Just Transition in Livelihoods for Resilient Food Systems

Waruni Karunarathne

As the world is increasingly recognizing the urgency of building resilient food systems, it is paramount to ensure that food system transition happens in a just and fair manner that includes everyone. This requires a holistic multi-actor approach globally, regionally, nationally, and locally, targeting not only policy and technological interventions but also changes in attitudes and sociocultural systems. To contribute to the dialogue and solutions identified under Action Track 4 of the United Nations Food Systems Summit, SLYCAN Trust conducted an independent dialogue on ‘Just Transition in Livelihoods for Resilient Food Systems’ on June 17th, 2021, with a diverse group of national and international stakeholders.

Climate Change Impacts on Food Systems

Globally, food systems experience challenges due to the changing climate and pre-existing vulnerabilities. Mr. Duncan Williamson, Founder of Nourishing Food Systems, drew attention to the impacts of climate change that undermine food and nutrition security of communities and pose barriers to eradicating hunger and achieving Sustainable Development Goal 2. He explained that climate change affects the stability and reliability of harvests as well as the nutritional content of many crops, which also has severe consequences on livestock as a result of reduction in feed quality, heat stress, and other factors. Increased temperature will also lead to ocean acidification and increase in invasive species, impacting fisheries and aquaculture. Mr. Williamson projected that every part of the food system will be affected due to climate change impacts, particularly in poor and vulnerable countries where communities mostly depend on agriculture and natural resources for livelihood. In the face of such challenges, there is investment in technologies such as acellular and cellular products to build food systems’ resilience. However, the concept of just transition should be in place to build resilience of not only the food system but also lives and livelihoods affected by climate change.

During the breakout group discussions, participants also recognized climate change impacts on food systems, especially due to the lack of climate-preparedness and adaptation capacities of agricultural communities in developing regions. Farming communities, in particular, are often seen battling with climate induced losses and damages to their crops and livestock without having resources, financial capacities, or social protection to recover quickly and restore their livelihoods. Some of the proposed solutions included introducing comprehensive risk transfer mechanisms and risk financing tools, looking at different knowledge systems (including traditional and indigenous risk mitigation and adaptation practices), and investing in infrastructure from distribution and storage to communications and technology.

Vulnerable Livelihoods and Local Communities

Lives and livelihoods should be a key priority of governments when building resilient food systems. Ms. Vositha Wijenayake, Executive Director of SLYCAN Trust, highlighted that the transition process needs to take vulnerable local communities and livelihoods into account when trying to achieve food security and climate resilience to ensure that no one is left behind. She noted that various elements of a just transition could be integrated into and introduced through implementation of Sustainable Development Goals, local and national planning, and other international and national processes. For instance, by integrating comprehensive climate risk management and transfer mechanisms into Nationally Determined Contributions and National Adaptation Plans, solutions could be provided to address climate change impacts on nature-based food systems and livelihoods.

Taking the energy sector as an example, Mr. Lasse Bruun, Global Director of 50by40, elaborated on how the transition from a fossil fuel economy to a renewable energy-based economy has accelerated. The threat of job elimination and negative results of country GDP are the primary concerns when introducing such a shift. He highlighted the necessity of building a wider understanding of how such transitions could not only create more jobs but also safer, better-paid, more sustainable, gender-equal, profitable, and green jobs. According to Mr. Bruun, concerns are now shifting to the matrix and possibilities of a just transition in food systems.

When making the shift towards resilient food systems, participants observed a threat to certain jobs within existing food systems. For instance, moving towards plant-based food systems may have severe impacts on employment in the livestock industry. Such a transition may require negotiations with businesses, skills retraining, and the introduction of alternative employment opportunities. Consumer education and awareness were also seen as crucial in making this shift.

An Inclusive and Participatory Approach

Identifying and addressing capacity needs of communities as well as countries through inclusive and participatory processes was seen as a must in transitioning food systems in a fair manner. Ms. Wijenayake stated that these processes should focus on youth and women engagement, creation of jobs through technology innovation for regenerative agriculture practices and agroecology as well as local context-based solutions to provide better protection across diverse platforms.

According to Ms. Katherine S. Miles, Gender Consultant to the InsuResilience Global Partnership, it is important to recognize how women and men are differentially impacted by climate change to identify the solutions for just transition in livelihoods. According to her, women often tend to have lower adaptive capacity, access to technology, and income compared to their male counterparts. Regardless of women’s contribution to the global workforce, women are also seen constantly facing constraints in many parts of the world, especially in terms of resource ownership and legal constraints. Given that intergovernmental processes such as those under the UNFCCC recognize gender-specific vulnerabilities and livelihood impacts, looking at those international processes for integrating gender-responsive approaches to adapt mechanisms at policy level is considered necessary to achieve resilience in livelihoods and food systems. Ms. Miles promoted gender-responsive climate disaster risk financing as one solution for the just transition of livelihoods. According to her, risk transfer and financing solutions like micro insurance, social protection, macro level insurance etc. could be adopted based on risk profiles and different groups of stakeholders in food systems.

To ensure a just transition, Mr. Williamson encouraged all-inclusive policy dialogues to bring in marginalized and vulnerable segments of society, enabling them to actively contribute, highlight issues, and propose solutions. Solutions should be in place to ensure smallholders and SMEs along the food system are supported. Since there is no one production system, he said it was paramount for all farmers to be part of the dialogues toward COP26.

Mr. Bruun added that just transition in food systems should be strongly anchored in fiscal policies and international financial frames as well as the Paris Agreement. When looking at ensuring just transition in food systems at national level, he also noted the importance of having institutional structures on climate change, agriculture, health, and finance on board as active partners.

