Over the past year, the Foresight4Food Foresight for Food System Transformation – FoSTr team and our country partners have begun a foresight process in Jordan, Uganda, Kenya, Bangladesh, and Niger to support national food system transformation. As an initial step, a collective understanding of the food system in different contexts was needed. Hence, the Foresight4Food team in collaboration with our facilitators and research partners in each focus country, created comprehensive food systems reports mapping the dynamics, trends, drivers, and activities within the food system.

Being a lead on food system mapping, I’m sharing my reflections on the process in this blog.

We started with a scoping phase using the Foresight4Food foresight framework, which allows for flexibility and contextual adaptation. This phase involved identifying key stakeholders, understanding their interests, and assessing current and future concerns.

Our next goal was to foster a shared understanding of the food system’s key dynamics, outcomes, drivers, and activities to identify trends and uncertainties. This collective understanding forms the foundation for a participatory process using foresight and scenario analyses to support meaningful food systems change.

The second step, system mapping, was done in collaboration with country facilitators and research teams. We used the Foresight4food framework to identify key food system outcomes, activities, and drivers, considering their interaction with the broader environment. Data were compiled from national and global sources and generated through participatory workshops.

In addition to providing an overview of current status and trends, we conducted a deeper analysis using causal loop diagrams created with research partners during workshops. This approach helped identify trade-offs and synergies, informing actions to improve food system outcomes. We also noted recurring patterns that affect feedback loops, further clarifying the system’s structure.

These reports offer an initial snapshot of the current food system status and are intended to inform a more comprehensive foresight process. As the dynamics, trends, drivers, and activities within the food system continually change, these reports welcome ongoing reflection and discussion.

Read and download reports

The global food system needs to be transformed. It needs to deliver better health and improved livelihoods while protecting the environment and minimizing negative social impacts.

However, there are many interconnected factors playing a role. Food Systems are complex adaptive systems which require a deep analysis of their various driving forces and dynamics. They are shaped by a multitude of interconnected factors or drivers, some well-defined, others with a lot of uncertainties with them. A recent study by Forsight4Food  identified the most critical drivers of the global food system as described by a set of 19 recent foresight reports. It was not easy to define and categorize these very drivers, and we will also discuss these challenges in this blog.

The Entangled Web of Drivers

Many studies, from the 2003 Millennium Assessment report to FAO 2022 have defined what is a ‘driver’. But the challenge is the lack of a universally agreed-upon definition for a driver. This means that categorizing these drivers is problematic. For instance, they can be classified based on their relationship with other drivers (direct or indirect), external factors (like PESTLE analysis- Political, Economic, Sociological, Technological, Legal and Environmental), or the extent of our knowledge about them (known knowns or unknown unknown).

What makes it even more intricate is that, due to the systemic nature of the food system, its nutrition, environmental condition, and economic development outcomes feedback indirectly becomes driver themselves. This creates feedback loops that complicate pinpointing which drivers are truly direct and which are indirect. Ultimately, it depends on the specific part of the system you’re focusing on. This is nicely depicted in the FAO’s food system diagram, however, it does not show the interconnections between different factors which is what needs careful consideration.

Figure: Agrifood systems: key drivers, activities, outcomes and priority triggers for transformation
Source: FAO 2022

Here’s another layer of complexity: There are “known knowns” drivers like climate change and population growth and many models have been developed to understand the future trend. Then there are drivers such as government interventions (trade policies and subsidies) which is undoubtedly an important driver, but predicting the future impact of specific interventions is challenging. Similarly, we understand that diets are shifting towards more protein, but whether this trend holds true depends on the specific scenario we’re considering. These are “known unknowns” – we know they exist, but their future impact is a mystery. But the complexity is even deeper: “unknown unknowns”. Take the influence of social media on food choices. This is a relatively new area of study, and its full impact on the food system remains unclear. There can be overlaps in any type of categorisation system. Therefore, it is important to involve experts at this stage.

Identifying the Critical Few

The next hurdle is identifying “critical drivers” – those with the most significant potential to impact the food system. These drivers can influence various stages through established historical trends or emerging uncertainties. A key challenge lies in determining their relative importance across diverse contexts, often depending on stakeholder perspectives. For instance, immigration policies can have a significant impact on agricultural workforces in some regions. Incorporating stakeholder consultations is crucial to prioritize the most impactful drivers in these specific contexts.

Keeping the Conversation Open

It’s vital to remember that the impacts of drivers manifest differently across various socio-economic settings and among different food systems stakeholders. Highlighting the context in which a driver is critical helps us develop more targeted solutions.

We must also acknowledge that new or emerging drivers with unclear trends can also have profound impacts. For example, as mentioned earlier, the role of social media in influencing food choices is a relatively new area of study.

Therefore, the conversation around identifying critical drivers needs to be open to periodic updates. As we uncover new information and witness the emergence of new drivers, we can refine our understanding of the food system and adapt our strategies accordingly.

Future Trends and Projections

The future trajectory of these drivers is influenced by various factors, both internal and external to the system. Climate change, consumer behaviour, and technological advancements all play a role in shaping the path ahead. These complexities of cross-impacts create uncertainties about the future, often interpreted through different assumptions in various projections.

