Live: An open-ended discussion on power in the food system
Welcome to Feed, a food systems podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Samara Brock.
And I’m Matthew Kessler. I will be going on parental leave beginning in May, which partly explains why we’ve been a little slow to release the last few episodes. And also why in your feed right now is not a new episode, but instead a recording of an event that we at TABLE hosted and I moderated back in December 2021.
In the next month we’ll be replaying some episodes from our first season that didn’t just talk about scale in the food system, but also had a lot to say about power. And if you haven’t heard all of the past episodes of Feed, now is a good chance to catch up. We will be back with new episodes in June starting with scholar activist, Busiso Moyo and Joachim von Braun, Director of the Department of Economic and Technological Change at the university of Bonn and former chair of the Scientific group for the UNFSS.
At TABLE we don’t just make this podcast, but also write explainers, reflections pieces, host events and more. We wanted to bring your attention to an upcoming event we’re hosting on the 6th of May that I think will be a fascinating conversation - We’re calling it “Decoupling desire? Food, advertising, consumption and the question of limits.” – TABLE director Tara Garnett will moderate a panel with representatives from Unilever, the advertising sector and an owner of mixed farm B-corps to see what role, if any, the advertising sector can play in helping achieve a 1.5C future and a food system that is healthier, fairer, and less environmentally damaging. As per all TABLE events and materials, sign up is free and accessible to whomever wishes to join. You can find a link to register on TABLE’s homepage – https://tabledebates.org/ . Now onto on our previously panel discussion.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to an open discussion on power in the food system. Today, we're going to be talking about power in the food system with representatives from civil society, academia, media and the private sector. At TABLE we recognize that our own biases and perspectives will influence how we think about power in the food system. So the purpose of the event is to hear a range of different views and understandings of power. At TABLE we plan to explore who in what shapes controls and influences past, present and future food systems. This is acting as a sort of kickoff event for our theme, where we bring in different voices and perspectives to help inform some of the questions that will later ask about power.
So the format for today is pretty simple. We'll start with opening statements from each of our speakers on how they each understand power in food systems. And then we'll move into a moderated discussion on the topic. And throughout I’ll bring in audience questions.
So now it's just very brief introduction, introductions for our speakers. First, from the media, we have Eddy wax, a reporter covering Food and Agriculture for Politico and Brussels. from academia. We have Wendy Godek, professor of politics and international relations with a focus on Latin American Food and Agricultural politics. Representing civil society, Shefali Sharma is the director of the European branch of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. And from the private sector and also, as a policy consultant, Sahil Shah is a co founder of agritech company sustainable seaweed. So we'll start with you, Eddy. How do you as a member of media personally reflect on power? When you think about the different ways that power operates in the food system, what type of examples come to mind?
Well, thank you for having me. I hope you can hear me above the clattering of this cafe in London. I'm normally based in Brussels and working for political and I think political strapline is something like people politics power, or something like that. So we are interested in power, but we're interested in power in quite a narrow political sense. So that's, that's where I think I'll focus my opening remarks. I've been covering food and agriculture policy and politics and the overlap between them for three years now. And I think there's three main areas where I think power intersects with the actual core topic in my beat. And I think that's, firstly, in terms of the inter institutional kind of dynamics that play out, obviously, we are based mainly in Brussels. And the reason for that is Brussels is a massive seat of power. It's a massive seat of political power, but one which is under looked at. And I think until politico kind of came to town five years ago, I don't think there was much interest. And that's mainly that's also due to the actual structure of the EU itself. But ultimately, we are interested in Brussels as a seat of power. So the first kind of plank is the inter-institutional dynamics. The second is, I think it's the role of lobbies. And whether they're green lobbies or farmers’ lobbies, I think that's a really interesting element of my job and something I've written quite a lot about. And thirdly, it's, I think it's the power of the media itself. I think maybe I'm too much inside the vortex to be able to calculate it myself, but I still, you know, would like to reflect on that.
So, when we got two minutes left, but to make a quick few points about each of those three areas, I mean, firstly, I think the balance of power is shifting. Between the three EU institutions, the Commission, the parliament, and the council, and I think we saw that a little bit - maybe it's not shifting so much between them but certainly inside them it's changing. You know, we have a new commission or new-ish commissioner now two and a half years old, but with a very big Green Deal agenda. So when you talk about food, politics and power, I think the role of Frans Timmermans that the Green Deal chief. He has now become a much more important figure than the Agriculture Commissioner normally is. He is actually the boss of the Agriculture Commissioner. So, agriculture is no longer a fiefdom. In the EU, it's playing a role connected to other spheres and actually is subjugated to the Green Deal agenda in many ways. And we saw that in the recent negotiations on EU's foreign policy, which is going to last five years, there was a big clash between the agriculture ministers and Tillermans during those negotiations. Then quickly moving on to the second point of lobbying, and this is a massive obsession on the left of the political spectrum. And it's easy to get caught up in it as a journalist, I think zooming out a little bit, of course, there's going to be lobbying, there's also lobbying by very influential groups like Greenpeace, and lots of groups doing stunts all over Brussels, every week to bury this or that or post a funeral for this piece of legislation or the other. But I think, you know, we're seeing greater polarization, I'd say, between the farmers lobbies who feel unfairly victimized and sort of, unfairly blamed for being these recalcitrant, entrenched interests who don't even consider climate change to be a threat, supposedly. And then you have on the other side, the green lobbies, who are saying, “You're evil, you're dirty lobbies, we're not even lobbying we're just, you know, talking for the good of the planet.” So that's, that's a whole other debate. And I think, it's interesting to look at the dynamics of power there. And thirdly, yeah, the role of the media. I mean, I don't think I don't think media has power. my personal reflection of it. I think we're, we're editors of, of whatever's happening outside our windows. When we decide to - you know, we were filters. And of course, of course, that's not to underplay our role, I think we know, we do make massive decisions about how to frame things and how to shape certain narratives. But ultimately, we're only, cooking with the ingredients that we're that we're - someone else is putting in the fridge for us to make a terrible analogy worse.
