Principles for Just Food System Transitions (Just Rural Transition Initiative)

Anna Triponel

April 28, 2023
Our key takeaway: The global food system is the top driver of habitat and biodiversity loss. It accounts for 70% of freshwater withdrawals and is responsible for around 37% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are projected to keep rising. The global food system also feeds the world and employs about 27% of the global workforce. Just these statistics alone illustrate how transitioning to a sustainable food system is perhaps the greatest and most urgent challenge of our times. However, this transition involves “existential-level risks for many rural people” and sometimes even for consumers living in cities around the world that could be vulnerable to food insecurity from rising prices. The need for guidelines and agreements on how to go about making the system work better for people, nature and the climate is urgent. The Just Food System Transitions report provides a proposal for what these guidelines could look like in 10 principles, classified across three categories: (i) the goal: “a food system that is more equitable and sustainable”, (ii) the “just process of change”, and (iii) the consideration of systemic inequalities and vulnerabilities. The report provides starting points for conversations around designing just food systems and what it would take to implement these changes - which can be built upon as food producers, governments, businesses, investors, civil society, rural and Indigenous Peoples’ engagement in this conversation grows around the world.

The Just Rural Transition, an initiative housed at Meridian Institute, released 'Principles for Just Food System Transitions. Envisioning a more equitable and sustainable future – and an inclusive path to achieving it':

  • Ten principles for a just global food system is one that works better for people, nature and climate:  “Transforming food systems is an enormous task, and involving existential-level risks for many rural people.” The Just Rural Transition initiative proposes 10 guiding principles to start a conversation on what it would mean to achieve just food system transitions, classified across three categories: the characteristics of a more equitable and sustainable food system, what the just process of change looks like, and the consideration of systemic inequalities and vulnerabilities. When it comes to the goals, the report proposes that a just food system should (i) meet the nutritional needs of all people while respecting planetary boundaries, (ii) provide good livelihoods through jobs and supply chains, (iii) protect people’s rights and correct inequities, (iv) treat animals well, (v) be resilient to climate change, and (vi) stop and reverse environmental degradation (Principle 1). The changes must also occur without delay, “recognising the urgency of the needed change” (Principle 2). However, implementing them comes at a cost to people, which is why adopting a process that mitigates negative impacts from the change and addresses historical impacts is also be needed for a just transition. The report argues that a “just transition requires not only achieving just outcomes, but ensuring that the transition process itself is equitable and inclusive – and does not unduly burden people who are already vulnerable.”
  • Participation and support for those most vulnerable to the impacts of the transformation: To be just, changes should be planned in a way that is inclusive and involves a wide range of stakeholders with influence over the process’ design (Principle 3). For instance, “[i]t is particularly important to engage with and listen to those who are most at risk, and those who are often left out, such as women, youth, Indigenous communities, and people living in poverty.” Additionally, financial and technical support are needed for those implementing or bearing the impacts of the changes will be needed. “Food producers and their communities must be supported in bearing the costs of changing practices” (Principle 4) and “[t]hose who are unable to continue farming or working in food value chains should be supported to re-skill and find new livelihood opportunities and have access to social safety nets” (Principle 5). This support should also be distributed by giving priority “to those regions, industries, workers and citizens who are most vulnerable and who face the greatest risks or challenges and have least capacity to fund transformation” (Principle 8). For instance, smallholder farmers "are crucial actors in food system transition given their contribution of 50–70% of global food production, yet many are also highly exposed and vulnerable to systemic changes. Without support, they would be unable to implement changes or to cope with any additional costs or risks that changes might bring.” Consumers may also be vulnerable to the changes, and “should be able to meet their nutritional needs” and “not experience hunger or hardship due to increases in the cost of food” (Principle 6). To avoid burdening the vulnerable, the burden of the costs of “shifting to more sustainable, low-GHG food production and consumption should be borne mainly by those with the greatest resources and the most cumulative responsibility for environmental harm” (Principle 9). This means, the report argues, Global North and upper-income segments of the Global South should provide “financial and technical support to actors actors in the Global South, sufficient to catalyse transition to a more just and resilient food system, and to manage the impacts of doing so.” Remedying historical environmental degradation connected to food systems will also be necessary, with a priority for those affected in health, livelihood or ecosystems. The report proposes applying the “polluter pays” principle (Principle 7) in a way that responsibility is “spread along the whole value chain.”
  • Addressing root causes and managing tensions between the objectives of a just global food system cannot be forgotten: A just transition will bring new tensions and shed light on systemic inequalities. Therefore, the third category of principles proposed for a just rural transition is to address systemic social and economic inequalities and vulnerabilities (Principle 10), such as food insecurity, environmental injustice, public health risks, “insecure access to land and lack of ownership,” “violence against those advocating for transition in land and resource use practices,” cultural norms limiting livelihoods for women and the ways in which global food supply chains and markets “influence the precarity of farmer livelihoods.” Some actions to address these systemic factors will need to come from outside the food system itself. Finally, as tensions arise between the different needs, these will need to be addressed. For instance, the need to increase land and labour productivity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions vs. the need to maintain employment for farmers; the need for food security and nutrition vs. achieving sustainability in the food industry; or the need for animal welfare vs. reducing the environmental footprint of food production. The report proposes that “[t]he resolution of such tensions is not necessarily in avoiding impacts altogether, but in how these impacts are subsequently managed to achieve the objectives of just food system transition.” Applying global principles for a just rural transition will also depend on the context, and “just transitions” will look different in different parts of the world.

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