Many reports from IPCC, FAO and UNDP present some of the trends and projected trends around food system drivers. But these vary due to the underlying assumptions. Moreover, deciphering these projections can be challenging due to two key factors: 1) varying timescales and 2) diverse representations of what a sustainable food system actually looks like. However, by delving deeper into these assumptions and comparing them, we can gain a more comprehensive understanding of the possible futures that lie ahead.

What we found

The review of recent studies on food system drivers revealed a mix of established and emerging influences. We categorised drivers using the known-knowns and known-unknowns classification. Long-standing factors like demographic changes, climate issues, technological innovation, resource efficiency, socio-economic inequalities, government interventions, health considerations and level of connectivity continue to shape food systems, while new drivers such as the rise of e-commerce post-COVID-19, concerns about power imbalances in food value chains, labelling and packaging, data ownership issues, the role of indigenous knowledge, labour migration policies and perceptions around vegan and vegetarian diets are gaining importance. The relevance of these drivers varies based on stakeholder perceptions, indicating the diverse issues decision-makers must consider for effective management and adaptation.

The review also noted varying levels of uncertainty associated with these drivers. Established drivers, such as demographic trends, have narrower uncertainty ranges due to extensive research, leading to more consistent projections. However, differences in time frames, methods, and assumptions among studies complicate direct comparisons of quantitative trends. Emerging drivers, like government interventions and social media’s influence on consumer behaviour, exhibit broader uncertainty ranges and diverse trend directions, making them particularly significant for developing future scenarios. Our upcoming report will discuss these critical points in detail.

Conclusion

Transforming global food systems to deliver better outcomes is a complex and urgent challenge. Understanding the critical drivers shaping these systems, both well-known and emerging, is essential for creating the societal understanding and political will needed for meaningful change. Just as a map evolves with new discoveries, our understanding of these critical drivers needs constant refinement. Through ongoing research, collaboration, and open communication, we can navigate the complexities of the food system and support targeted solutions towards a more sustainable food system. 

The preparations for the 4th Global Foresight4Food Workshop are well underway. A diverse group of participants are expected to join and use this opportunity to share their ideas and insights as well as connect with a growing community of foresight practitioners. In regard to this, we asked Dr. Rathana Peou Norbert-Munns, Sustainable Development, Agrifood System Policies and Climate Foresight Planning Specialist at FAO and a valuable member of the Foresight4Food steering group to share some thoughts and her expectations from the workshop.

The biggest challenge our world is facing that keeps me up at night…

If I had to pinpoint the most significant challenge, it would undoubtedly be climate change. However, as a foresight planning specialist, I’d say that a forward-thinking planning approach helps various stakeholders recognize not only the widely acknowledged issues but also those that are just beginning to emerge, the so-called early signals. These insights enable us to map out risks across multiple time horizons and envision plausible futures and encourage us to rethink our current actions and adopt innovative approaches which are urgently need it. Ultimately, while these concerns sometime disrupt my sleep, it definitely fuels my daily actions with a clear, long-term vision for sustainable change.

What I look forward to in the 4th Global Foresight4Food workshop

My expectations are set high to leverage the tool of Foresight for Food System Transformation effectively. In a global polycrisis, there is a pressing need for innovative and strategic thinking to guide decisions that ensure sustainable food systems.

This year’s theme of the Foresight4Food Global Workshop captures the essence of what we aim to achieve: a shift in how we envision and shape the future of food systems. It promises to be a crucial platform for sharing insights, fostering collaborative efforts, and enhancing the capabilities of practitioners through knowledge exchange and community building. It is an opportunity to connect with a diverse network of experts and stakeholders, all driven by the common goal of transforming food systems for a better future. By creating a safe space for discussion and reflection, the workshop will challenge us to consider innovative accelerators for our work and identify necessary changes in our approaches.

“This year’s theme of the Foresight4Food Global Workshop captures the essence of what we aim to achieve: a shift in how we envision and shape the future of food systems.”

The workshop will also allow us to critically assess vested interests within the food systems, ensuring that our solutions are inclusive and equitable, truly embodying the principle of leaving no one behind.

On a personal level, I expect that the insights I’ll gain from the workshop will be integral to refining approaches developed for key programs in the Asia Pacific region. By learning the latest foresight methodologies and emerging trends, I aim to reflect with an increasing community of practitioners and find avenue to collaborate more effectively with stakeholders to implement resilient and sustainable food policies and practices.

Some ways to make the workshop more effective, my two cents

To ensure the workshop has a lasting impact on cross-sector collaborations and actions towards food system transformation, Foresight4Food must foster an environment of honesty where participants feel secure in openly sharing both challenges and innovative ideas. Encouraging creative and bold thinking is essential, as it will drive the development of groundbreaking strategies that transcend traditional sector boundaries and catalyze meaningful changes through transformative foresight.

