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  • Jonathan Donald Syiemlieh, Nitya Jadeja & Prachur Goel

Navigating Agricultural Complexity: The Food Systems Dialogue, 2022

The Food Systems Dialogue (FSD), 2022 was a unique space that enabled learning across diverse actors with divergent perspectives. Through facilitated dialogues and curating systems thinking there were ‘movements’ from divergence to convergence, from particular themes to exploring intersectionalities, and from disagreement to respectful understanding. Together, these dialogues provided opportunities for building and strengthening multi-stakeholder collaboration and solutions in otherwise fragmented food systems.

Complex systems are not solved through specialization

We face complex systemic challenges, yet solutions proffered often move towards more specialization creating silos that prevent exploring interconnections. The production of rice in India, for instance, is deeply connected to government policy of procurement at Minimum Support Prices, national food security, the rise of lifestyle diseases, the burgeoning fertilizer subsidy and imports (more than 2 lakh crores last year), huge water consumption, electricity subsidies, international trade (India exports 40% of global rice trade) and soil health. Making any policy change without understanding this interconnected complexity is a recipe for failure.

The discourse in Food Systems is usually done separately as agriculture, nutrition, environment etc which often circumvents the intersectionalities and complexities, becoming unilateral and one-dimensional instead. There are currently very few spaces that enable dialogues that enable navigating this complexity. For this, a large number of people across various levels who appreciate this complexity and are willing to engage in systemic solutions is needed. The Bharat Krishak Samaj and Socratus Foundation collaborated to host the Food Systems Dialogues (FSD) India 2022.

Participatory interaction from the Finance & Financial instruments session

Diversity is key to understand systems

FSD was co-organised with ten reputed institutions who brought their unique perspectives to Food Systems. The institutions were a mix of government affiliated, civil society oriented, domestic and international think tanks as listed in the diagram below. Each partner organized a session on a particular theme.

Partner Organizations for the Food Systems Dialogue

The dialogues were designed for inclusivity and diversity by inviting participants from different regions and backgrounds, including those who are traditionally underrepresented in such discussions. By inviting more than 200 individuals from various networks associated with our partners, we were able to gather a diverse and multifaceted group of participants, including representatives from academia, policy-making bodies, industry, government agencies, private organizations, research institutions, think tanks, civil society groups, innovators, international organizations, and farmers.

A glimpse from Day 1 of the plenary session

FSD featured ten thematic tracks, with each track being led by a partner organization. Each participant was able to attend sessions across three themes. A participant compared this to being at a global food court where each counter gave a different taste profile and expanded the palette. For example, a scientist in the government’s ICAR system who has largely been exposed to research on the Green Revolution, could take a bite out of the session on global trade that delved into issues of Adivasi farmers. By weaving together these different threads, the conference was able to create a rich tapestry of ideas and perspectives that helped to advance everyone’s understanding of complexities in Food Systems.

Session design to encourage divergent perspectives

For instance, one of the key takeaways from the session on consumption and behaviour anchored by Tata Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition (TCI) was encouraging the supply-sided incentives to improve the nutrition intake in diets. This entails investment in nutrition-sensitive agriculture that is geared towards the production of diversified, safe, nutritious crops. One of the ways to incentivize farmers to grow diverse crops is to promote a crop-neutral agricultural policy.”

Plenary Session from Day 2 to conclude the Food Systems Dialogue 2022

Designing for grassroots participation

Agoras or central public places were a key part of Ancient Greek city-states to facilitate the exchange of ideas, debates and commerce. Throughout history, such open spaces have been essential for vibrant politics, innovation, culture and economy. Shared spaces provide a fertile ground for a diverse range of ideas and interactions to flourish. Reforming food systems is an existential imperative for us today and it cannot be done piece by piece. We need a Food Systems approach. There is no playbook for this, yet. Such an approach needs to be introduced, cultivated and nurtured amongst all the stakeholders. The need for grassroots involvement was aptly summed up by Arun Maira, "People on the ground are natural systems thinkers. We need a new model - an organic model of institutions and systems. Nothing better to teach than nature itself and the people who live with nature - #farmers."

Keywords from the Food Systems Dialogue 2022

For this, spaces like FSD 2022 are essential. The synergy that results from the interactions at the FSD 2022 can lead to the creation of innovative solutions to complex problems. The dialogue brought about shared insights among participants, built relationships across the actors and committed to working together to advance a specific food system solution. FSD 2022 was marked by major shifts in people - from thinking about organizations to talking in systems, from focusing on specific issues to considering intersectionalities, and from rejection of contrarian viewpoints to a deeper understanding of each other.

Participants at the concluding plenary

Jonathan Donald Syiemlieh, Nitya Jadeja & Prachur Goel are part of the Socratus Foundation

You can read more about the event on its official page: Food Systems Dialogue India 2022


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