Food for thought at 'Food Governance' conference in Sydney

Friday, 11 November 2016
Food for thought at 'Food Governance' conference in Sydney

Fiona Brooke, Senior Policy Adviser at the Alliance attended the recent Food Governance Conference, co-hosted by Sydney Law School and the Charles Perkins Centre. The Conference included a range of international speakers who presented significant challenges for attendees to consider.

Professor Corinna Hawkes, Director, Centre for Food Policy, City University London, undertook the enormous task of speaking about the three biggest challenges facing the global food system and how we address them.  In setting the scene, Professor Hawkes discussed the global setting in which food production is now based:

  • 40% of the global population lives in dry and arid regions where groundwater is vital for agriculture and drinking;
  • Food systems contribute 20-30% of global carbon emissions and climate change is increasing the risk of infectious diseases and risk to the livelihood of farmers;
  • The agricultural workforce is generally subject to hardship, hazards and poverty;
  • 30% of the food we produce is wasted;
  • Safety and contamination is a growing issue with contamination of groundwater and overuse of antibiotics.

Professor Hawkes then went on to identify three main issues – coming from her position that the decision-making processes for addressing food system issues are not fit for purpose.

  1. Policy-making is disconnected and incoherent.
    Professor Hawkes suggested that several factors contribute to this. Decision-makers are too distant from food sources.  There are also so many voices in the space proposing solutions that the resulting noise is difficult to cut through. And the complication of significant areas of conflict that are poorly managed adds to the complexity.
  2. The language of decision-makers is confusing and exclusionary.
    Professor Hawkes contends that at times decision-makers simply do not understand each other – for example, economics and psychology make use of the same terms but they have different meanings.  This results in decision-makers talking past each other.  It is also important to recognise the validity of the lived experience.  At present, expert language excludes lived experience and Professor Hawkes contended that as a result, decision-making can become toxic, with promising policies being inadequately implemented.
  3. The leadership of decision-makers lacks curiosity and courage.
    Leaders need to acknowledge and understand diversity better and call out bad behaviour.

Professor Hawkes finished by presenting her solutions to these issues:

  • Greater integration and accountability across government departments
  • Greater discussion across all stakeholders and the use of reflexive governance – that is governance that reflects, learns, redefines and changes
  • The use of a common language that doesn’t confuse or exclude
  • Better listening and commissioning of more qualitative research to inform decision-making
  • Finally, humanise the food system through the use of examples of the lived experience.

These issues were addressed throughout the conference with many suggestions put forward on how to improve food system governance and include greater consumer input into guiding changes to the system.

Perhaps the most telling theme that emerged from the Conference was the need to stop considering malnutrition and obesity separately and that to truly address good nutrition at the national level, we need to build policies that recognised that these are the two ends of the continuum.

The concept of calorie fundamentalism was also of interest – too much emphasis is placed on simply counting calories.  We need to consider much more carefully the quality of those calories.