Thanks, Eddy. And that's a fantastic introduction. And also, that's a dynamic that I'd like to explore later in the conversation is what sort of claim to power do each of us think that we have and what do other people see of us? So we might have different views on what the role of the media is and how much power people perceive them to have from an inside and an outside perspective. So I want to turn now to Wendy, Wendy, go deck, if you can describe as an academic, how do you reflect on power? And how do you think about it in your work and research with food systems?
Thank you, Matthew. Afternoon, good morning. Good evening to everyone, depending on where you are. It's a pleasure to be here in conversation about such an important topic. So this is a very complex topic that I think it can be easy to get lost in because there's really so much to talk about.
So in recent years, because much of my work has been working with farmers and communities, mainly in Central America and Nicaragua. But also now that I’m relocating in the United States kind of following along with what's happening in the grassroots movements around where citizens are and civil society groups are in terms of challenging different elements of the global food system, or also regional or local food systems that make up the sort of web of intertwined systems.
So, in recent years, I'd say we've been seeing an increase in calls for more locally produced and or locally sourced food in communities across the world. To see programs to encourage school gardens Community Supported Agriculture, box schemes, initiatives to support local food processing, etc. We see a call for more ecological agriculture that's more dependent on locally sourced inputs and local knowledge that's more context specific. We've been seeing calls for more participatory governance and food systems that allow citizens to have a stronger voice in making decisions about how food systems should operate.
These calls from citizens have been in response largely to the uneven distribution of power that characterizes the current food system. Seeing as power has been concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer over the last four decades or so. And often, transnational corporations are associated foundations identified as key power holders in the system. And many identify the underlying culprit as the potent market based ideology that has penetrated food system governance over the past four decades and resulted in the adoption of policies that facilitate the growth of large private enterprise at the expense of smaller and often local businesses, for example, and others.
A further impact of this has been greater dependence on for example imported food agricultural inputs rather than locally sourced and produced food and inputs. It results from national policies that deregulate aspects of food and agricultural systems, thereby removing the ability of citizens to participate meaningfully in the governance of these activities in their own territories. Such conditions have driven citizens to mobilize informed civil society organizations and movements to challenge this model, and reform policies to create more opportunities for expanding democratic governance over food systems.
My own research has sought to understand the context and conditions under which such movements for policy change are successful and why. More specifically, I've looked at attempts to adopt and implement policies to support food sovereignty, namely in Latin America given that is where most national food sovereignty policies have been adopted. Food sovereignty for those of you are unfamiliar is the right of people to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods and the right of people to define their own food system, Food and Agriculture systems. And folks who advocate for food sovereignty feel that the market based approach to food systems have undermined their ability to wield power over the food systems in their local and national communities. This example helps us to understand perceptions about power and food systems, and how different structural components of food systems including laws and norms constrain the ability of certain actors from participating in food systems governance and fostering change in food system. So against this backdrop of the kind of potent dominant system, there is a strong desire to create more equity and food systems and redistribute power though the market based approach is proving to be for medically resilient. Even when new policies have been adopted to reform a radicalized food systems. The entrenched logic of market based approach presents challenges for their full implementation and nuanced ways. This begs the question of the extent to which sometimes formal governance institutions should be relied upon his sights for effecting change in food systems. And I think this is where initiatives that empower people to grow their own tomatoes, for example, can make a lot of sense in terms of fostering more equitable power configurations and food systems. Thank you very much. And I look forward to more conversation.
Thanks, Wendy. Yeah, that was quite a quite a different take than Eddy too and this is also something that we're exploring as where we are situated and what we're looking at, and how that helps us reflect on power. So I'll turn now to Shefali. So the same question to you as a member of civil society.
