall sustainability and systemic resilience will hamper their maintenance in the long run.

Race to the Bottom is characterised by gravely ill-incentivized decisions that will lead to the collapse of substantial parts of socioeconomic, environmental and agri-food systems, with costly and almost irreversible consequences for a vast number of people and ecosystems. Trading off for Sustainability would mean that awareness, education, social commitment, sense of responsibility, participation and critical thinking will trigger new power relationships and shift the development paradigm in most countries. Short-term gross domestic product (GDP) growth will be traded off for the inclusiveness, resilience and sustainability of agri-food, socioeconomic and environmental systems.

Each scenario narrative explores how certain key domains could develop. What would geopolitics, economic growth, demographics, resources and climate, agriculture, and technology and investment in food systems look like in each future? How each key driver would materialise in each future is also illustrated. For instance, the driver ‘Innovation and Science’, in the MOS scenario, imagines that various agricultural technologies such as robotics, blockchain and AI were developed and were expected to support data-driven transformation but failed in the face of too much focus on means and not enough institutional and social innovation. In the AFU scenario, some investments in novel technologies helped improve productivity and resource use efficiency.

However, more systemic approaches such as agroecology and multi-cropping were not followed through and unequal investment across countries took place, meaning that real transformation was incomplete. In the RAB scenario, science was further used to ensure control of corporate entities or geopolitical allegiance, reinforcing inequalities and further exclusion of small-scale actors and leading to faster exhaustion of natural resources. Finally, in the TOS scenario, science and innovation are fully geared toward sustainable food systems and involve strong contributions from educated and aware civil societies using innovative decision-making processes. Greater awareness of consumers facilitated the trade-off of outputs with sustainability and supported the creation of a diverse and resilient agri-food system across communities.

Various assumptions always play a role in developing scenarios and their policy triggers. Compared to previous scenario exercises, a key assumption, due to updated data models and prognoses, is that the collapse of substantial parts of agri-food, socioeconomic and environmental systems is almost certain(!). A second important assumption in the TOS and RAB scenarios is that ‘globally emerging well-educated, informed, critical, increasingly aware and non-manipulable civil societies’ are a crucial factor that either can enable or prevent those futures from being realised. Another assumption is that governance of markets is important to address inequalities. This is contrary to scenarios developed by the World Economic Forum, where the assumption was that if markets are connected and economic growth is fast, inequalities will also decrease.

So, what does it mean to work with these futures?

Concluding most directly: the picture is not reassuring, but something can be done if with urgency. SDG achievement is off track, finding ‘win-win’ solutions is difficult if not impossible, and MOS and RAB scenarios must be avoided with great urgency as they could very well become reality. However, the implications of the scenarios and the complexity of food systems also mean that other lessons require deeper reflection. Two elements are essential to underline: the interconnectedness of systems and our abilities to boost transformative change.

The interconnectedness of systems means that negative trajectories and global challenges can cascade into even bigger crises. Solutions cannot emerge easily due to entangled problems within agri-food, socioeconomic and environmental systems. Climate change, shock resilience, sustainable resource use, poverty and ending hunger are at the top of overarching challenges.

Agency grants us the means to set a new path, but it may be challenging to implement change under the influence of drivers and opposing power and interests. As such, being on the path toward MOS or RAB does not mean that we cannot set in a new direction. We must utilize ‘priority triggers of change’ or boosters of transformative processes to move away from business as usual. The report identifies four key policy triggers: institutions and governance; consumer awareness; income and wealth distribution; and innovative technologies and approaches.

Following a systemic logic, changes made through these triggers within the agri-food system should also impact socioeconomic and environmental systems. Activation or deactivation of these triggers (especially regarding which stakeholders gain the power to influence the manner of their activation) will highly influence the realisation of certain scenarios. For instance, better institution and governance mechanisms will influence on a range of key drivers and domains, such as better institution and governance mechanisms will influence on a range of key drivers and domains, such as governance of new technologies, migration, market power and intergenerational equity.

The report concludes with the words of Antonio Gramsci, Italian philosopher and radical journalist. “My mind is pessimistic, but my will is optimistic. Whatever the situation, I imagine the worst that could happen in order to summon up all my reserves and will power to overcome every obstacle”: words to be taken to heart. Acceptance of long-term perspectives by citizens and their governments is crucial for transformative action to start now. We must ‘outsmart’ political-economic constraints and enlarge agency space.

As Foresight4Food, we are committed to promoting and enhancing foresight approaches to strategically prepare for different food systems outlooks, by learning from the past but especially looking forward to explore.

In October 2022, Foresight4food hosted a CFS side event on “Foresight and Future Scenarios for Food Systems Transformation – Building Resilience and Fostering Adaptation to Protect Against Future Crises”. The event was held jointly with the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) and the CFS High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE – FSN).  
The event highlighted the importance of taking longer-term perspectives on food systems transformation through the use foresight and scenario analysis. The work of the Foresight4Food Initiative was outlined and a new programme “Foresight for Food System Transformation – (FoSTr)” was launched.
Patrick Caron, International Director at Montpellier University of Excellence / CIRAD opened the event and highlighted the potential of foresight for supporting food systems transformation. He emphasised that foresight is not about trying to predict the future but rather to prepare for a range of different future scenarios and to understand the implications of these for different stakeholder interests. Patrick introduced the work of Foresight4Food, which is promoting and supporting the use of foresight and scenario approaches for food systems analysis and transformation.
The event was moderated by Jim Woodhill, Lead of the Foresight4Food Initiative. He introduced the building blocks of an approach to foresight for food system transformation which has been developed by Foresight4Food. Central to this approach is identifying key trends and critical uncertainties which may influence the future of the entire food system. He indicated how Foresight4Food has been developing and how its overall approach is being tested through work in Africa and Asia.  This contributes to the Foresight4Food objectives of supporting a community of practice, a brokering foresight work and developing a deeper understanding of foresight methodology and tools.

Parick Caron and Jim Woodhill at the CFS 50 Side Event of Foresight4Food Initiative

Abdurazak Ibrahim, Cluster Lead, Institutional Capacity and Future Scenarios, Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) introduced the work of the African Foresight Academy in institutional capacity building for foresight and scenarios. He outlined the objectives of Academy and introduced current initiatives. This includes running an AgMOOC on foresight for which 300 people have enrolled and which has been produced in partnership with Foresight4Food.
Akiko Suwa-Eisenmann, a member of the HLPE-FSN, discussed the most recently presented HLPE-FSN report no. 17 on “Data collection and analysis tools for food security and nutrition” which focuses on enhancing data for effective, inclusive and evidence-informed decision making. Akiko emphasised that the current food crisis further illustrates that it is critical to have reliable and up-to-date data on food and nutrition security. Challenges to be faced include enhancing data literacy, dealing with the complexity of food systems across scales, filling critical data gaps, and synthesising and presenting data so it is useful for decision making. Akiko noted that “foresight needs to be data informed and that means not only data collection and analysis but also translating data into insights, and dissemination for making decisions, and that foresight is key in these processes of bringing data to the public debate”. She also highlighted the value of linking the work of the HLPE and that of Foresight4Food.

