Environment & energy, Government and governance, Social policy, Health, Food & water | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

3 July 2015

Feeding 9 billion people by 2050 will require much more than just producing extra food.

Food governance needs to go beyond the debate about increasing production, and make decisions that will ensure a healthy and sustainable supply in the future. The challenges of feeding an estimated world population of more than 9 billion by 2050 have been identified by scientific and policy platforms. There are specific, key dynamics in the governance of the world’s food supply, and ways that policy formulation must evolve to address these challenges.

The term food supply covers not just policies concerning food security, but also trade and international environmental regimes governing the sustainability of the natural resource base, and ecosystems upon which that food supply depends.  

There are three primary and interconnected policy and governance features for food supply: policy-making in nation states, in international agreements and regimes, and private governance activities, including their interactions with state and international forms of governance.

Image by United Soybean Board on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/unitedsoybean/10059973063/

Image by United Soybean Board on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/unitedsoybean/10059973063/

The state remains the key level for decision-making in the global food supply. While governments operate within and across multiple levels of governance that constrain state autonomy (meaning that when states participate in multinational organisations they agree to a set of rules that can limit traditional state sovereignty), different states pursue particular self interests to ensure their own supply of food. As such, the governance of the food supply is a contested space.

Indeed, far from consensus, the food policies of individual states reflect differing institutional pathways and political-cultural developments. Furthermore, state-level policy-making is not a linear process as governments respond to both domestic and international lobbying and changing terms of public discourse.

We are now in a period of increasing multi-polarity in the global economy, with the rise of countries such as Brazil and India, and others from the global south, as increasingly powerful actors in international food and feed commodity trade, and in international trade diplomacy.

These countries are engaging in new activities such as South-South models of co-operation around food trade and development, as well as changing the terms of debate and influence within international regimes, such as the World Trade Organization.

International regimes addressing food and agriculture serve important functions, notably through legally binding, multilateral protocols for signature states. Less formally, they provide space for the articulation of relevant guidelines, goals and targets (e.g. Sustainable Development Goals). As such, international regimes represent spaces where actors can engage and shape the international discourse, raising grievances and coming to better understandings of others’ needs and views. The reformed Committee on World Food Security with its enhanced role for civil society representation is an example of such progress.

Image by CIAT on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciat/6347512259/

Image by CIAT on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ciat/6347512259/

The governance of the world’s food supply does face important challenges. One is a lack of policy integration across international regimes for food supply, for example around climate change and food security. There are also policy sector silos (i.e., institutions and actors are working separately, are following different policy objectives or working along different time scales) within international organisations, as well as varying capacities. The capacity and reach of food-related international organisations needs to be extended and levelled out to comprehensively address the emerging challenges.

Governance of the food supply also is marked by increasing degrees of corporate concentration and their global reach, notably through corporate foreign direct investment and access to consumers in developing countries’ markets. Private governance creates new power relationships along supply chains, particularly through the ability to control prices, which impacts on the livelihoods of the producers and the labour force both in and outside these chains. However, major food manufacturers and retailers are adopting environmental and social sustainability measures and standards, in some cases in alliance with development agencies and civil society actors.

The past decade or more of sustainable consumption and production policies have sought to incorporate industry into the processes of policy change. This era of industry-mediated sustainability has promoted the rise of environmental standards-setting based on life-cycle assessment informed metrics, where the environmental impacts of a final food product are measured through its life cycle from production through to consumption, and the labelling of certified food products to inform consumer choice.

While sustainability and safety improvements are being achieved, such instruments put a lot of emphasis upon the consumer making the correct decisions. It remains a stepping stone rather than a direct transfer to a sustainable food supply. The state remains a key policymaker on food standards.

Collaborative and more inclusive modes of governance offer an alternative to the potential for inter-state conflict over the food supply in an increasingly resource constrained and multi-polar world.

The emerging models of more collaborative, inclusive and integrated global food supply governance need to be developed further and require the firm support of national governments. Policy dialogues and decisions need to integrate contextualised approaches to sustainability throughout the food supply chain.

Food governance more broadly needs to push beyond the debate about increasing production, towards decisions about how to tailor the food supply to ensure better and more appropriate distribution, access to, and consumption of healthy and sustainable food.

This is based on the article Barling, D. and Duncan, J. 2015. “The dynamics of the contemporary governance of the world’s food supply and the challenges of policy redirection.” Food Security, 7,2: 415-424. 10.1007/s12571-015-0429-x
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