Thanks, Matthew, and thanks to the TABLE for having me on. Yeah, I thought the question was really interesting. And you asked us to personally reflect on it and think about it. And so I think at a personal level, I think of power is how much agency I have. What room do I have for freedom and creativity, autonomy, and what choices do I have? And most importantly, how much power do I have to change or influence things around me? Now, if I were to think about this in terms of food systems or systems, what does this agency look like? Well, for starters, who controls natural resources, their ownership or exploitation as a farmer, a farm worker or a slaughterhouse worker? What choices do I have about what I grow and how I grow it? How I work as a consumer and this is mostly commonly framed as consumer choice in in the mainstream, but it's not just a about the quality and the number of products, right, it's also about the information I have about products and what Wendy refers to whether I have the ability or not to connect to where the food comes from.
In my work over the last eight years of my life at IATP, I've spent a lot of time looking at meat and dairy companies, their power, their global terrain, both their vertical integration, and the rate and speed of their mergers and acquisitions in creating dominant positions and markets across the globe. So one big example is JBS. This is the biggest meat processing behemoth, which is headquartered in Brazil, but it dominates in the US, Australia, obviously Latin America and many other countries. Many of these companies get public funds, they have a revolving door, or at the very least, an immense hold over governments. And they shape entire supply chains. So the land conversion to feed grains, the transport of animals all over the world, and all the all the people that they impact within their supply chain, through their production model. So from farm to fork, they hold immense power. The farmer that is part of the supply chain, and does she have a whole lot of power in this scheme. I thought it was interesting that Eddy brought up the idea about the farmer lobbies and particularly now as we talk about climate and the environment. Farmers are blamed a lot for the environmental impact of industrial agriculture. But the model in the market that is shaped by these companies, is actually what's driving the environmental destruction. But often the narrative around this is either talking about the farmer in terms of what it produced - what farmers producing, or the consumer, whether I'm buying meat or not buying meat. And it actually takes out a very core element of power in that chain. Which is the companies that control the model and the supply chain.
So a lot of the work that we've done at IATP is actually looking at farm subsidies. We actually say that farm subsidies don't uphold farmers, they actually uphold companies and enable them to pay low prices, so that governments can keep farmers afloat. In this mass production model, the subsidies, on the other hand, could go directly to help farmers transition. But instead, and farmers would take that money and use it to do that transition if they were asked to do it, right, as long as they had the money to do it. And they have a market.
But it's not in the interest of the large farm lobbies, which are a lot of them are just industry, right? These farmers are part of their supply chain, it's not in their interest to change that model of the CAP, to change the Common Agricultural Policy. Because they need big farmers, they need a lot more like mass production. And that's what the model represents right now. So that's what I would challenge. And for me, that's a very clear manifestation of power, so much so that they remain invisible and largely out of blame in this debate around this.
One of the other areas that I'm engaged in is the climate debate. Next week, the European Commission is coming out with a communication on restoring carbon cycles. And while it's true, we have a green commission, what I did hear them saying in a meeting, not so long ago was that look, yes we care about removals of carbon and carbon farming is a really big part of that. But we shouldn't get hung up on permanence of these removals. What we really want is investors coming in and putting money into this, into carbon farming. And so for me, who holds the power there? It's actually the investors in the end of the day, it's not so much the driving idea that we actually need real removals or we actually need real reduction of emissions. What is driving it seems like where we're going to get to is that we need investors to not jump ship. So we don't want to make it too stringent for them to follow these things, or they're not gonna buy it. And therefore, then we won't have a market. And I think that's kind of what we're dealing with. You see that, that there's a raw power there, and economic and political power that shapes how food is grown. What kind of food is grown? Who eats it? And how much? And at what price? And yeah, then I would centrally say that transnational corporations have a huge, huge role in that food system in terms of who holds the power. Thanks.
Thank you very much, Shefali. Sahil, I saw you nodding. And I saw other speakers thinking and digesting what other people are saying. So I'm looking forward to hearing you respond to each other. But Sahil, again, asking you the same question. And I know you wear a lot of different hats when it comes to food systems work. But if you could think, from the private sector, but also perhaps your other hats too - how do you think about the power of the food system?
Thanks, Matthew. And hello, everyone. Thank you for having me. And for the interesting remarks from my co-panelists so far. Just wanted to start with a quick comment about power. Power is often seen in a negative context, where really what we should be looking at the outcomes for power. Like, where we have natural monopolies, often you can have huge amounts of consumer benefits. And having market concentration and power concentration can be beneficial as a whole.
I'll start talking about my experience with seaweed to begin with. And I've also looked at food within a disaster, finance and policy standpoint, and I think I'm surprised that geopolitics hasn't come up so far. So I'll move on to that as well. And actually, rather than looking at power within the food system, also looking at food as a unit of power. So I think it's important. When we're talking about power of the food systems, we look at the food system holistically. So if you look at aquaculture, and especially aquaculture in Europe, one of the major reasons why aquaculture is so much smaller than in Asia, for example, is due to the regulatory regime. So I can attest for ourselves and other seaweed farmers across Europe who have been applying for permits across the continent would take a number of years and often 10s, or hundreds of 1000s of pounds that actually huge amounts of power sits with the regulatory institutions that determine which activities can and cannot take place. And often these aren't necessarily based upon what's optimal, either from a market or an environmental standpoint, but often due to what has happened before, and what is socially acceptable. So that's sort of the first thing to look at. And the next is to then really dig into market structures. So if you look at market structures in most of Western Europe, you will typically have a relatively small number of retailers, in most countries, that will deal with very large numbers of producers, that are really the driving force between price competition and prices being driven down, and making it increasingly difficult for smaller producers, meaning those that are really able to achieve economies of scale, end up being those at primary production level that are able to be I guess, at the very least economically sustainable.
