CoE Articles

Diversity offers broad perspectives on food systems

Published June 13, 2021, by Morgan Morris

In two new papers, researchers within the Food Governance Community of Practice at UWC have outlined the pros and challenges facing groups with such diverse memberships.

From the outset, the Western Cape Food Governance-Community of Practice (FG-CoP) was an ambitious exercise in ‘knowledge co-production’.

The aim of the FG-CoP was to understand and generate more relevant data on food governance in the province by bringing together, on the one hand, those sectors that typically take the lead in knowledge creation – academics, researchers, representatives from government and the private sector – with those, in the past, excluded from such platforms. On the FG-CoP, small-scale farmers, informal traders and community organisations – many who have borne the brunt of rising food insecurity during the COVID-19 lockdowns – could contribute to a holistic understanding of how the food system works, who calls the shots within it, and who are relegated to the sidelines.

In two new papers, four authors have now weighed up the successes and/or shortcomings of the FG-CoP, hosted at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and supported by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS).

The first paper, ‘Co-production of Knowledge in Transdisciplinary Communities of Practice: Experiences from food governance in South Africa’, appears in Science and Public Policy. The second, ‘Fostering Communities of Practice for Improved Food Democracy: Experiences and learning from South Africa’, appears in the open access Urban Agriculture & Regional Food Systems (UARFS).

Both papers are co-authored by Dr Camilla Adelle of the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria; Mr Florian Kroll of the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at UWC; Professor Bruno Losch of the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD); and Mr Tristan Görgens of the Human Development, Policy and Strategy Unit in the Department of the Premier, Western Cape Government.

Adelle, Kroll and Losch are all affiliated with the CoE-FS, while Adelle and Kroll established and manage the FG-CoP.

In the papers, the authors explain that within the food system, communities of practice (CoPs) – made up of individuals and organisations facing a common concern – can offer a counterweight to the sway of ‘big food’ within a food system, ie the commercial producers, distributors and retailers. By bringing together different perspectives, a fuller understanding of food systems can be “co-produced”.

“A diverse group of stakeholders not only need to be informed about food systems and potential alternatives, but they also need to have an opportunity to shape the discourse by which the system is represented, understood, and interpreted, and thus the knowledge on which decisions about food are made,” the authors note in the UARFS paper.

They also list a few powerful lessons coming the FG-CoP. One, be explicit and upfront about the power dynamics within such a group, where academics and government representatives typically hog the conversation. Two, understand the difficulty and necessity of building a common identity from a forum made up of such diverse participants. And three, actively encourage participation from those – be it students or those from civil society – who may feel inhibited in the presence of academics and others more comfortable within such an environment.

While it was not its initial intention, the FG-CoP has also shown promise to shape both food governance and capacity for learning within such groups, the authors argue. Communities of practice, they conclude in the ‘Science and Public Policy’ paper, “can foster social learning not only for the co-production of knowledge for solving wicked policy problems but also help transform learning and ways of knowing necessary for the emergence of novel governance arrangements”.

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