Foresight4Food is organizing its 4th Global Workshop in June titled “Reframing Food Futures: Making Foresight Transformative”. To raise the tip of the curtain on this exciting event, we have asked Mohammad Monirul Hassan, Foresight4Food Country Facilitator and Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) Advisor, to share some of his thoughts and expectations. Here is what he has to say:

As a food systems practitioner, what keeps me up at night

Bangladesh has made significant progress in food security and nutritional status over the past decade, with a growth rate of food production much higher than population growth. The country’s food grain production self-sufficiency has been sustainable and stable, and access to food has improved over time. However, the country still faces challenges in ensuring food and nutrition security for its growing population of around 170 million, projected to reach over 186 million by 2030.

The recent COVID pandemic and the subsequent Russian-Ukraine war have put enormous pressure on the food supply in the country, as Bangladesh is a net food importing country. We have achieved self-sufficiency in rice and some other products; however, the country is still dependent on wheat imports, edible oil, lentils, pulses, and spices. Due to the depreciation of Bangladesh’s Taka against the US Dollar, import costs have increased significantly which impacted the price of commodities both in the food and non-food sectors. The lower-income households are struggling to meet daily needs due to income losses and price hikes.

As a Bangladeshi citizen and a food systems practitioner, a thought that concerns me is that the emerging negative trends and uncertainties like climate change, population growth, income inequality, agricultural labor scarcity, and barriers to access to safe and nutritious food may push back the decade-long achievement of the food and nutrition security of the country in the long run.

Climate change adaptation is the key priority in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change impacts. Developing climate-resilient technologies that exhibit tolerance to drought, flood, heat, cold weather, and salinity can help mitigate production losses caused by the frequent occurrence of extreme weather patterns anticipated due to climate change. Alongside conventional staple crops like rice, wheat, and maize, more focus is given to advancing technologies for protein-rich crops such as pulses and beans, as well as vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables. Enhanced breeds of cattle and poultry that possess the ability to endure harsh climatic conditions are being developed.

The focus is given to enhancing productivity through advances in crop, livestock, and fisheries management, either individually or in combination with genetic enhancements. Improved management methods in agriculture can enhance profitability for producers while also promoting sustainability by optimizing the use of inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and water, and lowering the environmental impact of farming. To improve the food and nutritional situation, more emphasis needs to be placed on coordination, enhancing partnership and policy coherence, and strengthening implementation means.

FoSTr’s support in Bangladesh’s vision of sustainable food systems

Food system transformation is high on the political agenda in Bangladesh with the formulation of the National Food and Nutrition Security Policy 2020, its Plan of Action (PoA) 2021-2030, National Agricultural Policy 2018, and Bangladesh’s contribution to the UN Food System Summit 2021 and the UNFSS +2 Stock Taking Moments (STM). Bangladesh has outlined its “Making Vision 2041: A Reality-Perspective Plan of Bangladesh 2041”, Dhaka Food Agenda 2041, Smart Bangladesh Vision 2041, and the Bangladesh Delta Plan 2100, which depict the country’s aspiration and preparation towards a developed nation.

To support that, the Foresight for Food Systems Transformation (FoSTr) program is providing a flexible decision-support facility to support Bangladesh with evidence-based foresight and scenario analysis that goes along the country’s vision to work towards sustainable food systems in Bangladesh.
 
As part of reporting to UNFSS STM+4 (2025) and fulfilling the Honorable Prime Minister’s commitment to UNFSS, foresight analysis of the food systems will complement the data, research, risk analysis, and scenarios development for the future food systems and provide necessary guidance for food systems transformation.

Expectations of the Foresight4Food Global Workshop experience

For this year’s Global Foresight4Food Workshop, the theme is “Reframing Food Futures: Making Foresight Transformative”. What I seek from this workshop is an opportunity for cross-country learning about using foresight tools, their drawbacks, and ways for improvement for better foresight analysis, as well as areas of collaboration, partnerships, and future investments for the country’s food systems transformation. I also think this will be a wonderful opportunity to showcase how Bangladesh is transforming its food systems with its various challenges.

From a personal point of view, I expect that the learning and insight of the workshop will help me understand the food systems transformation agenda in Bangladesh. It will also help me in policy advocacy in prioritizing areas and activities that build sustainable and resilient food systems.

Another aspect of the Foresight4Food Global Workshop that I hope for is that it will create space for highly interactive dialogue, igniting creativity and sparking actionable progress on the foresight agenda, offering cutting-edge updates on foresight practice and applying foresight to country realities.

The workshop will contribute to understanding how other countries are transforming their food systems, what works and what doesn’t, what matters most, and what supports are required, etc. The workshop will be a great opportunity where you’ll be able to build networks, partnerships, investment opportunities, and investment progress tracking and implementation. Moreover, the workshop will help governments reframe some of the initiatives and prioritize them based on the political economy contexts.

All in all, it will be truly exciting to see energetic participation from food systems researchers, practitioners, and government and private sector representatives gathered under one roof to talk about making foresight transformative.

By Bram Peters – Food Systems Programme Facilitator, Foresight4Food

In the north of Kenya, on the border with Ethiopia, the landscape is expansive and dry. Pastoralism is the main source of livelihood, but to the west of this landscape is Lake Turkana, one of the largest saline desert lakes of the world. Here communities engage, some productively and others reluctantly and out of desperation, in fishing.