The final thing about power is agency and as Shefali was alluding to earlier. And again, I think when we're talking about power of food system and agency within the food system, geographical jurisdictions are incredibly important. For example, the use of GM seeds in Europe is very different to the use of GM seeds in the United States. The same way the constraints you have on growing seaweed in the UK, mainland Europe, is very different to the constraints that you face in China - in terms of what else you're able to add the types of species you're able to introduce.
So when it comes to looking at power, it's hard to look at it in isolation, but really important to look at sort of the political and market forces that have sort of driven this beforehand. The next point, I think that I want to talk about is finance, which we haven't spoken about hugely. And finance is sort of the driving lever behind all of this in the markets. People will grow what is most cost effective to so what they will get the highest prices for often lenders, such as agricultural banks, or even those providing equity finance, will have significant say, in the practices that are undertaken. Insurance providers as well can often dictate, for example, resilient interventions that must take place to reduce the impact of particular natural hazards. So I think it's really important to explore and look at the role of finance, both in how finance has control as influence over the food system, but also how finance can be used as a tool to build a more sustainable and resilient food system. And it's understanding where their sources of finance come from.
And that actually links quite nicely into geopolitics. And that often is the case where certain actors be the private sector or state can be blocked from certain actions in other jurisdictions. As is the case between the US and China, and when we talk about power in the food system, I don’t think we cannot talk about food being used as a weapon, as has recently been the case, arguably in Ethiopia, between the TPLF and the government. The same way that there are a small number of net exporters, at least for key grains and the actions that they take on global markets have huge repercussions both on a global prices and the ability for countries to import food. As we saw in the 2007-2009 global food price crisis, where we saw wheat prices double and rice prices tripled, due to a series of cascading export bans. So I think when we're looking at power in the food system, it's important to look at geopolitics. And that's not just looking at primary production, but also looking at agricultural inputs to with the current urea shortage that we have worldwide. And even looking at sort of nitrogen and phosphorus as key inputs for fertilizer, and seeds. So in short, and in summary, power exists at all aspects of the food system, it depends where you really want to narrow in and look into. And understanding the current power dynamics gives you an opportunity, or at least gives you a map to know who and how can be influenced in order to achieve certain changes that we are looking to achieve. Yeah, looking at me for now, looking forward to questions. I wanted to very briefly answer Isabella's question -
I'll read the question out loud, and you can respond. So in the chat, Isabella Coyne wrote, how do we encourage actors with power to pursue systems change? When some or most of their power relies on maintaining the current system?
I'll try and answer that one? I think the short answer is through shifting incentives. So let's take a big agricultural company, for example, that is a seed provider, and is profiting from the current system, and that they are not investing in developing genetically modified crops, that seeds that might be drought resistant, or have other properties that are desirable. One of the ways in which we do that, and incentives, for example, could be through finance, it could be through subsidizing that research, it could be through having a price ceiling for those seeds. There are a variety of different methods that can be used. But what's important is to understand for each of those individual actors, which other actors influence them, and what levers of change do they have regulations are another one that can be used, either to limit or to encourage system change as well.
There are so many threads to pick up here as to we could explore how where power is physically located, spatially located, we've talked about a bit about geopolitics, we've discussed the power of economics, of market based structures, and I do want to pick up on various threads. But maybe we'll start with the power of narrative - what shapes how we understand food systems problems and solutions. And he said that the media, perhaps doesn't have so much power in this space. But just the way that problems are framed, I think the media does play a role in that. And so I do want to get your two cents on this Eddy. But perhaps I could start with Shefali if you want to have a crack at how do we think about what shapes how we think about food systems problems and solutions?
Well, that's a pretty big, pretty big question.. Well, it's interesting because and maybe this is a good cue for me to share this report that we're going to be launching next week with the snazzy cover which is talking about Emissions Impossible Europe: how Europe's big meat and dairy are heating up the planet. And it actually calculates the emissions of the 35 largest meat and dairy companies that are headquartered In Europe, the EU and Switzerland and also looks at their climate plans, 20 of them in particular, and to see what they're actually doing, if anything, and how does it all measure up, and what's actually needed?