Akiko Suwa-Eisenmann, CFS High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE – FSN)

John Ingram, Lead of the Food Group at the Environmental Change Institute, and Associate Professor and Senior Research Fellow at Somerville College, University of Oxford, introduced and launched the new Foresight for Food System Transformation (FoSTr) Programme. This will be a three-year initiative helping to take forward the work of Foresight4Food with engagement in five focus countries across Africa, Asia and the Middle East. FoSTr is funded by the Government of the Netherlands, as a grant through the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). He talked about the collaborative nature of this work at both national and global levels and its intention to support a growing community of practice across foresight providers and users.

Sara Savastano, the Director of IFAD’s Research and Impact Assessment Division, discussed the need to understand how food systems work in the selected countries where FoSTr will operate. She noted the importance of foresight as a key contributor for designing effective investment projects which tackle the longer-term challenges of building resilience into food systems.
Ravi Khetarpal, Executive Secretary of Asia Pacific Association of Agricultural Research Institutions (APAARI), and Chair of the Global Forum for Agricultural Research (GFAR) underlined the continued importance of the agri-food sector for security and development across the Asia Pacific. He emphasised the critical need for multi-stakeholder platforms at national and local levels to help drive the needed innovation for transforming food systems.  He saw foresight and the Foresight4Food initiative as a valuable contribution to such processes and welcomed its work in the region. To achieve sustainable and resilience food systems he called for more evidence-based policy making, which relies on good data and the type of integrated qualitative and quantitative analysis which can be offered by foresight.
Sara Mbago-Bhunu, the Director of IFAD’s East and Southern Africa Division, highlighted the current crises across the region being driven by increasing energy and food prices, along with climate impacts.  She welcomed the FoSTr initiative and noted the critical need to transform food systems for long-term resilience while also tackling the humanitarian relief demands in the short-term. She emphasised the historical link between high food prices and social unrest and reminded the audience of the huge shortfall in investment funds for the agri-food sector. She hoped that “the FoSTr program as you have described here can do the modelling and forecasting to build up capacities in this space for informed policy making to invest in sustainable and circular management [of food systems]”.

Sara Mbago-Bhunu, the Director of IFAD’s East and Southern Africa Division

Winnie Yegon, a Horticulture Fellow with the African Food Fellowship, and food systems expert with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) explained how training in food system foresight provided by the Followship Programme, has enabled new perspectives on how to bring about change in food systems. In particular, she noted the value of an integrating perspectives that brings stakeholders together to make sense of available data.
Herman Brouwer, Senior Advisor for Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration at the Centre for Development Innovation (CDI), Wageningen University and Research, highlighted two key implications from the discussion, on one hand the need for reliable data and on the other the need for processes which enable collective sense making. He noted that helping to bring enhanced literacy on data and foresight processes is a valuable contribution which can be made by Foresight4Food and the FoSTr Programme. In particular, he emphasised the need for collaboration between different stakeholder across the food system to enable change, and that foresight can make a valuable contribution to such collaborative processes by creating shared understanding of future risks and opportunities.

Key Messages

  • The current crisis in energy and food prices underscores the need for food systems transformation with a central focus on resilience.
  • Transforming food systems requires long-term perspectives and futures thinking which can be supported through foresight and scenario analysis.
  • Foresight is most valuable when it can integrate qualitative and quantitative methods and engage stakeholders from across the food system.
  • Foresight4Food offers a network and platform for sharing experience and methodology on foresight for food systems change, and for supporting capacity development.
  • Foresight needs good data on food security and nutrition, however, there remain large gaps in data availability and limited literacy on how to collect and analyse data.
  • The Foresight for Food System Transformation (FoSTr) Programme will provide three years of support for the work of Foresight4Food and enable in-depth work in five focus countries.
  • Enhancing food systems and foresight literacy across key players in food systems is increasingly recognised as an important element in being able to transform food systems and take forward national food systems transformation pathways.

By Jim Woodhill, Lead Foresight4Food Initiative

A dramatic and rapid transformation of food systems is necessary to end poverty and hunger, protect the environment, improve rural livelihoods, and ensure resilience to future shocks. This transformation must include structural changes in how our political, economic, social and technological systems function. Such transformative change requires a long-term perspective and understanding of the risks and opportunities in different possible food system futures – the purpose of foresight.

Foresight and Food Systems

Foresight offers one approach to support transformational change for a more equitable and sustainable global food system. It uses futures thinking and scenario analysis to help diverse food system actors (e.g., rural farmers, food manufacturers, small agri-food businesses, governments) imagine, together, how the future might unfold. Considering future scenarios enables possible risks and vulnerabilities to be understood and mitigated. It also enables opportunities for positive food systems transformation to be identified and explored. 

Foresight analysis helps to create understanding about how key trends and critical uncertainties (e.g., changing diets, climate impacts, demand for certain foods) could impact food systems. It supports preparedness for different possible futures.

Food systems are extremely complex, with all of the activities of food systems from production to consumption affecting global health and nutrition, environmental sustainability, and livelihoods and employment. Globally, agri-food work is the largest economic sector, employing over a quarter of the world’s workers. The scale alone of global food systems makes achieving change complicated and slow. Fear of the unknown, combined with vested interests of powerful food systems players, can bring resistance to innovation and change. This results in a lack of effective responses to already pressing issues. The challenge Is compounded by the difficulties of creating sufficient collective understanding and commitment among the highly diverse groups involved in food systems.

However, while change often seems slow and difficult, stuck or even regressing, there are endless positive examples of individuals, communities, groups and organisations working for more sustainable and equitable food systems. Especially when the life force of food is involved, people are deeply capable of innovation, creativity, social organisation and activism.

While foresight and scenario analysis is no panacea to the complex and overlapping issues within our food systems, it offers two critical contributions:

  1. Motivation and clarity for change by offering stakeholders a window into the future, through which they can see how their longer-term interests and aspirations would be affected by different future scenarios.
  2. Helping break down the barriers of vested interests by facilitating stakeholders to collectively explore options and pathways for change that can balance individual and common interests.

The Foresight4Food Approach

The Foresight4Food Initiative has developed a framework and process to guide foresight and scenario analysis for food systems change. The framework (Figure 1) links a participatory process of stakeholder engagement with a strong scientific evidence base and the use of computer-based modelling and visualisation. The approach starts by understanding how food system actors “see” the food system – their actions, values and interests – and their motivation for engaging in foresight. It maps out and examines how social, technical, economic, environmental and political (STEEP) factors interact within food systems, and how food systems are influenced by the power dynamics between actors.

Figure 1: A Framework for understanding foresight and scenario analysis for systems change

A food systems framing is critical to identify and assess key drivers, trends and uncertainties, to develop alternative future scenarios (Figure 2). The approach creates dialogue between stakeholders about their assumptions on how the future food system may unfold and what this implies for their visions and aspirations. The discussions that ensue provide a foundation for exploring what directions for food systems change would be in the collective interest and how trade-offs or synergies between the specific interests of different groups can be best managed. 