In March 2024, the Foresight4Food FoSTr team traveled to the fascinating Kenyan county of Marsabit to facilitate a multi-stakeholder forum to support the co-creation of the new ‘Sustainably Unlocking the Economic Potential of Lake Turkana’ programme.

In Marsabit, stakeholders from around the Turkana Lake, including fishers, traders, service providers, county government technical officers, and non-governmental organizations, came together to analyze the context and co-create future scenarios and intervention areas for a new WFP and UNESCO programme, funded by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Together with the World Food Programme and the World Food Programme Innovation team, the FoSTr team held a highly interactive and productive three-day workshop. As most stakeholders mainly spoke Kiswahili, we switched to short presentations with much emphasis on interactive group work. On the first day, the workshop focused on contextual understanding of the Lake Turkana food system as well as the Marsabit county livelihoods, using the Rich Picture mapping exercise. Participants together drew the food system, the geography of the lake, but also the stakeholders, activities, key relations and dynamics.

On the second day, the groups presented their deep knowledge of the context to each other and elaborated on this. Workshop participants tackled key trends shaping the food and livelihoods system: groups discussed how various themes (for example: lake water levels, fish stocks to income sources, conflict, and education) changed over time and what they expect to happen 10 years into the future. Important in this discussion is their analysis of what driving issues would influence change in the future.

5 scenarios were created for the future regarding the fisheries sector and supporting livelihoods, as well as an in-depth discussion on key entry points for intervention in the system. These scenarios had names that described these futures succinctly:

  1. ‘Tumaini Paradiso’, a future with a growing fishing sector, inclusive benefit sharing and sustainable natural resource management;
  2. ‘No retreat, no surrender’, a situation in which the benefits of a growing fisheries sector are controlled by a few;
  3. ‘Short gain, long pain’, a scenario where the fisheries sector grows and livelihoods improve around the lake, but the environment is not maintained;
  4. ‘Gasping blue economy but others rise’, is a future where the fisheries sector remains marginal for communities, but other sectors are developed that also contribute to inclusive development and environmental sustainability
  5. ‘Darkness in life’, a bleak outlook where none of the envisioned sustainable economic development around the lake delivers and where climate resilience is low, and conflict is rife.

Different stakeholders participating in the workshop had different opinions on the likelihood of certain scenarios emerging. Some imagined the situation worsening, while a few viewed the future more positively. These reflections clearly showed a combination of outlook of participants as well as the signals they interpret from the current situation and the trends seen now. Interestingly, none of the stakeholders felt the ‘Paradiso’ scenario was likely, showing that the programme needs to be modest in its systemic ambitions, but also be ready to do things very differently. These scenarios showed what could become a very relevant frame of reference to the stakeholders as well as the programme implementors.

On the last day of the workshop, participants explored a common vision for the future, and how the food system is currently working. This led stakeholders to have a first try at exploring what is needed to change that system toward the common vision.

At the end of the workshop, I felt highly positive about these fruitful discussions that enabled participants to think about what might happen to the Marsabit food system in the years to come, and what factors would influence these changes. In addition to that, the insights gathered through the multi-stakeholder forum are expected to not only support the inception phase of the programme but will also support multi-stakeholder engagement throughout the programme.

The Foresight4Food FoSTr team will continue to support the World Food Programme team in realizing the ‘Sustainably Unlocking the Economic Potential of Lake Turkana’ programme inception phase. A follow-up workshop will take place in Turkana County from March 25 to 28, with stakeholders from that side of Lake Turkana.

By Jim Woodhill, Foresight4Food Initiative Lead

Last month (November 2023) I had the wonderful experience of engaging with over fifty young leaders from across Africa, joined by colleagues from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Jordan. We had all gathered in Naivasha, Kenya, to explore how skills in facilitating foresight can be used to help bring about food systems transformation.

The fascinating work these young leaders are involved in and their deep interest in understanding how to be more effective change-makers was truly inspiring. It was encouraging to see how valuable they found the foresight for the food systems change framework and the associated set of participatory tools for engaging stakeholders.

Participants all came with projects from their own countries where they are keen to use foresight and systems thinking to help facilitate change in food systems by bringing together different stakeholders. The participants were from diverse backgrounds representing policy, the private sector, NGOs, and academia.

A Guiding Framework: During the workshop we introduced participants to an overall guiding framework for facilitating foresight for food systems change.  A range of participatory tools were used for systems analysis, development of future scenarios and exploring systemic interventions. To bring reality into the workshop, the Kenya horticulture sector was used as a case study for the foresight analysis. Participants spent a day visiting horticulture farms, packing and processing facilities and the local market. They explored with local stakeholders how they saw the future for the horticulture sector and the issues that “keep them awake at night”.

Visualising the system: The workshop was highly interactive with participants practicing in the facilitation of a range of participatory tools which can be used to bring stakeholders into dialogue around systems change. One of my favourite participatory tools “rich picturing”, which enables a diverse group of stakeholders to develop a shared understanding of a system by drawing it, was found by participants to be especially powerful.