And it's in time for the EC communication right on carbon renewables that I mentioned, and possibly also a methane strategy that's coming out. One of the things we looked at in this report is actually the narrative that a lot of these companies are shifting their narrative, and actually co-opting a lot of civil society narrative around regenerative agriculture, or in terms are on agroecology, that sometimes it's hard when you're reading their stuff to be like, “Oh, wow, like, you know, they're doing everything just right. You know, there's nothing wrong with this. And it's actually everything that we would support.” And I think that's, so on the one hand, obviously, I mean the narrative is a really big contested terrain, Social movements there, I would say, and I'm sure Wendy has a lot to say about this. You know, often just the narrative around food sovereignty or agroecology, and all of that is really valued. And I think increasingly, that power and that narrative is becoming really strong to the point where governments are actually even recognizing the term agroecology. Or actually even as recently as cop 26.
Governments, like the EU and least developed countries actually pushed for it in the in the agriculture paragraph. The problem is that, you know, these terms can mean different things to different actors and how they're promoting it. So this co-option by industry, especially around climate, if you're not well versed into everything about the different actors in the food system, I don't think it would be so easy to be able to distinguish, what are they actually talking about? Because often their narrative isn't actually defined very clear. I mean, the definitions aren't actually clear, right?
What is regenerative agriculture to Danone? Is it the same thing as what it means to a farmer in the US who is actually trying to grow organic food because regenerative agriculture is a really big term in the US. Not so much here. I think in Europe, it's more agroecology, when we really think about alternatives and stuff like that. So I would say, who holds the power around these narratives are obviously those that have the economic and the political power to enforce whatever that narrative is. But I don't think that we should discount the power of the narrative that comes from the bottom up, from social movements, from civil society groups. And the push that we see, increasing over time from movements, from climate movements and stuff like that. When we you know, talk about Friday's for future or the power that Greta has to mobilize people and motivate people. I don't know if that really answers your question.
Yeah. It's definitely one take on thinking about the role of narratives and assistance work. Wendy, is there anything else you'd like to add onto that? Or to respond differently to what shapes how we understand food systems problems and solutions?
Just building on some comments from Shefali that I found in my experience, too. Terms like food sovereignty and agroecology, they're co=-opted, there's also multiple interpretations and that can create a lot of obstacles for at least at the policy level for the implementation of these ideas. Because when there's no consensus on what they mean, then that results in different pathways for implementation that might be contradictory. And the other piece to that too, is that when you have multiple narratives within one policy space, that are influencing different policies, but all affect the food system, that creates a lot of contradictions as well. So if you have a policy that's for example, pro GMO seeds, which is inherently - which is an idea that's not adopted by food sovereignty, for example, it's very anti GMO seeds. When you have policies that are allowing for those up against a food sovereignty policy that is advocating against those, and that creates contradictions in the actual practice of policy and implementation of it and what happens on the ground.
So that was a piece that I wanted to pick up on, but - I was actually reflecting on the role of academia in educating people about narratives, and I speak to academia here, but I think we can go more broadly to public education, so I was thinking there is also a place for educating citizens about different approaches and different narratives. And so much as the there's been a very - progress has been measured in modernity, and really looking at other ways of thinking about how food systems can be organized, what academics might say, decolonizing the narrative, decolonizing the practice. And making space for these alternative ideas to come into play, in a way that that disrupts the current power configurations of how we think about progress in food systems. And I think with the market based approach, largely there's been a lot of advocacy for technical solutions, based on science, for solving problems. And while that can be certain, I also think there's space to be considering what might be referred to more as indigenous or local knowledges and how they can complement and or provide other pathways towards working towards sustainability in food systems, and also recognizing that local knowledge, local traditions, local foods have a role to play. So I think in that way, there's also narratives and then going back to this point about academia, which is that - there's more folks like me who are – I’m biased in the sense that I am critical - acknowledging that. I also think that within academia, you have different nodes of thinking in different institutions. And sometimes within the same institution, we see this. There's multiple narratives in the way that we're training people in to go out and do this work. So I think that's another place that we can think about the power of narrative and how that goes into shaping leadership in food systems.
Eddy, I was going to hand it over to you next, so please.
Great, just on the question of narratives. I think it's very, I think that's very interesting point I agree with what Shefali was saying, I think I can even be broadened out. I mean, I think the role for journalists now in this new world of, well - it's not new - but in this world where climate change is finally quite high up the agenda of what people are actually interested in reading about. Is to pick things apart and to be a filter. And to be pointing out greenwashing wherever it is, so that we don't have the sort of public discourse, the public narrative. If you imagine there's one mainstream kind of narrative that is shouting down and covering out, blocking out all the others to make sure that that one isn't polluted. And and basically, contaminated by falsity and sort of consumers or citizens being misled. I think that's a really important role. For journalists. It's almost like a fact that the journalists have become fact checkers, because of the sheer volume of information out there now. And because of probably some increased people in the public eye or in public office who want to sort of mislead people on purpose. I think the journalists role has changed.
