Many voices, one vision: GEF Food Systems Summit dialogue underscores the power of multistakeholder platforms

Panellists at the GEF Food Systems Summit dialogue had the same wish: more opportunities for stakeholders in food systems and conservation to convene for collective decision-making and problem-solving.

In July, the Global Environment Facility (GEF) hosted a virtual dialogue with representatives from GEF-funded programmes promoting integrated approaches to food systems transformation. The discussion was a prelude to the United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit.

Taking place alongside the UN General Assembly in September, the UN Food Systems Summit aims to launch bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food. Several pre-summit dialogues are being held between a diverse group of players from government, development partners, communities and the private sector. The dialogues give a platform to voices that are seldom heard and allow participants to debate and collaborate to build better food systems for the future.

For the past 30 years, the GEF has invested in a wide range of projects in the food and agriculture sector. During the GEF’s sixth and seventh replenishment cycles, the Facility focused on advancing integrated approaches to tackle the drivers of environmental degradation within food systems. Representatives from these programmes were called upon to discuss emerging lessons from applying integrated approaches on the ground.

One lesson that came up repeatedly: the power of cross-sectoral collaboration and dialogue. 

Understanding the political dimension of food systems transformation

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, CEO and chairperson of the GEF, opened the July dialogue with an anecdote about his early experience as a young Minister of Environment in Costa Rica in 1998. In his first term as Minister, he soon realised that the agriculture and environment ministries didn’t always see eye to eye.

“The Minister of Agriculture saw the Environment Minister as a burden to growth and rural development,” said Mr Rodriquez. “It was difficult to agree on how we manage natural resources at the landscape level – although there wasn’t such a big difference in our goals.”

Mr Rodriguez learned that, at the level of dialogue and policy, sectoral silos often prevent good ideas from germinating. The agriculture and environmental ministries needed to plan together, make joint decisions and reconcile their agendas. Instead, they often focus on the differences in their agendas rather than the similarities. 

The experience taught Mr Rodriguez about the value of creating spaces for inter-ministerial dialogue and collaboration. During his time as Minister of Environment, he brought together both ministries to do collective land use planning, something that had never been done before. The process was a success. Both ministries agreed to restrict the expansion of agricultural land into forest areas, an achievement that helped reverse the rate of deforestation in Costa Rica.

Integrated approaches in action: bridging agricultural and environmental agendas

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez’s story highlights the critical importance of understanding and accounting for the political dimension of transforming food systems.

By promoting an integrated approach to planning and implementing interventions at the landscape and supply chain level, the GEF-funded integrated approach and impact programmes have made great strides in bridging agricultural and environmental agendas.

Panellist Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, Director of Nature, Climate and Energy Practice and Executive Coordinator for Environmental Finance at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), said multistakeholder platforms give players an opportunity to have the difficult but necessary conversations. UNDP leads the GEF-funded Good Growth Partnership (GGP) programme, which focuses on a “whole of supply chain” approach to enable “good growth” in commodity supply chains without the consequence of deforestation.

The GGP focuses on creating spaces for discussion that include actors from the entire value chain. “These discussions require a safe space,” said Mr Kurukulasuriya, “one where retailers, manufacturers, financial institutions, governments, producers and buyers – all have the opportunity to exchange ideas and resolve differences to move things forward.”

Julian Lampietti, Practice Manager of Global Engagement in the Agricultural and Food Global Practice at the World Bank, agreed that strong partnerships across sectors are necessary to “bend” the current food system towards sustainability. The World Bank leads the latest and largest GEF impact programme, the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration (FOLUR) programme.

“The core idea of [FOLUR] is working across different ministries,” said Mr Lampietti. “The programme gives us a platform to engage ministries of agriculture, environment and, really importantly, finance and trade.”

Panellist Sara Mbago-Bhunu, Director, East and Southern Africa Division at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), echoed the importance of sustainable financing to support these platforms. “Yes, you have to invest in multistakeholder platforms, but they do work,” said Ms Mbago-Bhunu.