Figure 2: Using key trends and critical uncertainties to identify future scenarios

Central to this approach is the development and analysis of future food system scenarios, based on data about key trends and critical uncertainties. This is often the most challenging yet insightful part of the process. It takes various actors ‘outside the box’ to imagine how the future of food systems could be fundamentally different, with what implications.

A simple way to develop scenarios is to identify two independent critical uncertainties that then create a matrix of four different scenarios (Figure 3). For example, critical uncertainties in food systems could be dietary changes, climate impacts on agricultural production, malnutrition levels, market and trade functioning, and many others. Scenario story lines are then developed that outline what each of these four futures would be like, based on the two chosen uncertainties. ‘Back casting’ is used to look backwards from an imagined future scenario to construct the possible events and decisions that could have led to such a future.

The framework integrates four elements:

  1. A futures orientation that invites stakeholders to develop a longer-term perspective on how food systems may unfold in the future, and what decisions are needed today to avoid future risks and build resilience into our food systems.
  2. Ways of thinking about how change happens in food systems – by linking theories and schools of thought on complex systems, socio-technical transitions, wicked problems, anticipatory governance, cognition, and human bias.
  3. Practical methods from strategic foresight, scenario planning, multi-stakeholder processes, soft systems analysis, and theory of change.
  4. Participatory tools for analysis and group facilitation, which enable food system actors to collectively analyse situations and data, create scenarios, engage in dialogue and critical conversations, build trust, and generate pathways of action.
Figure 3: A scenario matrix based on two critical uncertainties

Rethinking Food System Change

Foresight4Food’s approach recognises that elements in the system (i.e., people and nature) interact in complex and adaptive ways; therefore, change in food systems does not occur in easily predicable or linear and hierarchically controlled ways. The complex nature of food systems deeply challenges reductionist mindsets that continue to dominate in public policy making and organisational management. Food systems thinking recognises that change happens through nudging systems, rapid experimentation and learning, and scaling niche innovations. It explores how locked in structures and power relations can be disrupted, yet recognises that building the foundations for desired change takes time, with the eventual outcomes and moments of change being uncertain.

Food systems transformation will require ongoing innovation and learning, with strong networks to obtain feedback and decentralised responsibilities for decision-making and action. Real changes in food systems will depend on shifting underlying structures related to power dynamics, relations between different actors, and the mental models of society, leaders and politicians. Foresight and scenario analysis can help to surface and examine these dimensions of change in a complex and adaptive food system. It is an approach to help generate the critical thinking, leadership and stakeholder engagement needed for food systems transformation. 

By Just Dengerink

Foresight training for Africa Foresight Academy by Foresight4Food researchers and Wageningen University & Research (WUR)

The Foresight4Food initiative aims to connect and inspire networks of foresight professionals around the world. In early July 2022, members of the Africa Foresight Academy participated in a foresight training at Oxford, provided by Foresight4Food researchers from the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute (ECI) in collaboration with Wageningen University & Research (WUR). The training was attended by five African researchers in person, while five others joined in online.

Jim Woodhill of the Foresight4Food Initiative with five African foresight and scenario experts: Abdulrazak Ibrahim, Fatunbi Aluwole, Karen Munoko, Kwaku Antwi and Baitsi Podisi.

The Foresight4Food ‘seven steps’ approach to scenario and foresight analysis (see illustration below) was used to develop four scenarios for a more climate-resilient Ghana in 2040. Here’s a look at how these scenarios were developed using the Foresight4Food approach in the training session.

Visualization of the Foresight4Food approach to participatory scenario and foresight analysis

Scoping the process and mapping the food system

The scenario exercise started with scoping and delineating the focus of the scenario process Collectively, it was decided to focus the scenarios on the future of the Ghana food system in 2040, and the resilience of this system to external shocks related to climate change.

Participants were invited to draw a ‘rich picture’ of the Ghana food system to map out its most important features. These included small-scale yam and cocoa production in the south, maize and sorghum production in the north, fisheries along the coast and around Lake Volta along with the role of urban informal food markets, the lack of a large food processing sector, Covid-19’s impact on supply chains, growing security threats in the region, and the effect of the war in Ukraine on fuel prices and availability of fertilizers.

Training participants drawing a rich picture of the Ghanaian food system

From assessing trends and uncertainties to constructing scenarios

Building upon the key features of the Ghana food system from the ‘rich picture’ exercise, participants were then invited to identify the most important trends and uncertainties affecting the Ghana food system.

Highlighted key trends included fast population growth and urbanization, increasing use of technology, growing dependence on food imports and remittances, decreasing occurrence of crop diseases, growing youth unemployment, and the increase in fast food consumption.

Together, the participants also identified some important uncertainties regarding the future of the Ghana food system: the degree of extreme weather events, the implementation efficiency of climate resilience policies, and the vulnerability of households to climate change. Other uncertainties identified included future access to fertilizers, fluctuations in fuel prices, changes in trade regimes, levels of agricultural productivity, the expected value of the Ghanaian currency, the potential influence of future Covid outbreaks and the impact of developments in the general security of the region.

The participants then decided on two key uncertainties that would be critical in determining the future climate resilience of the Ghanaian food system. Based on these two key uncertainties, a matrix was created with each of the axes representing one uncertainty. Within this matrix, four scenarios were constructed, based on their position on both axes and with input from the other uncertainties that were identified.

Four scenarios for the future climate resilience of the Ghanaian food system

Assessing implications, exploring system changes and designing pathways

With the four scenarios in place, participants were invited to give more colour to these four plausible futures by exploring the implications of each scenario for different stakeholder groups. One group explored the implications for rural farmers, while the other focused on urban consumers.

With the implications of each scenario explored in more detail, participants were asked to zoom out and think about the possible system changes that – in each scenario – could contribute to a more climate-resilient future of the Ghanaian food system. Suggestions included the stimulation of climate-smart agriculture practices, diversification of production and dietary patterns, strengthening regional trade, supporting home gardens and peri-urban agriculture and digitalization of supply chain management.

This three-day exercise with African foresight experts showed how the Foresight4Food approach can help structure a participatory foresight process that leads to engaging scenarios and actionable policy recommendations to shape the future of our food systems.

An update on a two-part IFSTAL training course held at Makerere University

Bring together 26 individuals drawn from university students, academics and professionals working across the food sector in Uganda and what do you have? The kernel of a powerful network to help tackle malnutrition in country in all its varied forms.

Equipping participants with the skills to become food systems thinkers was the aim of a two-part training course delivered by Interdisciplinary Food System Teaching and Learning’ programme (IFSTAL) in collaboration with Makerere University, Kampala.

Malnutrition is the new normal

Despite the emergence of food systems approaches to address food insecurity in the content of other SDGs, malnutrition in Africa is becoming the ‘new normal’. This is down to a lack of skills across the policy and practice workforce to tackle food system challenges in the necessary integrated manner.

Fixing systemic problems across the food sector while enhancing livelihoods needs interdisciplinary systems thinkers. The lack of sufficient food systems training – and hence skills in the workforce – is a major impediment. This is partly due to university curricula being ill-equipped to provide the necessary interdisciplinary food systems training for students who will move on into the food sector, and partly due to weak networking across the sector itself.