But the problem is, it's true we end up using some of the same terms to mean completely different things. I mean, when we were talking about agro ecology and food sovereignty, and maybe think about the French agriculture minister, Julian Denormandie, who's sort of mantra at the moment is all about food sovereignty. And the whole French government now is using food sovereignt, all the time in every other sentence. But I think that's a very different version of food sovereignty than what Wendy is kind of talking about. So we like to use buzzwords. And I think journalists need to be very careful about using buzzwords and repeating the terminology that is being spouted out by various parts of the food ecosystem. Especially when the definitions are not are not nailed down. And the other point someone mentioned Greta Thunberg. I mean, I, I do think that the narrative in general is, is changing radically compared to where it was, even when I started this job three years ago. I mean, we have now Greta Thunberg, specifically in terms of food and agriculture. I mean, it's kind of unheard of, for a global celebrity like, Greta. I know, she's not just celebrity. But to be to be putting the spotlight on the CAP reform, for example, you know, Europe's 300 billion euro food policy, but she started tweeting about it started, you know, really wrestling with Frans Timmermans, the Green Deal Commissioner over it. And, you know, she brought a lot of scrutiny to bear upon that, which obviously, made my job easier in some ways, because I often feel in this job that I'm sort of scooping stuff up from well below ground and bringing it to people and being like, “Oh, this, this is a quirky thing. Do you know what these farmers are up to?” Because I'm obviously trying to bring a narrative about a very specific sector to a much broader audience and trying to get as many readers as I can and try and find really interesting nuggets for a broad audience. But it made that job less difficult, there was less distance to carry this nugget of interestingness to broader public because she was saying, this is an issue for all of us. And so I just do think that overall, the narrative has changed. And I think that that does disrupt the power dynamic and gives more power to people maybe more like more like Shefali, who are, who are pointing and have been pointing at problems and, you know, distortions and power imbalances in the system for a long time, you know, because people will be realizing, “oh, yeah, they are right, Shefali is right.” I think.
I want to use an example with I think Eddy was talking about the EU cap. And narrative can completely shift how we view things right? In France and in Italy. And if you look at farming unions like Copa Cogeca. The CAP is seen as a way to protect smallholder farmers across Europe, where it could equally be said that it is a market distortion that unfairly disadvantages farmers in the developing world. And often you will have foreign aid that is an agricultural aid that is tied to this and can perpetuate this issue. And on the subject of narrative, I actually co-authored a book earlier this year, called the narrative campaign field got, which actually looks at the use of narrative to combat misinformation and disinformation. So I've looked at this, this year in a lot of depth. And narrative is effectively a tool to achieve change. If we look at Singapore's 30 by 30, if we look at China's 2035 and 2049 strategies. I think, I cannot remember the last day where I was able to count the number of times I heard “food security is national security.” And in using that, it can be a shift towards sort of food sovereignty and ensuring sufficient production or robust supply chain within national borders, which the time can have negative consequences internationally.
I want to follow up with a question that, again, targets the role of different actors in the food system, and what sort of power each of these actors have. So there are a few audience questions that touch on this. And I'll try and combine a few of them together, and I'll start with Sahill. So there's a wide acceptance in agreement that that reforms or transformations of the food system have to happen, but people disagree over that future direction. So who do you think, which actors in particular should have less power or should have more power? And Herman Brouwer asked if there are any examples of food system actors who hold power voluntarily stepping back to make space for other actors? So if you can also think of any examples related to that, too. And we'll start with Sahil, but other people can think about this and step in afterwards.
Sure. In terms of who should have less power and who should have more power, I don't think it necessarily matters who has the power, what matters are the actions that they take. So it's not about decreasing power and increasing power. It's about changing incentives. So in terms of the questions that we have, so if you look at some climate finance, for example. Although the questions allude to sort of FAO, IFAD and WFP, the majority of climate finance is coming from large institutional investors. Your pension funds, your unit trust, your life insurers, and it's the frameworks, the frameworks that exist, such as like the NGFS that look at their climate exposure, and how they actually look at climate investments, and ESG criteria. It's driven by credit ratings agencies that actually determine where climate finance moves to. So I don't think it's necessarily ensuring that investors have less power in this, but it's how do we develop frameworks such that they make the type of investments that lead to a more sustainable and a more resilient food system?
Going back to the other side, the other question in terms of examples where this has changed. I mean, the example that really comes to mind, if you look at the role of Monsanto, which then became Bayer, particularly in India, in terms of how aggressive they were with, I think, sort of mandating annual sales of seaweeds with farmers in India back in the 90s. And all the issues that we had with the farmer suicides. They've taken a very different approach as to no longer dictating as much after the backlash that they received. So there's definitely the potential for power to shift. One of the things that I would like to highlight that we haven't spoken about as much is the role of shareholders. When we talk about big agriculture, these companies are often publicly listed companies, and they often have shareholders, the shareholders are often large institutional investors that exert disproportionate amounts of power. And I think they have the potential to play a really pivotal role in food system transformation, both in making our food system more sustainable, but also making our food system more resilient as ultimately that also helps their bottom line.
Would anyone else like to volunteer to pick up on this thread? About who might have more power or who might have less power when we look at actors in the food system?