Workshop Participants working on a “rich picture” of the Kenya Horticulture Sector

Data-driven dialogue: To go deeper into the systems analysis it is valuable for stakeholders to explore the available data on key drivers and trends. Over 100 graphs visualizing key data points related to the Kenya horticulture sector and food systems at national, continental, and global scales were collated and posted around the walls. The participants then explored this data in groups of three and discussed its implications and how it perhaps challenged their existing assumptions.

Exploring a rich range of data on food system activities, outcomes, and drivers is an important part of the foresight process. It helps to challenge and check assumptions different stakeholders may hold about what is happening in the system.

Exploring the future using scenarios: Central to the foresight approach is developing a range of different plausible future scenarios (generally with a 10 to 30-year horizon) for how the system might evolve given critical uncertainties. Workshop participants did this for the horticulture sector, looking at factors such as how diets might change in the future, regional and global trading relations, severity of climate change, and the enabling policy environment for small-scale producers and the small- and medium-scale enterprises (SME) sector. The scenarios help to identify future risks and opportunities for different stakeholder groups and society at large. They also help to unlock creative thinking about how to “nudge” systems towards more desirable futures and away from less desirable ones.

Eight different scenarios for the future of the Kenyan horticulture sector were developed (one is illustrated) Here participants are discussing the implications of the different scenarios for the interests of various stakeholder groups.

The deeper issues of systems change: It is easy to talk about systems change. In reality trying to change systems bumps into all the difficult issues of vested interests, power relations, ideologies, and deeply held cultural beliefs. On top of this human and natural systems are complex and adaptive and behave in self-organising, dynamic, and often unpredictable ways. It doesn’t mean you can’t intervene to try and bring positive change. But it does mean that top-down, linear, and mechanistic models of change generally don’t work. The workshop engaged participants in deep and challenging discussions about what it means to be a leader of systems change. This included the need to be adaptive, how to create alliances for disrupting existing power relations, the importance of building relations between diverse stakeholders, and the importance of patience. Systems change often requires taking time to build the foundations for change without being able to know when circumstances might suddenly unlock opportunities for big steps forward.

Below the surface of systems change are critical issues of power, relationships and mental models. Understanding the deeper dynamics of complex adaptive systems is key to systems leadership.

Identifying directions for change and intervention options: Developing directions and pathways for systems change is the most difficult and challenging part of the foresight for systems change process. It is highly context-specific and requires a deep insight into the political economy of the situation. Cause and effect mapping, theory of change thinking, and causal loop analysis can all help in identifying opportunities for intervening which could help to drive systems change in desired directions. Bringing change will often require an integrated approach to technological, institutional and political innovation. During the workshop causal loop diagrams were used to explore possible entry points for shifting horticulture systems in ways that could improve health, livelihoods and the environment.

An example of causal loop map being developed to explore how the horticulture sector could be more inclusive of women.

New friends, new networks and big ambitions: After an intense week of learning and sharing participants left inspired to apply the foresight approach back in their own work environment. New friends were made and there were clear calls to find mechanisms to support ongoing networking and peer support.

The participants came from 13 countries across Africa as well as Bangladesh, Jordan, and Nepal.

Many thanks to the facilitation and support team who made a fantastic week possible, Gosia McFarlane, Marie Parramon-Gurney, Kristin Muthui, Bram Peters, Joost Guijt, Riti Herman Mostert, and Abdulrazak Ibrahim. The event was made possible by support from the Mastercard Foundation.

More information about the Foresight4Food Framework of Foresight for Food Systems Change can be found on our website, and an updated approach paper will be published in January 2024.

By Amina Maharjan

Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 is becoming ever more challenging in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH), as the region grapples with the many complex and interconnected crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, food and water insecurity, and growing economic inequality, among others. We do not need a crystal ball to help us see what the future climate could hold in store for the people and environment of this region. It is already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change, with new temperature and precipitation records continually being surpassed. More severe and frequent extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, and avalanches are becoming the norm. For the HKH, elevation-dependent heating means that even a temperature increase of 1.5°C is too hot for the sustainable wellbeing of the region’s people and ecosystems.

If ‘business as usual’ and current emission trends continue, the HKH is on course to experience irreversible changes in its natural and social systems. Without enough food, water, or energy, life would be challenging for the millions of people who call the HKH home, and for some, it would simply be unliveable. It is vital that we start thinking about what kind of future we want to create and how we can act when the worst-case scenario thresholds are crossed. We need to plan for an uncertain future and be better prepared for these worst-case scenarios.

In order to brainstorm together on these shared uncertainties, over 40 participants representing 25 organizations from six countries in the region – Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal, and Pakistan – and beyond – Austria, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States of America – came together for a consultative workshop on ‘Foresight and Scenario Development for Anticipatory Adaptation in the Hindu Kush Himalaya’ on 19–20 September 2023, organized by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu, Nepal. The participants included representatives from governments, international organizations, NGOs, think tanks, universities, and research institutions.

Participants of the Foresight Event, ICIMOD, Nepal

Over the two days, the participants engaged in a horizontal scanning exercise to look at potential changes/disruptors in the HKH region in the future. The group also looked at building capacity for foresight and futures thinking at different scales of planning – from national to local levels.