Including youth in the dialogue of just transition in the food system is considered crucial to ensure intergenerational equity and attract innovative solutions. Ms. Chalani Marasinghe, Research & Programme Officer, Global Youth Forum on Climate Change, drew attention to youth as drivers of change with the potential to change food systems. She noted that the engagement and interest of youth were significant for building not only food security but also sustainable livelihoods and healthy lives. Ms. Marasinghe referred to a proposal drafted by youth participants at the Global Youth Forum on Climate Change 2020 organized by SLYCAN Trust, which entailed an innovative solution to managing and reducing waste in urban areas. The solution presented revolved around promoting urban permaculture where comprehensive technology-driven waste management solutions had also been integrated. Such innovative solutions are only possible through platforms that encourage youth engagement.

Mr. Kairos Dela Cruz, Deputy Executive Director of the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, acknowledged that specific evidence and indigenous adaptation practices were fundamental in manifesting better climate resilience and development. He stressed on the necessity of establishing and continuing to strengthen multi-actor partnerships. He also insisted that discussion platforms could elevate local voices and concerns.

To encourage participation of women and youth, participants proposed providing economic incentives for their contribution as well as the implementation of awareness-building programmes. Allocating quotas for women and youth was also considered as a way of promoting their representation in decision-making processes and positions. Further, participants pointed out a need to challenge and transform social norms and legal constraints that bar vulnerable and underrepresented groups from being part of a just society with equitable access to resources.

Key Sectors of Focus for Just Transitioning Food Systems

According to Mr. Bruun, a key sector to focus on for just transition in food systems is livestock, which requires more land and is linked to local and global issues related to inequitable distribution of food. He brought in an example of a research done by IDB and ILO last year that demonstrated opportunities of shifting towards more plant-based food systems. According to the study, if the shift was made to more plant-based food systems in Latin America and the Caribbean, this would create 15 million net jobs within this decade. However, there are certain barriers in moving to plant-based food systems. For instance, farmers have invested in intensive livestock businesses and may be heavily indebted. Therefore, Mr. Bruun stated that such a transition might require compensation mechanisms and investment from governments to overcome barriers and make that shift, but that these costs would be ‘much less than the clean-up costs ten years down the line of not doing it.’

Mr. Williamson advised to look at solutions such as less intensive food systems and ecosystem restoration, as well as to take into account solutions that may not appear directly connected. For instance, mangrove ecosystem conservation and restoration activities may not only provide protection against sea level rise but will also protect livelihoods and generate more ecosystem-based livelihood opportunities.

Challenges of COVID-19 in Just Transitioning Food Systems

With COVID-19, additional pressure is placed on food systems not only in terms of poor access to food but also in terms of reduced income or interruptions to income generation activities leading to household food insecurities. Especially in developing countries, poor and vulnerable communities are disproportionately affected by the present crisis on top of existing vulnerabilities. In particular, frontline food system workers are more vulnerable to the impacts of the pandemic due to exposure and poor working conditions, making COVID-19 one of the biggest threats to building resilience of food systems.

Mr. Dela Cruz stated that the pandemic highlighted the significance of having demand-informed solutions and acknowledging a multisectoral, multi-actor, and multi-level approach in designing disaster risk finance. This is considered as a way to mainstream climate concerns in building back better economies and establishing much better resilient food systems.

According to Mr. Williamson, the pandemic presented the opportunity to relearn the value of local systems, local market and shorter supply chains, and the need to facilitate the growth and strengthen their resilience. However, he showed concerns over the narrative coming from the global trade that supported establishing business as usual. For instance, big commodities like maize, soy and palm were not affected by the pandemic, and in fact had a record harvest. He stressed on the need to reason beyond this narrative to relocalize the food systems. Further, agriculture diversification was considered as fundamental to a resilient food system - that would also ensure local communities’ access to enough nutritious food during a situation like a pandemic. Apart from that, Mr. Williamson said, strengthening women and bringing women into this dialogue would play a vital part in building resilient food systems. During climate induced disasters or pandemics, women tend to suffer the most. Recognizing their contribution to the food systems and strengthening their roles were considered as a way of building household and community resilience during a crisis.

In the discussion, participants pointed out that the pandemic disrupted food distribution rather than food production, with farmers, especially small-scale farmers, struggling to transport their harvest to the market due to lockdown restrictions. Perishable food items in particular were subjected to waste due to a lack of cold storage facilities. Despite the availability of food, movement restrictions could result in a lack of access to food at the consumer end, disconnecting primary food producers from end consumers. In this context, participants proposed linking farms and consumers through e-commerce platforms and delivery partners to ensure continued supply of food to end consumers while also ensuring the continuity of the food production cycle.

Way Forward

SLYCAN Trust works with a strong focus on building resilience of food systems and livelihoods while ensuring that no one is left behind in the transition process. Key outcomes of this independent dialogue will be submitted to the United Nations Food Systems Summit to contribute to and enhance solutions under Action Track 4.

The findings of the discussion will also be taken forward into future discussions to connect just transition to strengthening food system resilience against climate impacts and in situations of crisis. Such discussions will enable bringing forth more localized solutions as well as overarching frameworks to ensure communities recover fast and in a sustainable manner from climate- and non-climate related shocks including the COVID-19 pandemic. SLYCAN Trust aims to align these findings and solutions with our work under national and international processes such as those related to the UNFCCC or the Sustainable Development Goals to contribute to this vital conversation locally, nationally, regionally, and globally.


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