The choices cannot be made by scientists alone

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) is analysing the shift towards sustainable food systems of the future. In the following interview, Panel co-chair Olivier De Schutter outlines the challenges to be overcome and explains how the policy debate can be supported.

Why did you found the IPES Food panel and how is this panel composed?

Olivier De Schutter: IPES-Food was founded in order to provide an independent and authoritative voice on food systems reform. The 23 panel members, whose experiences span academia, civil society, social movements and the private sector, bring different fields of knowledge and different types of knowledge to the table. This is essential in light of the challenges we face.

In your opinion, why does the shift towards sustainable food systems require an interdisciplinary approach?

In the past, there has been a tendency among scientists and policymakers to address the various problems in food systems, from undernutrition to obesity to biodiversity degradation, as individual pieces of the puzzle. However, it is increasingly clear that these problems are interdependent, and stem from the same logic. In this light, there is little to be gained from a purely economic or agronomic analysis of what needs to change in food systems. The insights of the political and social sciences are crucial in order to capture the complex questions about poverty, access, social exclusion and power imbalances that are essential to any understanding of how food systems truly operate. Likewise, there is limited value in a socio-economic analysis of how to tackle hunger that ignores the ecological components – and ecological limits - of food systems.

How can this be done?

The ambition of the IPES-Food panel is not only to be interdisciplinary, but to be transdisciplinary. Food systems are complex social-ecological systems. This requires scientists to collaborate systematically with farmers, food workers, indigenous communities, consumer groups and a range of other practitioners, whose actions and choices shape these systems, and whose knowledge and understandings are unique and sometimes opposing. Defining sustainability and mapping out a path to get there requires political and ethical choices that scientists cannot make alone.

What tasks does the panel carry out?

The Panel’s mission is to support the policy debate on sustainable food systems. The key way of doing this will be through reports that analyse food systems from various different entry points and perspectives. In early 2016, the panel will release a set of case studies on transitions to agroecology, as well as a thematic report exploring the challenges in diversifying food production systems. These and other upcoming reports will help point the way towards sustainable food systems, and will help policy-makers and other actors to take the steps needed to get there. In addition, IPES-Food intends to convene different food systems actors, including government officials, civil society groups and private companies, in order to instigate dialogue and work together on defining the policies and processes needed to spark a transition to sustainable food systems.

Who are the actors with whom IPES Food’s experts interact?

Opportunities will be sought to present the findings of IPES-Food’s work directly to policy-makers. For example, in June 2015 the panel met with a cross-party group on sustainable food systems in the European Parliament, and we plan to continue working with MEPs as well as policy-makers at other levels.

IPES-Food will also rely on NGOs and other advocacy groups to help spread its work. In particular, civil society groups will be essential in order to translate and adapt our findings into relevant recommendations for action in the various countries and regions where they are based.

The Panel will also seek to initiate dialogue directly with private companies, producers’ organisations and other food systems actors in order to help delineate their roles in the sustainable food systems of the future.