Creating skills for change

Generously supported with a grant from the Open Society Foundations, the course was planned in two parts. Part 1 held in January 2020, covered basic food systems approaches. Giving participants time to reflect on the first part in their work contexts, Part 2 was designed to follow three months later, covering system change and foresight. Covid-19 intervened, which meant Part 2 was delivered in late March 2020, exactly two years behind schedule.


Building on seminars on food systems dynamics and systems thinking, the course was highly interactive, with participants engaging in group exercises to develop skills as delivered in short introductory presentations.

Applied skills

Part 1 was very well received – as shown in the results of a post-course survey (Figure 1). Recognition of the importance of stakeholders and having the tools to integrate wider stakeholders into planning was valued by participants, as was the the style of training with its emphasis on participation and knowledge sharing. There was also clear demand for further understanding of food systems and systems approaches, a recognition of their importance of applicability, and the benefit of acquiring practical and useable methods.

When it came to the most useful elements, comments included “Understanding how to involve different stakeholders when proposing new strategies, e.g. stakeholder mapping”, “’Rich Pictures’ helped me to improve my understanding of complex problems”, and “Soft skills, such as communication, group dynamics, etc”.


Lasting impact

Part 2 training included SWOT analyses of current interventions to address food system issues, backcasting practice, and introduced foresight and scenarios methodology. Participants drew on their different areas of expertise and engaged in collaborative problem solving. They were also encouraged to engage in reflective discussion throughout on food system challenges and the methodologies shared in the training.

Two years on from the initial session, a survey conducted during Part 2 (Figure 2) provided information for a pedagogic analysis of Part 1, showing the lasting benefit to participants: “I have incorporated some ideas into the courses that I teach, and have also borrowed some ideas to feed into a research grant application”, “The whole idea of food systems has helped me in my service delivery which involves dealing with a lot of chemicals which affects the farmers, the environment, and the final consumers of the food” and “Proper planning and evaluation of my business goals through use of the swot analysis and back casting methods”.

Future activity

Despite the two-year delay, it was particularly pleasing that all but four of the Part 1 cohort returned for Part 2, supporting their Part 1 survey comments.

Deemed a success, the overall project has provided a clear indication of the demand for food systems thinking and practice among a varied group of academics and professionals. Further food systems training is planned in collaboration with RUFORUM and the Foresight4Food programme.

Dr John Ingram is the leader of the Food Systems Transformation Group at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

Figure 1: Likert Scores from Survey Results January 2020

Figure 2: Pedagogic Survey Results March 2022

On scale of 1-5, 5 being greatly, how much do you think systems thinking has changed the way you think about food systems?

Figure 2

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By Jim Woodhill, Ken Giller and John Thompson

The final eDialogue in our five-part series on the ‘What Future for Small-Scale Farming?’ finished off by exploring policy implications for the inclusive transformation of small-scale agriculture in challenging times.

A stellar panel of experts from five continents brought a rich and insightful set of perspectives to the table.

We asked: “Is a fundamental shift in incentives and policies needed to tackle the ongoing issues of poverty and malnutrition facing rural-households who farm, and to align small-scale agriculture with the goals of a transformed food system? If so, how might such shifts be brought about?”

Rhetorical questions perhaps, but it was enlightening to hear from a group of highly knowledgeable panellists that profound shifts in policy are needed and that such change is possible, despite the difficulties. The need for new visions of policy goals, that take a much more integrated approach to food systems was a clear message.

It was also clear that policy does matter. Current incentive structures and market externalities are often driving food systems and the conditions for small-scale farming in the wrong direction. Past policy settings may have been appropriate for a staple crop-oriented approach to food security, prior to times of resource scarcity, climate change, the growing nutrition crisis, and more complex rural-urban interlinkages. Today, however, emerging challenges and future risks require a substantial policy rethink.

Against a backdrop of ‘progress’, too many people are being left behind: Given a set of mega-trends, we were encouraged to be optimistic about the future. Taking Africa for example, wage rates, education levels, health status, financial inclusion, access to mobile phones, and off-farm employment rates have all improved dramatically and appear to be heading in the right direction. However, this does not mean that specific groups aren’t being left behind or that there aren’t fundamental challenges in the food and farming sectors related to livelihood security, health and nutrition and the environment. These are very real challenges that affect large numbers of the most vulnerable male and female farmers, and farm workers, and they require substantial policy innovation. This wider positive development trajectory does though give hope for change. However, linking back to the theme of ‘recognising diversity’, what is possible is profoundly shaped by a country’s specific economic status and its particular political economic dynamics.

Recognising good public benefits: It was observed by the panel that farming and food is a largely a private sector activity. Yet, depending on the way food systems are functioning, the outcome can lead to huge public good benefits or costs. Basic, public investments in agricultural research and development, and in ensuring rural infrastructures such as roads and communication along with the right incentive mix for good health and environmental protection are foundations for society to reap benefits rather than costs from the ways we produce and consume food. Deeper discussions about public costs and benefits, both in the short and longer-term and how they link to market failures and incentive structures is a critical starting point, for the transformations that are increasingly recognised as necessary.

Working backwards from a new vision for food systems and rural economies: Arguably, policies related to small-scale farming have focused too narrowly on immediate issues rather than longer-term visions for change. The food systems agenda creates an opportunity to rethink small-scale farming within a wider context of creating visions and transformation pathways for food systems that are oriented towards improved livelihoods, good nutrition, environmental sustainability, and that are economically inclusive. This ties into utilising what will be substantial growth in the value of both domestic and regional food markets to help drive wider rural economic development. But all this requires longer-term and more integrated and dynamic policy thinking that works back from these visions of possible ‘food futures’ to the policies, practices and programmes that are needed to guide the transformation. At the same time, the risk and uncertainty of such complex and dynamic socio-technical systems must be recognised. Linear management and control approaches to policy are increasingly ineffective. Framed by a risk-based approach, our institutions and policies are often poorly equipped for our uncertain world.

An enabling pathway for ‘small food system entrepreneurs’: An underlying message was that the future for many small-scale producers will most likely not be as farmers, but rather as ‘small-scale food system entrepreneurs’, generating income and employment opportunities from diversified sources both on and off the farm. Policies are needed to support this entrepreneurial transition and capture the value from food markets to help drive wider rural economic development.

Responding to vulnerability: Future policies must prepare for and be able to effectively respond to the increasingly complex, intersecting social, economic, and environmental vulnerabilities faced by farmers and farm workers. COVID-19 has well illustrated the devastating impact of the pandemic on household incomes and their ability to purchase sufficient healthy food. The climate crisis is likely to dramatically increase the risks of droughts, natural disasters, disease outbreaks and even conflicts, all of which disproportionately impact on small-scale producers. This uncertain context with its overlapping short- and long-term shocks and stresses, presents a complex set of challenges for food and farming policy, demanding more adaptive, experimental, reflexive forms of governance and institutional arrangements.  This call for much more innovative forms of affordable insurance schemes and risk-oriented social protection.