I actually wanted to pick up since there seem to be different versions of Isabel's first question. In the q&a, which is, you know, the fundamental question is - how do you encourage actors that have the power to give up some of that power? What did she say, “when some or most of their power relies on maintaining the current system” and I think this is a real problem. And part of that is the narrative that, this is the only way to do things, or we got to do it this way. And I think that narrative is increasingly competing against the well, “we can keep doing this because we're at systems collapse.” And I think that's the change that Eddy's talking about in the last three years, maybe they're you're seeing increasingly more of that kind of narrative. But the problem is, and I think a perfect example of that is, when the power manifests itself - this whole conversation around net zero. Every company, every government is coming out with net zero targets. And so how do we ensure that that's not just a bunch of hot air? How do we ensure that it's not just a whole bunch of money going to the same stuff and actually incentivizing more of of the model that -because what we need to avoid systems collapse is actually systems change. And a lot of the solutions that are being proposed by those in power, actually have to do with maintaining those models, but just doing it better. So this emissions intensity issue, like reducing emissions per kilo food, or liter of milk, which basically advantages those who are producing massively and disadvantages, those that are, using expansive systems, or that are much smaller at scale. Because the argument goes, well, you know, the smaller systems require a lot more land, if you do and much more efficiently, then you're going to be feeding a lot more people and therefore also, overall, it's a much more efficient way of doing it.
The problem there is there's also power and science. And I would say there's also power in media, Eddy. I mean, it's who has access to the media, especially really busy, high in demand, reporters and journalists or papers like Politico or the Guardian or any. I can say that from personal experience, right. Being a small organization, it's not always easy to get access, whereas Greenpeace who has several media officers would probably have a whole lot at their disposal to be able to get your attention - so there's an element of power when it comes from media to whose voices appear in the media, how do they appear?
But I do I see a real danger where the narrative, the devils in the details, about what the proposals are. And so yes, it is the media's job to kind of go really question, “Okay, so what is in this proposal and does it actually lead towards a systems change or not.” But also, I don't think that those in power are going to give it up readily. So as an advocacy organization, I would say, citizens, rather than consumers have to become more and more vocal and become much more active in pushing governments.Because ultimately, Sahil, I think said regulations are one way to create change, to incentivize some things and not others. So, one is follow the money, of course, what are banks doing, what are financiers doing that is impacting the food system? Can we get them to be accountable and say move and shift financing and investment towards the kinds of agriculture we want to see. But also governments, the kind of systemic change we want to see, is not going to happen by consumers alone, or by any one actor alone, I think it's going to require a wider government intervention, which is regulations. That require at the very minimum transparency, and reporting but also, other very dramatic steps when it comes to say, in agriculture, methane and nitrous oxide emissions. So far, all of those areas, the Ag companies have a really wide berth. And of course, they always say it's just the farmers, it’s just the farmers. It's not us, you know, but I would challenge that.
I wanted to just come in as well, I mean, I take your point Shefali. Of course, media does have power. And I obviously appreciate that. Getting access to sort of big publications is a fight and a battle and one, which smaller groups are obviously less likely to win than the bigger ones. But to move on to the other part of the earlier question about who has taken a sort of voluntary step back? I don't know whether it's voluntary, but I certainly think that at the moment what I've been covering this year, in terms of, I know keep talking about it, but I do think it's really, really important, the Common Agricultural Policy, it's basically represents - it's basically being a power grab, but by the national governments. So the role of Brussels has diminished. And it's interesting, because Brussels originally did, it was the Commission, the one, the institution, which proposes the sort of original blueprint for the future laws that suggested this system change. To give more power back to the back to the national governments over how to set their own foreign policy and how to spend the EU taxpayers money. And I just think that's just a really interesting kind of shift in power at the time of the Green Deal. And at the time, when we need to be as Shefali is saying, changing the system, radically to make it much more green and sustainable and climate friendly. We're now going to be giving so much power back to the national governments who obviously change every sort of five years, and are not necessarily the most reliable,people. So yeah, I just think I just think that's an interesting development, especially when you see how much money Brussels gives to the national governments, and how much scope they will have for implementing that foreign policy. And it could lead to a real much more of a patchwork kind of agricultural picture across the EU, with different countries rewarding their own farmers for doing higher or much lower sort of green practices. So we'll have to see where that where that takes us in sort of seven years time.
Thanks, Eddy. And that actually transitions us well into a question on governance and perhaps bottom up power and citizen engagement. So we have a few related comments and questions to this. And I'll direct them at Wendy first. So Beth Bell says, “I love the recognition of citizen power and the importance of empowering people to make change while recognizing the role of government and business to act ethically and dynamically.” And Jeroen asks, “are democratic methods of channeling power a prerequisite for food systems change towards sustainable and fair outcomes?”
Thank you for those questions. One of the things that are kind of just this place, I was listening to Shefali and so he'll speak a little bit more that rose in my mind is a question is that you've got all of these really complex financial processes happening. How much do we as citizens - and some of us are paying into our 401K plans or whatever we in the US we’ve got that retirement plans – how many of us really understand the processes that go on with the financial piece and food systems. And I feel like in order for citizens to make good decisions about this, they need to understand these processes that have become so complex and removed from our everyday knowledge. I think that we just kind of trust our whoever's managing our retirement plan to make those investment decisions and to sit down and really understand the logic of this is complicated and requires time. And for citizens to be able to make demands to whomever is managing retirement programs or financial investments on how to make these shifts requires a pretty good amount of research or someone being able to go into those really technical processes just cease to inform us about how to make demands around them.