With the support of key partners in ministries of agriculture, environment, and finance as well as regional partners, like the African Union, IFAD is leading the Resilient Food Systems (RFS) programme, which focuses on improving the resilience and sustainability of smallholder food production systems in 12 African countries.

The programme has yielded tangible results so far, to the benefit of 1.4 million smallholder farmers. In addition, 150,000 ha of land have been rehabilitated, and 160,000 smallholder farmers have been specifically trained in sustainable agricultural practices. 

Within each of the country projects, multistakeholder platforms create spaces for science-informed policy discussions at the national and community level to facilitate collective decision-making. So far, 19 national and 51 sub-national platforms have been established across 12 countries.

These results bode well for the future of integrated approaches – and have demonstrated the potential of multistakeholder platforms to rework the way that sectors come together to identify, design and implement food system interventions.

The panellists' reflections – and the broader discussions taking place during the pre-summit dialogues – are well-timed. "We have an incredible chance to reboot the system,” said Mr Lampietti. “Covid-19 has made us rethink a lot of things, and the food system is one of them." 

The answer to growing complexity? Radical cooperation and community participation.

During the panel discussion, Dr Martin Frick, deputy to the Special Envoy for the UN Food Systems Summit, underscored the fact that food systems transformation requires investment in systemic solutions. Funding is needed for projects that address all underlying components of food systems, not just some.

“From a donor’s side: how do you fix these problems with very limited resources? And from a country’s side, how on earth do you get all these interconnected crises under one hat?” asked Dr Frick. His answer? Radical cooperation.

Dr Frick underscored the importance of creating and supporting platforms that bring all stakeholders to the table to consider how limited resources can be used for the biggest impact. It’s no longer enough to fund projects that focus on just one dimension of food system health, explained Dr Frick. “Projects need to have climate and biodiversity benefits. They need to enable local populations. They need to enable women.”

The GEF is known for its innovative funding instruments, said Dr Fritz. It provides a platform to bring the various dimensions of global environmental problems together under one project or programme. 

But this isn’t necessarily the norm. Funders act within budgetary constraints. To enable funding across various sectors simultaneously is often complex. “We need to work on several outcomes simultaneously and not be afraid of this complexity,” said Dr Fritz. 

His solution to this complexity lies in community participation. Addressing complex problems with limited funds becomes more manageable through multistakeholder platforms that make space for community ownership. When communities lead the decision-making, the available funding can be leveraged in the best possible way. 

Collaboration is not an end goal; it’s a long-term process.

While agreeing with the other panellists on the value of multistakeholder platforms, Andrew Bovarnick, Global Head of UNDP’s Food and Agricultural Commodity Systems practice and Green Commodities Programme, brought a bit of a reality check.

Multistakeholder dialogues are good at bringing together collective brainpower and experience to identify solutions, he said, but they often fall short when translating these solutions into action.

“We know what needs to happen, but why isn’t it happening?” asked Mr Bovarnick.

One reason could be that multistakeholder platforms include stakeholders with conflicting agendas. Conversations are often difficult and slow. But one thing is certain: change won’t happen until stakeholders come together and voice their differences.

These platforms need to make room for diverse perspectives. Dialogue and cooperation can help manage the conflict and tension that exist between stakeholders in, for example, food production and conservation spheres.

“It’s about building trust and breaking down barriers, and these things take a lot of time,” said Mr Bovarnick. He emphasised that farmers, agribusiness representatives and government ministries need to buy into a common vision. “Only then will change happen,” he said.

Dr Blake Ratner, founder and Executive Director of Collaborating for Resilience and member of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the GEF, echoed this sentiment. “Multistakeholder platforms are not a passing trend or a fad,” said Dr Ratner, “but an integral part of what is emerging as the science of systems transformation.”

“In the long term, there is no trade-off between conservation and food system resilience, sustainability and human welfare,” said Dr Ratner. 

We all inhabit the same planet: conservation and sustainability are vital to food security. Dialogue is not a luxury – unless we talk to one another, we will lose a vital opportunity to sustain both ourselves and the planet. The doors of opportunity are slowly closing – dialogue is our best doorstop.


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