Territorial innovation: Forget the notion of large cities and rural areas. Increasingly populations are spread across a vast number of towns and small- and medium-sized cities, creating vast peri-urban areas and stronger rural-urban connections. This creates tremendous opportunities for small-scale farmers, both in terms of new market linkages and value addition, but also in terms of off-farm employment opportunities that can complement farm income. However, at national and sub-national scales, tailored policies are needed to support such territorial development and the often unique conditions of different locales.

Land reform and inequality: Equitable land access and rights that balance the needs and interests of small-scale farmers with small-holder commercialisation and the development of larger-scale farming remains one of the most critical aspects of policy. Land policies have a profound influence on gender equality and empowerment, the rights and livelihoods and vulnerable groups, and investment by both small-scale farmers and larger operators. The world is seeing an increasing polarisation between consolidated large-scale agri-food sector investments and small-scale family farming which risks growing inequalities and difficulties in creating a more economically inclusive food system. Policymakers need to come to terms with the sort of land and investment policies that can better balance food system outcomes of health, equitable livelihood opportunities and environmental sustainability.

Cultural identity: Farming and rural lives are about peoples cultural identities. Policies need to be careful of instrumental approaches that ignore the cultural connections with land and the role that food plays in culture and identity. These factors also have a significant role to play in the decisions farmers take and the importance of land beyond pure economic returns. Empowering rural groups to express and strengthen cultural identities that help maintain social cohesion solidarity should not be overlooked.

Access to capital: Although access to land matters, equally important for many households is credit and longer-term investment funds. For all the talk of rural banks and micro-finance, most small farmers simply cannot get working capital. They rely on whatever they have as ready cash which often must be spent on pressing priorities, such as school fees, medical bills, and household consumption. Thus, many small farmers struggle to buy quality inputs or hire labour when they need it the most, and in the process forego yields they can ill-afford to miss.

Fundamentally perverse incentives: Our panellists left no doubt that past policy decisions that have resulted in a set of deeply perverse incentives, at both the global and domestic scales. Too often existing public expenditures drive towards the production of calorie-rich rather than nutrient-dense foods and put ‘band-aids’ on poverty rather than enabling the conditions for rural economic development. Current subsidies drive unsustainable use of natural resources or distort trade to the disadvantage of small-scale farmers. The extent to which small-scale farmers receive public support varies enormously among continents and countries. In South Asia, where public support to rural households is multi-layered, a wider view of how policies impact on food prices makes it clear that small-scale farmers are often ‘net taxpayers’. Essentially, they subsidise cheap food for consumers and value extraction by more powerful enterprises further along the food value chain.

Beyond “subsidies” to investing for the public good: Panellists stressed the point that the right kind of targeted subsidies can make a difference to agricultural productivity and livelihood security. While the pros and cons of input and price subsidies have been hotly debated over the past decade, a rethink around the language of subsidies is needed. Given market externalities, the huge public costs and risks of a failing food system, widespread rural poverty and inequality corrective public good investments are essential. These include for example creating incentive mechanisms to drive the demand for and production of a diversity of more nutritious food, incentives for good environmental practices, ensuring rural infrastructure, or improving social protection schemes, particularly in relation to risk. The challenge is to design so-called ‘smart’ subsidy programmes that have a significant impact on the availability of food and the improvement of household incomes in the short run while stimulating growth and rural development and increasing (or at least not suppressing) effective demand for and commercial distribution of inputs in the long run.

Political realities: No one should be naive about the political imperative of keeping food prices low and ensuring national food security. For a majority of people in low- and middle-income countries food is a large proportion of their expenditure and even slight rises in food prices can easily push them into a food deficient situation and dramatically impact on their ability to pay for other life needs. As was well seen in the 2008 food prices crisis, this has significant implications for social and political stability, something of which most governments are acutely aware. Further, many poor farming households are net purchasers of food. Consequently, governments are often very risk-averse in terms of changing policies that relate to food prices and food security. Further, the existing regimes of input and price subsidies have significant benefits for some, often influential, interest groups who bring their influence to bear in maintaining the status quo.

Practical realities: As one panellist highlighted, even with strong political will to reform food systems, incentive structures and how these impact on small-scale farmers, there are significant practical challenges. In general, more effective use of public investment requires effective targeting to the needs of specific communities and households in specific locations, often involving direct cash payments. However, many of those who need such support do not have bank accounts. There are huge data gaps in knowing who to target in what sort of ways and significant administrative challenges. This is one of the reasons more broad-based approaches are often used, despite the challenges of a distorting influence, poor targeting, and leakage of resources.

Mobilising political commitment for change: There is a tendency for people (and governments) to overplay the risks of doing something differently and underplay the risks of the status quo. Consequently, policy innovation and reform to drive the transformation of small-scale farming within a broader vision sustainable and socially-just food systems require four things: One, a clear perspective of the negative consequences of ‘business as usual’ that is understood not just by a small network of informed researchers and activists, but by political leaders of all stripes and wider society (after all, we are all consumers of the goods and services provided by our food system). Two, evidence that alternative pathways can work, based on sound research and detailed case studies documenting the emergence and persistence of ‘islands of innovation’ to provide ideas and inspiration for future policy and practice. Three, practical transition strategies to bring about change and which can balance out the interests of the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ and ensure ‘no one is left behind’. Finally, sufficiently strong international and national coalitions for change from across government, business, civil society, and science are required. Global public goods need to be invested in helping to generate the data and evidence, and the informed processes of dialogue and coalition-building necessary for change. Such processes are needed from local to global in ways that help to link understanding of how issues connect across scales. Of critical importance is building national and local level capability for generating and synthesising data and supporting stakeholder and policy dialogue with foresight and scenario analysis.

Farmers voices: The fundamental importance of engaging farmers themselves, with all their diversity, in policy dialogue was underscored. This is vital for understanding what farmers are actually experiencing, hearing their ambitions and ensuring they are able to protect their interests. Inclusive processes of policy dialogue from local to global levels need support and investment.


Acknowledgement: This blog drew in particular from the comments and inputs of the panellists of the fifth session of the eDialogue and we are very thankful for their rich contribution to the discussion. The blog is the authors’ interpretation of the session and may not necessarily represent the overall perspective or specific opinions of the individual panellists.

Panellists: David Nabarro, Meike van Ginneken, Thomas Jayne, Elena Lazos Chavero, Rebbie Harawa, Ángela Panegos, and Avinash Kishore

By Jim Woodhill, Ken Giller and John Thompson

Tuesday 10 November was another fantastic session of our eDialogue series on ‘What Future for Small-Scale Farming?: Inclusive Transformation in Challenging Times’.

The panellists explored the complementary roles of commercialisation, food production for self-consumption and social protection in tackling farming household poverty and poor nutrition.

Now with four eDialogue sessions under our belt, a set of very thought-provoking perspectives are starting to crystallise. They have profound policy implications.

