Promoting producer agency in food systems – might new global guidelines offer any hope?

With a new set of guidelines on food systems and nutrition under negotiation, Emily Polack reflects on their potential to give small-scale producers a greater say in food systems governance – one key to a healthier, fairer and more sustainable future for all.

Emily Polack's picture
Insight by 
Emily Polack
Emily Polack is senior researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group
10 December 2020
Man cutting a cacao fruit from the tree

A cacao producer in Peru. Small-scale producers are essential to promoting healthy and sustainable diets, but they are absent from policy spaces, where food systems governance take place (Photo: Marlon del Aguila Guerrero/CIFOR via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Small-scale family farmers and agricultural workers are critical to delivering healthy and sustainable diets. But these important and diverse rural citizens – particularly Indigenous peoples (whose food systems are vital to feeding humanity) – are often squeezed in markets and sidelined policy spaces.

Increasingly, there is recognition that to improve the sustainability and nutrition of our food and get food systems right for all, we need more than technocratic policies for efficiency; efforts must focus on transformations that make poor producers' and consumers' voices heard at every level of food systems governance, and the enabling conditions to pursue their own priorities.

Small-scale producers must be able to shape the policies and practices that affect their livelihoods, make informed choices about all aspects of production and the markets they sell into, and claim their rights and access justice. We know that “when citizens have the capacity to act on their own priorities… there is the potential to achieve better and more durable outcomes”.

Explicitly promoting small-scale producer agency in commercial agriculture and food systems governance could be key to ensuring the markets these critical actors trade in work for them.

An agency approach challenges the potentially misdirected actions of external ‘experts’ but it must also include bottom-up efforts to tackle the structural factors that constrain producer agency – and for this we need stronger guiding frameworks for inclusive, accountable and transparent food systems that put poor producers and consumers centre-stage.  

New guidelines, new potential for producer agency?

A newly developed set of guidelines, the Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems and Nutrition (VGFSNs), are currently under negotiation in the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS). The guidelines, which are due to be endorsed at 47th CFS meeting in February 2021, aim to bring together a fragmented policy landscape across food, agriculture and health sectors.

Although the VGFSNs are voluntary, the multilateral process of developing and agreeing them under the CFS legitimises them as a form of soft law. With widespread endorsement, and if supported by detailed implementation guidance at the local and national levels, they can be a powerful tool for change.

For example, the 2012 Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests in the Context of National Food Security (VGGTs) have already proved hugely influential despite being far from fully implemented.

The VGFSNs hold the potential to resolve key food systems challenges amid the climate emergency and help advance sustainable food systems worldwide that deliver sustainable and healthy diets for all.

They deal with a wide set of issues spanning health, food and agriculture, and offer a significant opportunity to recognise the role of small-scale producers in sustainable production and supporting healthy diets across all of these areas.

The current negotiations offer the possibility of creating a lasting framework that advances the progressive realisation of the right to food and the recognition of the rights of rural producers.

But the devil is in the detail: we will only see just transitions towards tackling hunger and malnutrition in all its forms if the resulting guidelines explicitly address structural issues such as concentration in parts of the value chain and trends affecting global commodity markets, and promote producer agency in diverse, locally rooted formal and informal agri-food markets.

Three woman crouch near the floor examining potatoes

Indigenous communities share potatoes in the Potato Park, near Cusco, Peru (Photo: Asociacion ANDES, via FlickrCC BY-NC 2.0)

Voices in the negotiations

Agency is, in part, about voice and influence. So, who has been heard during the negotiations so far?

The CSF strives to be inclusive (PDF) and the ongoing negotiations have to some degree drawn on the voices of producer organisations and social movements, informed by years of consultations and guided by the reports of the CFS High Level Panel of Experts. Under the CSF, civil society and the private sector (PDF) are represented alongside states and United Nations institutions in plenaries and intersessional activities – which includes shaping agendas and negotiating texts.

Yet negotiations online and amid the COVID-19 pandemic have proved a challenging context for inclusive negotiations. While for some e-diplomacy may have opened doors to participation, producers and their representing organisations may have been overwhelmed with immediate farming and livelihood concerns to engage in consultation and negotiation processes.

Time differences and internet connections have no doubt also limited involvement. Even in normal times small-scale producers voices in multilateral negotiations may be partial. The majority are not represented in structures ready to channel their priorities up to global forums which may or may not result in changes that affect them.

All to play for

Reaching consensus across all member states on such a complex set of global issues that are central to delivering some of our most fundamental rights is challenging – technically and politically.

States, civil society, private sector and other CSF members have been wrestling with core definitions of sustainable and healthy diets and sustainable food systems, and battling out political and ideological perspectives not to mention the centrality of a rights-based approach and other fundamental principles.

Even the notion of ‘evidence’, on which the CSF seeks to draw, is highly contested among members – particularly as the food systems context often prioritises certain types of knowledge over others.

States are being asked to negotiate on issues that are deeply political in nature. For negotiators, navigating this is not easy, and some are calling for consistency between government domestic polices for just and sustainable food systems and their position in the negotiations.

There is still some way to go, and as with all multilateral processes there is a risk that the guidelines reach the lowest common denominator rather than charting a path towards real action.

The VGFSNs must advance global understanding of what it takes to transform food systems to address hunger and malnutrition in all its forms through promoting producer agency and tackling structural barriers facing small scale producers. Only then will we see the concrete guidance at regional and national levels that’s necessary for real change.

EPIC is funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office through its Commercial Agriculture for Smallholders and Agribusiness (CASA) programme, though the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the UK government. CASA seeks to increase economic opportunities for smallholders by demonstrating the commercial viability of businesses with significant smallholder supply chains and attracting more investment into the sector.