Foresight and scenarios are tools that can help us reimagine plural futures. They help us think about the future in systematic, rigorous, and inclusive ways. It involves identifying potential future trends and challenges in order to develop strategies to address them. This approach has not been used widely in this region, but that needs to change as we prepare for an uncertain future.

Panel discussion on the need for foresight planning in the region

This gathering was the beginning of a process to encourage futures thinking in the region. Overall, there was consensus on the need for futures thinking across sectors and scales and a commitment to continue collaboration. As a participant from Bangladesh highlighted “We cannot only depend on the past (and historic trends) to plan our future under the rapid change and uncertainty that we are witnessing in the region. It is critically important to envision futures at different scales and with diverse stakeholders to drive our actions now.” Without foresight and scenarios thinking, no organisation or community can remain future fit.

Such planning is especially crucial for a region as vulnerable as the HKH – subject not only to the extremities of its geography and topography, but also because of its varied social, demographic, political and economic conditions. Just one major weather event can set communities back 20 years in development. We must think creatively and long-term about how to address the major challenges, and we must do it now.

by Bram Peters

The UN Food System Summit +2 StockTakingMoment is behind us. It was attended by more than 155 National Food Systems Convenors were in place and 107 countries shared their national food system transformation pathways accounts. 3300 participants, including delegations from 182 countries, 21 world leaders, and 126 ministers (particularly from the Global South) joined.

What highlights and insights remain from the 3-day event in Rome? Joining on behalf of Foresight4Food, I felt it was a mixed bag, with both positives and negatives. Below are some insights, facts, backdrop, and other observations:

First off, a few facts were shared which really hit home:

According to Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the UN, we are in the worst possible shape to reach the SDGs. Almost all indicators are lagging behind.

  • 2.4 billion people across the globe, mostly women and people in rural areas, did not have consistent access to nutritious, safe, and sufficient food in 2022 (according to the latest SOFI report 2023).
  • The world is not on track to reach the SDGs: only 15% of the 140 targets are on track since the 2015 baseline. Close to half of the targets are moderately or severely off-track.
  • To achieve the Zero Hunger goal by 2030, IFAD stated that an additional $400 billion investment, per year in food systems is required, meaning efforts must be doubled in half the time. For reference: not doing anything would cost $12 trillion.
  • It is projected that, by 2050, 70% of people will live in cities. At the same time, in those areas, consumption of processed and convenience food is increasing, with impacts on obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases.

Some geopolitical and climate change-related dynamics in the backdrop:

  • Southern Europe has experienced a heatwave of unprecedented levels, with high temperatures and wildfires from Rhodes to Spain. In Rome, temperatures have peaked at 41.8 degrees Celsius in recent weeks.
  • The Russia-Ukraine war and Russia’s intention to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Deal (BSGD) and a forum with African leaders was to be held in Saint-Petersburg after the summit. According to IFPRI, under the BSGI, about “65% of wheat was exported to developing countries. This includes 725,167 tons of wheat exported through the World Food Programme to help relieve hunger in Afghanistan, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen. By contrast, about 83% of maize exports under the BSGI have gone to developed countries and China” (IFPRI, July 2023). This comes in the wake of a report that indicated that majority of the Black Sea Grain Deal production was consumed in Europe and used for animal feed.
  • Italian host, Prime Minister Meloni, opened the summit, referencing the positive nutritional aspects of the ‘Mediterranean’ diet, but also had just a week earlier co-led the signing of a controversial migration pact between the EU and Tunisia. This was alluded to in her welcoming speech, where she urged for further investment especially in Africa so that jobs are created on the continent and sought in Europe.
  • Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed was one of the speakers at the Opening Ceremony. Ethiopia and her northern neighbours are still negotiating on the planned dam along the Nile, which would directly affect food systems in Egypt and Sudan—no mention of cross-border resource sharing in his remarks.

Key takeaways:

  1. Food systems knowledge has deepened and capacities on food systems approaches have generally grown. This includes how countries use this but also the application within various Rome-based agencies. Now it will need to be seen whether coordination on such a diverse range of issues can improve and whether implementation increases pace. A hint of this integration was seen in the fact that clear links are made to the upcoming SDG conference and the COP28.
  2. Urgency is recognized as high, which made it very relevant to hold this UNFSS+2 StockTake to maintain momentum. Having a visible and active participation of high-level political representatives showed widespread commitment. However, the lack of substantial presence from Northern countries with commitments to their own national transformations was a missed opportunity.
  3. ‘Transformation’ was spoken about often, but the sense of real transformation ongoing is not apparent yet. A few insightful examples: the discussion on true pricing of food, a study in Andhra-Pradesh where agro-ecological farm production empirically demonstrated equal economic earning and better social and environmental benefits compared to conventional farming approaches; and the example by Switzerland on the establishment of a citizens’ assembly to offer recommendations for Switzerland’s food policy to break their parliamentary deadlock surrounding agricultural policy (something the Netherlands can learn from?).
  4. A side event about livestock was interesting with debate about the contribution that the sector has regarding GHG emissions, livelihoods, nutritious food, and what was being done in different parts of the globe.
  5. It was heartening to hear the enthusiasm in the stories of the national convenors, the driving forces for coordination and collaboration at national levels. However, it was also seen that many countries do not yet have strong institutional mechanisms in place to support cross-sectoral decision-making.
  6. A lot of important topics were addressed, including multi-stakeholder collaboration; inclusion; school meals; food security in (poly)crises; budgeting and financing for national Action Plans; policy alignment across sectors; and climate resilience. Multiple leaders from South America and EU mentioned agro-ecology. Some topics I missed included tackling unfair international trade agreements and improving global food trade governance (as referenced here in a (Dutch) long read by colleague Bart de Steenhuijsen Piters from WUR).
  7. Foresight approaches appeared highly relevant, as stakeholders shared the need to scan horizons for upcoming trends; build resilience for anticipatory approaches (WFP shared an example from Niger where less food aid was needed due to improved resilience approaches); and include ‘lived’ (indigenous) interpretations of past and future- alongside scientific evidence- in our transition pathways.
  8. Accountability did not receive much attention. With the exception of special events on the first day of the UNFSS on measuring and bench-marking, there was relatively little accountability of progress toward promises made at the 2021 Summit. It will be very important, at a next StockTake, to get more metrics and data of countries on their national transformation pathways progress.