Achieving the SDGs hinges on transforming small-scale farming. Let’s step back to the fundamental issue. The world has an estimated 500 million small-scale farmers. In terms of rural households this represents a population of some 2.5 – 3 billion people – over a third of the world’s population. On the one hand, this group produces much of the food consumed in low- and middle-income countries. On the other, this group encompasses the majority of those who still live in extreme poverty and suffer hunger. A transformation of small-scale farming is fundamental to eradicating poverty and hunger, to feeding the world sustainably and well, and to tackling the climate crisis.

Small-scale farming households are very diverse. In thinking about this necessary transformation, our eDialogue panellists time and time again stressed the point that small-scale farmers are not a homogenous group. We often hear it said that there are no “one size fits all” solutions. We would go further and say that generalisations are not only misleading, they can be very dangerous and lead to ineffective policy directions and sub-optimal outcomes.

Gender dimensions are critical. In understanding household diversity, it is critical to understanding the roles and changing role of women. For example, as male members of households seek employment outside the farm, either locally or further afield, the women take on greater farming responsibilities, but often without commensurate decision-making power, access to finance and expertise and security of land tenure. Women’s and girls’ empowerment remains a critical element of any transformation strategy for small-scale farming.

Most small-scale farming households don’t just farm. It is vital to recognise that rural households who farm are not only farmers. Farming households have a diversity of income sources. Household members engage in a combination of farming, off-farm micro-enterprises, rural wage labour, and migrating to work in urban areas. Poorer households may also rely on various forms of social protection. A shift of perspective is needed from “small-scale farmers” to “rural households who also farm”, recognising that farming is often just one of several important income streams.

The number of small-scale farms are not declining as economies develop. There is another critical observation. In OECD countries, economic development during the 20th Century saw a very rapid decline in farm numbers and significant land consolidation. Although there is a trend towards consolidation of farms in some countries of East Asia, this is not happening in most low- and middle-income countries. In fact, in South Asia and Africa farm numbers are increasing and farm sizes are shrinking, while perhaps counter-intuitively in parallel there is also an increase in the number of medium-sized farms. Two factors are at play. First, increasing populations without commensurate employment opportunities create an increasing demand for land. Second, without employment security, social protection, health insurance or pension schemes, many people hang on to their land as security. This occurs even if the land area is very small and even when they have substantial off-farm income. This situation is also leading to forms of informal and temporary land leasing and consolidation, in ways that enable people to maintain their legal or customary title.

Most small-scale farmers can’t make a living from farming. Against this background, we need to understand the profitability of farming. The harsh reality is that for many farmers growing staple crops – or even traditional cash crops such as coffee and cocoa – on small areas of land it is hard to make a living, given the low productivity and current market prices. Production of low-value commodities on small parcels of land generates small, often negligible, surpluses that make it difficult for the household to cover the basic income requirements for daily living. Some crop sales by poor semi-subsistence households are, therefore, not sales of surplus, but so-called “distress sales” to meet immediate cash needs, even if the household then has to buy in quantities of the same crop a few months later – when prices are higher. This makes livelihood diversification essential. Very small-scale farmers who are unable to diversify their livelihoods remain the poorest and most malnourished group of people on the planet.

On its own, linking farmers to markets is not a solution. The last decades have seen a development ethos around the idea of linking farmers to markets and agricultural commercialisation as a core strategy for tackling rural poverty. On its own, this focus on ‘making markets work’ is not a solution for the complex challenges faced by a majority of small-scale farming households. There is a reality of how much can be produced on a given area of land. With the very small land holdings many farm families maintain, the numbers simply don’t add up for the many crops they grow and the prices they receive for their produce. It is not a question of investing in “sustainable intensification” to increase yields by 20, 50 or even 100 percent nor of improving prices by similar amounts. Most small-scale farmers would need a multifold increase in farm income to get anywhere close to a living income. Without doubt, connecting to markets is important, but only part of the issue. It is what can be earned from producing for markets from a given area of land combined with other sources of off-farm income that ultimately matters.

A Pareto Principle for small-scale farming? The economic value of growth in the food sector will be very substantial over the coming decades. This leads to the argument that there will be significant opportunities for small-scale farming households in agriculture. However, this assumption needs to be unpacked carefully. It is already clear that a small minority of larger, more viable small- and medium-scale farmers produce the bulk of food being consumed by urban populations. Future demands for food will be for high-value perishables and will have requirements for quality, safety, traceability and volumes of delivery which create substantial barriers for most small-scale producers. The degree to which future food demands will be inclusive and translate into viable futures for large numbers of more marginal, small-scale producers is questionable at best.

Food system opportunities beyond the farm. Growth in food demand can help to drive overall rural economic development and create a diversity of both on- and off-farm employment and enterprise opportunities. The pathway out of poverty for many small-scale farmers is most likely through diversified livelihood strategies where they become more integrated into off-farm economic activity and much greater levels of value addition. In the medium term, many will take up these opportunities while still doing some farming. The scale of off-farm food system employment opportunities along and beyond the value chain needs to be better understood. These are the places likely to create multiplier effects in the wider rural economy to drive structural transformation.

Don’t forget informal markets. While some supply chains are formalising, for the foreseeable future informal and semi-formal markets will dominate domestic food trade in most countries. They have supply networks that may stretch over great distances. At the consumption end, these systems meet the growing demand for prepared foods, with the role of women and youth being particularly important throughout. Optimising inclusive on and off-farm economic opportunities in these markets is essential for reducing rural household poverty. Policies need to be geared towards supporting more pluralistic arrangements, strengthening both informal and formal marketing channels to meet the growing demands of a diverse set of rural and urban consumers. At the same time, it is important to recognise that employment and trading conditions in the informal sector can be very exploitive, making it difficult for people to escape poverty and move towards a living income.

The need for holistic approaches. Tackling the poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition faced by many rural households whose livelihoods largely or partly depend on farming will require a multi-pronged and integrated approach. Strategies need to be targeted to the specific circumstances and needs of particular households and particular geographic locations. Broadly, four elements need to be integrated into a coordinated approach:

  1. Enabling inclusive commercialisation opportunities for those who have the potential for farming to be a viable element of their livelihood mix, with a particular focus on diversifying production systems to support more nutrient-rich diets.
  2. Optimising the potential for farming households to improve their nutrition and food security through what they can produce for self-consumption.
  3. Extending, targeting and innovating social protection to support those who are most vulnerable, to provide better risk management and insurance mechanisms and to support people to become economically active and self-reliant.
  4. Creating enabling conditions for farming households to diversify into off-farm income earning activities.

An enabling rural environment remains critical. Alongside initiatives that target the needs of individual households, there is also a need to put in place the public goods and services, including infrastructure, telecommunications, energy, education and health services, and sustained business investment and dynamic small and medium-scale enterprises which are needed to underpin the overall economic development of any rural area. Striving to create a vibrant rural environment where people actively choose to live – including young people – is key for the long-term future.

Getting the data. The eDialogue posited many observations about the trends and emerging opportunities and challenges for small-scale farmers. But the message was clear – the data does not exist to adequately understand what is happening locality by locality or country by country. There is a big gap in knowing who is on a pathway to greater prosperity and who is being left behind. Targeted and effective support strategies need to be based on a much more granular understanding of the livelihood strategies of diverse range of farming households and how their circumstances are changing. Investing in longitudinal, multi-sited, interdisciplinary research that can track livelihood trajectories over time and space and assess differential outcomes of various strategies and interventions will be essential if we are to fill those knowledge gaps.