And I know that's being done. But I'm thinking kind of folks who may not be as invested in these topics as we are being able to get this knowledge and to make demands on policymakers. So going to the question of democracy, because that's, that is a part of a democratic system, not all systems are democratic. So that becomes about two thirds of the world is not in a Democratic position right now or are considered to be strongly democratic and evidence is telling us in recent years with COVID, and even before COVID, democracy was being challenged increasingly across the world. So the question becomes how much can we rely on it to be able to change food systems if it's actually regressing or non existent in places?
So that's a important question, where, though in sort of looking at democracy as an imperfect system, we already know that where it is exists and is being practiced. The kind of democracy that food sovereignty is putting forward is really participatory, inclusive democracy and direct democracy that takes on a different form than representative democracy where we have folks representing us in policymaking institutions. And that brings another level of complexity, because there's a lot of pros to participate to democracy and then taking it down another notch to participatory and inclusive models. One of them is legitimacy. I mean, if people are reaching some sort of consensus through a deliberative and inclusive policymaking process, there's more legitimacy that's seen about that process. If folks are given the opportunity to autonomously - meaning they're not being influenced from the outside - voice, their concerns, and their opinions about different aspects in a decision making process, then we can see that process may have more success. Having more inclusive opinions means there's more information to consider and more pathways to consider. That's another plus. And it also empowers people to be agents, and we're talking about agency, agents in those processes of change. However, that being said, as we've touched on in this conversation, and we all well know, we're kind of up against a really big time issue. What's happening with the climate and other aspects of our ecosystem? It's a crisis, we're in crisis, and do we have the luxury of time to debate solutions? And I think this has been a point that people have been making about global summits on these issues is that we keep having the global summits, but where's the change? Right.
And so democracy and particularly, participatory democracy and deliberative democracy, those are kind of slow processes of reaching consensus around issues. So I see they're - going back to this question of whether or not democratic methods of channeling power prerequisite for food system change, I don't know if they're prerequisite. We do know they can be powerful. And they're important. My question is whether or not we have time to do that work. And I very much believe in these processes. But they also require some training behind them too, and teaching people how to engage in participatory policymaking. And what that even looks like. In the United States, we have a lot of food policy councils. But are the food policy councils really being staffed democratically by local citizens who are making those decisions? That becomes another question that I have in certain models. I'm concerned about the extent to which citizen voices are being part of those spaces. So I'm going to stop there.
One question as a follow up, which we won't dive into too much in this moment is what is an alternative that takes its place, if not that. But I saw that Shefali had her hand raised?
Well, no, I just wanted to quickly say in the US context, you actually even wonder if it's a democracy, to be honest. I mean, we're, as a US citizen living in Europe, there's some real questions about whether there is a democracy. And I don't know. Eddy, I'd be curious to know whether you think that you processes a democratic process. Because I think, our so called representative democracies, certainly in the US after Citizens United, and all the ways that money is politics in the United States, it's huge. So to be able to say, deliberative democracy and representative democracy, I think that fundamentally, but maybe that takes us way too far out.
I also have to be careful as a Brit covering the European Union. I know I could easily lapse into sort of Euro skepticism and Euro cynicism. But no, I don't know, I think the main the main thing that I come up against is the sort of technocratic elements of it. And it's the fact that it's more about I'm not sure whether, I'm not sure where we'd get if we start analyzing natural systems and say, “Are they as democratic as they possibly could be?” I mean, you know, undoubtedly, yes, the EU is having major problems with some member states - know, Poland, Hungary have over democracy at the moment. But I think ultimately, you know, the EU is a democratic vehicle. Fundamentally, however, I think the interesting question – an interesting question is engagement. The system would change like this if100% of people were voting and 100% of people were motivated to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, you know, I was joking on answering a q&a question over there saying, you can always fill in a commission, public consultation, if you want to. The thing is, the energy, the interest, the motivation, it's drained out of the Democratic exercise by the fact that everything in democracy is a compromise, and also the structures of technocratic structures, which don't engage people and don't motivate people. So that's also where I see the role of a journalist, which is to motivate interest and engagement. And say, “Look, this is actually really interesting. And this is why this is important.” That's the third line, the nut graph of every article, as they call it is why you should care. So a lot of what journalists doing is saying, you should care about this and this is why. And I think that is good and healthy for democracy. But I would be worried about trying to say that we can change system through non democratic means, I think that mean, even if we managed to do that - where will the free press be to say that we've actually done it or not to check up on people. So I think we should stick to democracy, but reinvigorate it.
Thanks, Eddy and just aware of time, we're going to move to closing remarks. So I'll just ask the question to each of you and also offer the floor for one to two minutes.
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