Other observations:

  • The UN agencies were pleased to see the high-level turnout, especially from the South. Private sector, youth, and indigenous groups were represented in smaller numbers but made active contributions.
  • Engagement from member countries, the private sector, civil society as well as the scientific community seemed less than before.
  • Limited (or less visible?) participation of Europe and the USA. Whether this is a sign of decreased interest, or because there were fewer planned preparations for UNFSS+2 compared to UNFSS, is yet to be seen.
  • (only) A few countries from the global North reported on their own food systems pathways and challenges instead of reporting on their ODA-funded food system support to partners in the global South.
  • A counter-summit was organised, raising issues of lack of inclusion and corporate-led influence.
  • Quite a few UN Agencies are investing and learning about foresight. For example, the Future of Food and Agriculture publication (FOFA DDT) was presented at a side event. Also, the newly reinvigorated FAO Office of Innovation is actively interested in foresight methods and eager to exchange with Foresight4Food.
  • A nice photo exhibition was held in the main atrium, called ‘Food Futures’, funded by the European Commission Joint Research Centre, with the objective to explain food systems and realising that cultural shifts are needed to transform these.

Side-event on multi-stakeholder collaboration

At the Stock Take Moment, Foresight4Food was able to contribute to a side event called ‘Multi-stakeholder collaboration for food systems transformation: From concepts to Action ‘. This side event (see here the recording), organised together with UNDP, UNEP, FAO, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Netherlands Food Partnership focused on the need to bring people together to bring change. How to ensure inclusion, tackle power differences, and create a shared language to help with the national pathways? There is such a diversity of food system stakeholders. In a diverse panel with representatives from Vietnam, South Sudan, Nigeria, Switzerland, and Kenya, the question asked was: ‘How’ do we do a multi-stakeholder collaboration?

Key experiences shared included how the Vietnamese government went down to the local level to collect insights, conveners who actively consulted the grassroots level in South Sudan, iterative rounds of consultations at different levels and regions in Nigeria, and how a citizen’s assembly was established in Switzerland to advise on food systems.

Wangeci Gitata-Kiriga, representing Foresight4Food Initiative, shared how in Kenya, Foresight4Food combines a participatory process with an evidence-based understanding of the current food system and the possible future of the food system. Using participatory visual approaches such as Rich Picturing, stakeholders exchange perspectives, talk openly about power, and start developing a shared language on uncertainties and possible futures of the food system.

The session concluded with the observation that we need to understand ‘transformation’ better, that this requires a huge effort, and needs inclusiveness and diversity. We have a broad range of tools at our disposal that we can use. It is also not about the powerful vs the powerless, but rather also about breaking barriers, creating and maintaining an equal playing field, and involving the unexpected and unusual players.

See the website NFP Connects of the Netherlands Food Partnership for a more detailed summary.

By Zoë Barois

To support the lasting and valuable development of any multi-stakeholder network, it is important to explore its perceived values and positioning from the perspective of various key and transdisciplinary stakeholders. In line with this concept, five members from the Advanced Masters International Development (AMID) Programme at Radboud University including Emma John, Guusje Dijkstra, Meg van Grinsven, Nadia Rinaldi, and Zoë Barois, collaborated to explore stakeholder perceptions on the perceived values of the Foresight4Food Initiative and the risks it faces when participating in multi-stakeholder networks.

The team conducted seven interviews with foresight experts and practitioners from private, governmental, research, and multilateral organizations, in addition to experts in multi-stakeholder partnerships. Some interesting findings came up in the interviews that led to the development of several guidelines.

Perceived Values of Foresight4Food

The interview participants appreciated that the Foresight4Food Initiative connects stakeholders to (new) players in the field and enables their work to be critically examined by specialists. Being able to harness expertise in the field of foresight and apply this to food system transformation was highlighted to facilitate a deeper understanding of the suitability of foresight tools in diverse contexts.