Utilising digital potential. In all aspect of transforming small-scale farming digital solutions are seen as critical. This includes generating data, providing market information and access, payment systems, insurance, banking and finance, providing targeted social protection, and providing technical services. However, it must be stressed that these are not a panacea. They cannot replace, but only enhance other public and private services that are essential for creating and sustaining a vibrant rural economy.

Services to society. Rethinking the contribution of small-scale farmers. Instead of looking at the plight of small-scale farmers as a problem to be solved, what happens if we look at how small-scale farming can be part of the solution to a wider set of societal challenges? Four areas are key, providing a more nutrient-rich and diverse diet for society at large, providing eco-services that protect the environment, carbon sequestration through land use, and diversified and attractive rural livelihood options that help avoid large out-migrations (which put unmanageable pressures on urban areas and exacerbate the problems of cross-border migration).

Diversification – an underlying theme. Across the eDialogue series, diversification has become a common thread that has bound the panel discussion together. The diversity of farming households. The diversifying nature of household livelihoods. The need to diversify food production and marketing arrangements to meet nutritional needs. The diverse ways in which small-scale farming can contribute to society’s needs. And the need for a diverse yet integrated set of support measures to enable a socially just, environmentally sustainable, nutritionally smart and a resilient transformation of small-scale farming.

Acknowledgment. This blog draws on the views and perspectives offered by the eDialogue panellists (listed below) in the first fours sessions of the eDialogue and we thank them very much for their inputs and insights.  The conclusions in this blog are those of the authors and may not necessarily be those of the panellists.

Panellists: Gilbert Houngbo, Jemimah Njuki, Milu Muyanga, Julio Berdegue, Avinash Kishore, Irene Annor Frempong, Theresa Ampadu-Boakye, Ajay Vir Jakhar, Kofi Takyi Asante, Regis Chikowo, Audax Rukonge, Hannington Odame, Steve Wiggins, Heitor Mancini Teixeira, Milena Umana, Claus Reiner, Maija Peltola, Alejandra Arce, Abdelbagi M Ismail, Aida Isinika, Martin T Muchero, Cyriaque Hakizimana, Adebayo Aromolaran, Aditi Mukherji, Sudha Narayana, Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Jeevika Weerahewa, Mamata Pradhan, Ranjitha Puskur, Grahame Dixie, Fabrizio Bresciani, Andrew Powell, Marlene Ramirez, Irish Baguilat, Tran Cong Than, Mario Herrero, Fábio Veras, Namukolo Covic, Felix Kwame Yeboah, Iris van der Velden, and Clara Colina.


Our first online session of this eDialogue began by “Setting the Scene” with a range of global and regional perspectives, and in the second session we heard more “Local Perspectives on Small-Scale Farming”, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa. These vlogs are largely contributed by researchers, but a few farmers have shared their ideas and we’d love to hear from many more people so we encourage you to submit vlogs to us.

What we have heard to date only scratches the surface of the huge diversity of smallholder farming systems around the world. This is not surprising given that the best estimates are that there are more than 500 million small-scale farmers worldwide! Reflecting on what we have heard so far, what can we learn? For a start – small-scale farmers are key to both local and global food and nutrition security, and to rural livelihoods throughout the world. Second – generalisations are dangerous! All of us are influenced by our own experiences and examples. The huge diversity among what are termed small-scale farmers manifests itself not only in terms of differences among continents and regions, but also within countries and, the deeper we look, even within each village.

When thinking about the future of small-scale farming, we hear highly optimistic voices with some wonderful examples of individual farmers and farmer groups and cooperatives who are carving out their own future through farming. At the same time we recognise there are major challenges faced by small-scale farmers, not least due to the continual pressure to drive down food prices globally. We certainly don’t have all the answers so we’re counting on hearing many more voices and perspectives in the coming sessions.

Two critical questions come to mind for me, which I’d like to share and hear your comments on:

  1. We realise that simply tweaking the current systems is not enough – and we are challenged through the SDGs to think about “transformation”. To be honest I find this really hard – as a scientist I am pretty good at unpacking why things don’t work – but not great at imagining new futures. What would this transformation look like? I discuss this in an article just published which I entitled the “Food Security Conundrum of sub-Saharan Africa”. I’d love to hear your thoughts on what sort of policies and actions could support a transformation of small-scale farming on Africa.
  2. To what extent can successful models for rural development around small-scale agriculture in one part of the world be an inspiration for change and transformation elsewhere? It seems to me that the differences among continents – in terms of opportunities both within the agricultural sector, in terms of alternative employment beyond the farm, in terms of cultures and the general economy to name a few – are so different that we must be cautious in trying to transplant approaches from one place to another.

So there is plenty more to discuss – and in our next session we are planning a series of separate meetings for different regions to address some regional specificities. Then we will have a joint session to explore some of the similarities. This will hopefully provide guidance for our two sessions in November where we will think about transition pathways and then finally policies to support future transformations.

Please do join us! We need your input.

Critical Connections

COVID-19, Rural Poverty and Food System Risks

The last month has seen the world waking up to the full extent of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.  From the storm of blogs, tweets and reports about COVID-19, I’ve been assessing what it all means for poor rural people and food systems. The consequences in low- and middle-income countries could be horrendous, if national governments and the global community do not adequately step up. Here’s a draft synthesis that I will keep updating, with some highlights below.

Urban workers who have lost their jobs are heading back to rural areas in droves, largely penniless. Remittances are plummeting. Local agricultural suppliers of seed and fertilizer are closing. And many agricultural labourers are no longer working. All the signs show risks for a cascading collapse of the critical web of economic connections that sustain the fragile livelihoods of poor rural people and small-scale farmers. The economic crisis will be compounded by health systems completely unable to cope.

How bad could it really get? COVID-19 is the world’s most extreme ‘black swan’ – unpredictable and high impact event – since the Second World War (or as Snowden describes a ‘black elephant’ as risks of a global pandemic have been an ‘elephant in the room’ for years). Last month, the IMF pulled no punches in how it presented the seriousness of what it now projects as a 3% contraction in the size of global GDP. The last time this happened in the US was during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One worst case scenario estimates nearly ½ a billion people will find themselves back in poverty with the SDGs pushed by back by decades. The WFP has already warned that the number of people suffering acute hunger could double by the end of the year. Much of the impacts will play out in rural areas.

The world is in totally uncharted territories with huge uncertainties about how both the health and economic consequences will pan out. So I took scenario thinking as the starting point.  In February and March a manageable disruption may have seemed a plausible scenario. But globally we now seem to be in an escalating crisis. Can a widespread collapse of key health, financial and food systems be avoided? What will escalate the crisis and what might nudge systems back towards safer territory? What contingencies exist to respond to worst-case scenarios?