Additionally, the interviewees highlighted Foresight4Food’s unique value is that it is one of the few initiatives working on food system transformation on a global level, as opposed to most initiatives that focus on national or regional scopes.

Foresight4Food’s deliberate focus on the processes (rather than the product) of forecasting future scenarios was emphasized as a value in itself as it is a strategic tool for food systems transformation.

Document title: Kenya – INSURED Programme – February 2022 Author: Isaiah Muthui

Description: Local boys transporting left over maize stalks after a harvest in Mananja location, Machakos county

Copyright notice: ©IFAD/ Isaiah Muthui Copyright info URL: www.ifad.org

An interviewee highlighted the benefit of Foresight4Food’s open-access resource platform and their ability to provide a neutral meeting space that facilitates cross-learning and a deeper understanding of foresight and food system trends among stakeholders.

“…we see it [Foresight4Food] as a great forum to exchange learning, for example, we just took the exploratory scenario planning process and customized it for use with multi-stakeholder partnerships… this is a tool that already existed that we kind of adapted and would love to share how that works so other people can pick that up…’’ – Foresight Practitioner

Risks Faced by Foresight4Food: Positionality & Durability

During the multi-stakeholder interviews, several thematic risks emerged relating to Foresight4Food’s durability and positionality within the active foresight landscape.

The long-term thinking required to envision the outcomes of Foresight4Food poses challenges in terms of sustainability as this makes it difficult for organizations to invest in the initiative due to investors’ often short-term vision and the need to “show results as quickly as possible” – Foresight Expert — a common challenge faced by many organizations in the development sector.

In relation to Foresight4Food’s positionality, the initiative faces the risk of being duplicated by similar organizations and, consequently, being “squeezed out by the big players if they feel that we are an irritant on the side of what they consider to be their patch” – Foresight Expert

Lastly, Foresight4Food faces the risk of not being “democratised enough and sublevel enough” to truly get involved with the root causes of the food system issues. This stems from the current engagement of true experts in the field and thus emerges as an ‘’elite network’’  initiated by two high-profile universities. This lack of inclusivity is further emphasized by interviewees “not capable of being inclusive we are going to fail giving to those that actually can benefit the most from our work”  – Foresight expert

Subsequently, one of the main challenges of F4F is effective outreach and engagement with stakeholders.

Proposed Guidelines

Taking into account Foresight4Food’s vision and the thematic risks which emerged from the multi-stakeholder interviews, several guidelines were generated aiming to support the sustainable and valuable development of Foresight4Food’s multi-stakeholder network.

1.     Foresight4Food’s Positionality 

Enhancing F4F’s positionality is crucial for the initiative to find its niche. Therefore, the following guidelines are suggested:

  • Conducting a needs assessment of the current network members can enable F4F to identify and prioritize their needs.
  • The outcomes from the needs assessment can provide an informed direction to perform a visioning exercise. Matchmaking between desired visions and the long-term forecast
  • Continuously update the existing mapping of foresight initiatives across the food system. This can be used to perform a competitor analysis to assess the existing gaps in the foresight and food systems field and formulate associated research questions.
  • Facilitating smaller partnerships amongst F4Fs members, was highly valued by an interviewee thus F4F could link initiatives conducting complementary activities identified in their foresight initiative mapping, further enhancing their value.  

2.     Sustainability: Foresight for Foresight4Food 

To ensure Foresight4Food’s sustainability and longevity, Foresight4Food must become more attractive to investors:

  • ‘Foresight for Foresight4Food’: generating potential future scenarios for F4F to clarify what outcomes and impact F4F envisions in its short- and mid-term futures.
  • This can be further enhanced and formulated into concrete goals by a Monitoring, Evaluation & Learning (MEL) expert, who can contextualize F4F’s Theory of Change towards each of the five FoSTr countries, providing concrete outcomes, which are actualized for funders to grasp and support. 
  • Develop a funding strategy to generate a diversified funding portfolio to ensure financial flow from a variety of sources.
  • Attract funding from the private sector and from philanthropy as they are harboring the most financial power within the field.
  • Consider transferring core operations and leadership to stakeholders in target operational areas (i.e., the FoSTr countries). This would require creating an inclusive roadmap for phasing-out and phasing-in new or alternative network partners. 

3.     Inclusivity & representativeness

To make F4F more inclusive, the following recommendations are provided:

  • Stakeholder Characteristics and Roles Matrix to map to identify stakeholders who are not yet on board or have a low influence within the network.
  • Introduce a ‘second circle’ around the steering committee to include a diversified set of stakeholders in the decision-making processes. This second circle could include farmers, youth representatives, and/ or representatives from the five FoSTr programme focus countries.
  • Generate a sense of ownership amongst second circle members through co-creation

To conclude

Foresight4Food Initiative is striving to develop and strengthen its network among foresight practitioners and different stakeholders. However, it gets challenging for any organization to work in a multi-stakeholder environment. Therefore, an exploratory look at the perceived values and positionality becomes imperative.

Foresight4Food, under its FoSTr programme is working in five countries across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, conducting foresight orientation, stocktaking, capacity building, and exploring ways to transform the country’s food systems. Thus, making it the right time to explore sustainable positioning from a stakeholder’s perspective.

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.