Scenarios unfold differently for different households, businesses and countries at different moments. Each context has its own timeline. COVID-19 has shown it can affect anyone. But its impacts will be far from equal.  The poorest and most vulnerable people will be hit hardest by the fallout.

Fact: the majority of poor and extremely poor people can be found in rural areas. There are 736 million people still living in extreme poverty (US$ 1.90 or below) and most of these are in rural areas, and with over 26% of global population living on US$ 3.20 – again many in rural areas. In low-income countries, 67% of the population still live in rural areas and in middle-income countries it is 47%. That is about 3.2 billion people who are poor or on very low incomes living in rural areas! So, grasping the consequences of COVID-19 for rural areas and the responses needed is critical and urgent.

Mapping the consequences for the wellbeing of rural people (see Figure below) helps to take a systemic view to a possible suite of responses. My key takeaways include the following, with more details in the report.

  1. Impacts will play out across five dimensions: income, food and nutrition security, health, education, and the resilience to cope with current and future crises – with strong interactions between.
  2. The impacts on women and girls will be more severe, making them more vulnerable – a gender lens to any response is a must.
  3. Context changes everything. Huge differences in vulnerability exist between individuals, households and geographies. So, assessing these and integrating them into response measures can help prioritisation and targeting.
  4. Notwithstanding the need for an immediate response, now is also the time to start thinking of wider systemic consequences, potential exacerbating effects and how these can be mitigated or dampened.

Diving deeper into food systems and critical connections.  So far, food systems are holding up. The world is fortunate to have reasonable food stocks and the prospect of a good coming harvest season, with global food commodity prices stable. But cracks are appearing. A combination of physical distancing, large scale sickness, fear and economic turmoil could easily unravel the food systems of low- and middle-income countries.  What happens then?

Small-scale farmers still produce 70% of food consumed in low- and middle-income countries. This production is critical to feeding the exploding urban populations. If farmers are sick, have no money to buy farming inputs, or inputs are not available, they will not produce food.  If food systems unravel, food prices will rise, dramatically compounding the crisis for those who have lost income and make response measures ever more expensive and difficult.  People with low incomes spend most of it on food. Even small food price changes will have a dramatic impact on their wellbeing.

Unravelling of domestic food supply chains may put pressure on governments to impose export bans on food, which could rapidly escalate into a compounding global food price crisis. The 2008/2009 food price crisis illustrated how quickly this can happen, triggering riots and political instability in some countries.

There is a knife’s edge to be walked. Unwarranted fear that drives household or national food hoarding is the last thing the world needs. Rural communities and informal markets also can also be surprisingly resilient. But complacency about the risks to food systems could be a disastrous mistake.  Urgent measures are needed rapidly track what is unfolding and to safeguard food supplies, not least for those on low incomes.

Ten priority areas to guide action have emerged from key food, agriculture and rural development agencies and other commentators – the FAO, CFS High Level Panel of Experts,  IFAD, CGIAR, CFS and AGRA (see report for more detail):

  1. Protect the health of agriculture and food sector workers as part of a first line of response to contain the spread of the virus while protecting food production and distribution as an essential service.
  2. Maintain open trade to avoid a global food price crisis.
  3. Monitor, assess and communicate to enable early detection and rapid response to emerging food system blockages and food insecurity.
  4. Expand and optimise social protection to enable those who have lost income to still have access to food.
  5. Keep agricultural production and food supply chains functioning by making them the essential services they are.
  6. Maintain and expand food aid to ensure those affected by food insecurity are protected from hunger and malnutrition
  7. Support the liquidity of agri-food businesses and farmers to ensure they can keep employing workers and trading.
  8. Invest for recovery and systemic change by creating investment and employment programmes that enhance rural economies for the future and shift towards more sustainable and equitable models
  9. Enhance food system resilience, sustainability and nutritional outcomes to ensure that future shocks to food systems such as new pest and disease outbreaks or extreme weather events don’t create crisis upon crisis.
  10. Foster international cooperation and equitable development to ensure rural people and food systems don’t get overlooked in response measures, and that wealthier countries are fully aware of the global consequences of providing too little support too late.

The good news is that substantial initiatives by global institutions and national governments are emerging with massive mobilising efforts, alongside a sense of growing social solidarity as everyone learns to cope with the crisis.

However, the gap between the capacity and resources needed to protect poor rural people and food systems over both the short and longer run will be immense.  Profound shifts in perspectives, thinking and leadership will be needed to cope and recover.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead

Foresight and Scenarios in Times of COVID-19

COVID-19 is a deep disruption to human systems. The world is having to muddle through huge uncertainties about the consequences and longer-term impacts.  This requires ‘thinking the unthinkable’ and exploring ‘neglected nexuses’. A key issue is how food system recovery pathways might unfold, especially given the “Build Back Better” mantra now being voiced by many leading decision makers.

Even before the outbreak it was clear that a profound a transform of food systems is needed for good nutrition, inclusive development and environmental sustainability. This combined with major concerns about the resilience of food systems, particularly in the face of climate change, led the UN Secretary General to call for a Food Systems Summit in 2021.

The current economic and social crisis induced by COVID-19 underscores the critical need for food systems that are resilient to shocks (particularly given underlying stresses), and which in times of crisis can protect the welfare of all, especially poor and vulnerable food producers and consumers.  

Over the last months many assumptions and projections about poverty levels, nutrition, food trade, vulnerability of different groups and achievement of the SDGs have gone out the window. Scenarios of increased poverty and inequality are seeming far more likely. Updated perspectives, framing and insight are urgently needed. Leadership, decision making, and advocacy have a critical need for rapid “collective intelligence” gathering and synthesis about what is happening to food systems, emerging risks, opportunities, and the options for responding.

However, in these times of turbulence, uncertainty, novelty and ambiguity (TUNA), conventional data collection, modelling and analytical mechanisms are not enough.  They need to be be complemented by greater attention for existing scenarios and analysis that highlight the risks of global disruptions, and by additional intelligence gathering to provide rapid and meaningful insights into what post COVID-19 futures might look like.

This calls for sense making and decision processes appropriate to high levels of complexity and uncertainty. Such processes need to draw on human capabilities for perceiving, communicating and recognising complex patterns, which can be connected into networks for collective intelligence and adaptive responses. There is well developed theory and methodology to support such an approach.  In essence it involves:

  1. Creating heightened and rapid ‘situational awareness’ through sensing methods that ‘probe’ for critical changes in systems using peoples experience to judge what is important and significant, while using diverse perspectives and dissent to also detect ‘weak signals’.
  2. Sense making through opening up spaces for structured collective deliberation by actors with diverse backgrounds, experience, perspectives and interests, and making use of rapidly sourced coherently structured ‘narrative information’.
  3. Engaging stakeholders and decision makers in well informed scenario thinking about risks, opportunities and transformative pathways.
  4. Reconfiguring decision making and innovation through more inclusive and diverse forums that engage decision makers in processes built around principles of complexity analysis and scenario thinking.

Over the coming weeks Foresight4Food will be working with the Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA) to provide an online webinar series to help practitioners use foresight and scenario approaches to assess the potential impacts of COVID-19 on food and agriculture.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead