Charles Z. Levkoe is the Canada Research Chair in Equitable and Sustainable Food Systems and an Associate Professor in the Department of Health Sciences at Lakehead University. His community-engaged research uses a food systems lens to better understand the importance of and connections between social justice, ecological regeneration, regional economies and active democratic engagement. Working directly with a range of scholars and community-based practitioners, Charles has been involved in social and environmental justice efforts for over 20 years as an activist-scholar, agroecological farmer, and community organizer.
Participatory Food Systems Governance
Governance involves the rules, policies, laws, and regulations that determine who and what are considered part of a given system. This includes not only the practical elements of what people are able to do (or not do), but also the political, social, environmental, and cultural elements that enable or constrain social behaviour. Governance structures also determine who should be included in decision-making, and how decisions are made. Such structures are useful because they help people to understand what is required to participate and how to take part in decision-making. They can also be problematic, however, by inhibiting participation of those affected by decisions. This occurs when the people and groups that hold the most power in any given society establish and enforce rules that reinforce their own power positions. This has been evident with respect to groups that have been excluded from participating in electoral politics throughout history, for example, women, Indigenous peoples, youth, people living in poverty, members of certain religious denominations, and non-citizens, among others. Dominant, top-down approaches to governance, which are overly influenced by a small group of elite actors holding a disproportionate amount of power, limit broader engagement and participation, and impede solutions that aim to address underlying causes of the world’s biggest challenges.
A food system comprises an interconnected web of relationships that bring food from the fields, forests, and waters to our plates. This includes the activities and resources that go into producing, harvesting, processing, distributing, and consuming food, as well as the drivers and outcomes of these processes such as the environment, economy, health, and politics. The food system is governed and controlled through a set of rules, policies, and regulations that, in most cases, operate independent and in contradiction to one another. For example, government departments of the environment ask us to protect biodiversity and departments of health encourage us to eat well balanced, nutritious diets, while departments of agriculture and trade promote monocultural production of high-value industrial crops for export. These dominant governance structures ostensibly aim to support economic growth, food safety, and human health, but instead primarily benefit corporations and elite governments at the expense of food producers, harvesters, and workers across the food chain.
Food systems governance goes beyond singular issues addressed in isolation, to consider the ways that food is relational and connected to other people, communities, and the natural world. Rather than focusing on one element or aspect of the food system (e.g., agricultural policy or emergency food access), a systems approach to governance starts with an integrated understanding of how single issues and elements are connected. For example, food insecurity (i.e., inadequate access to food, primarily due to financial constraints) is a serious public health problem and disproportionately affects people that have already been made vulnerable (e.g., refugees, migrant workers, racialized and Indigenous Peoples). Using a food systems lens, governance solutions go beyond emergency and charity-based responses to increase social protection mechanisms such as livable wages (and basic guaranteed income), social assistance, universal health benefits, and affordable housing. A food systems governance approach sheds light on why some people have access to significant amounts of safe, nutritious, and culturally appropriate foods that meet their personal preferences and needs, while far too many people around the globe do not.
Taking this a step further, participatory food systems governance is an approach that seeks to involve a diverse range of perspectives—not only of policy makers and scientists, but also of people across the food chain. It is common for governments to impose food systems related rules, policies, and regulations that maintain power and influence for a small group of private sector actors (e.g., agri-business corporations). Participatory governance involves establishing favourable conditions that ensure the involvement of people who are typically excluded from decision-making systems (e.g., women, youth, Black and Indigenous people). To understand what this might involve, we have only to look to initiatives that have been established across the globe by food producers and harvesters, social movements, civil society organizations, and Indigenous Peoples that demonstrate alternatives to the dominant forms of food system governance.
One example of participatory food systems governance at the regional scale is the Indigenous Food Circle (IFC) working on the Traditional lands of Fort William First Nation, signatory to the Robinson Superior Treaty of 1850 (also known as Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada). The IFC is a network of Indigenous-led and Indigenous-serving organizations that aims to reduce Indigenous food insecurity and increase food self-determination. Embracing ideals of decolonization and advancing culturally appropriate approaches, the IFC functions as a collaborative network with the goal of promoting food sovereignty (i.e., the ideal that all people have a right to healthy and culturally appropriate food and the right to control their food systems) and relationships with settler populations and the state.
Another example, at the national scale in Canada, is the People’s Food Policy (PFP) project. Between 2008 and 2011, the PFP was led by a coalition or organizations that involved thousands of people from across the country through “Kitchen Table Talks.” The objective was to develop a food policy platform grounded in the lived experiences of a wide diversity of participants. The PFP’s platform included a range of recommendations based on ten policy papers that focused on Indigenous food sovereignty, rural and remote communities, urban communities, infrastructure and livelihoods, sustainable fisheries, environment and agriculture, science and technology, healthy and safe food, and food democracy and governance. In this way, the PFP sought to influence federal food policy ‘from the bottom up’ (i.e., the experience of everyday people), rather than relying on the ‘top-down’ perspective of bureaucrats and corporations who prioritize economic interests.
These two examples show that governance structures can be established in ways that are more democratic and inclusive of diverse perspectives. Yet they also show how other, broader, dominant governance structures need to be re-imagined (or dismantled) in order for alternative structures to be established and thrive. Participatory governance is not an endpoint, but a process of engaging with and listening to the lived experience of many different peoples and communities actively involved in bringing food to our plates. This process ensures decision-making that better serves the needs of the population, while ensuring those involved have a sense of connection, ownership, control, and empowerment, all of which are essential for sustainability, equity, health, and well-being.
Today’s dominant food systems governance structures are representative of the uneven power dynamics and conditions that shape food systems. Many of the current rules, policies, and regulations bring great profits to large corporations and elite governments at the expense of farmers, harvesters, and workers across the food chain.
- What kinds of rules, policies, and regulations could be established to make these structures more equitable and socially just?
- What are some of the different areas of governance that need to be considered in relation to food systems?
- What kinds of structures and mechanisms could be developed to ensure all people can engage in decision-making processes?
- What other areas or systems might benefit from more diverse and participatory approaches to decision-making?
- What might be some of the challenges and opportunities of putting in place participatory governance structures at the regional level, the national level, or even the global level?
Create a diagram of all the different actors that ought to be included in food systems governance. Given that they don’t all have the same level of power, consider how you might prioritize diverse voices and perspectives. What criteria would you establish to determine who should be engaged? What structures would effectively allow such broad participation?
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Holt-Giménez, E. (2017). A foodies’ guide to capitalism: Understanding the political economy of what we eat. New York: Monthly Review Books and Food First Press.
Kennedy, A., and Liljeblad, J. (Eds.). (2016). Food systems governance: Challenges for justice, equality and human rights. Routledge.
Levkoe, C., Ray, L., and Mclaughlin, J. (2019). The Indigenous food circle: Reconciliation and resurgence through food in northwestern Ontario. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 9(B), 101-114.
Levkoe, C. Z., and Sheedy, A. (2017). A people-centred approach to food policy making: Lessons from Canada’s People’s Food Policy project. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 14:3, 318-338.
Settee, P., and Shukla, S. (Eds.). (2020). Indigenous Food Systems: Concepts, Cases, and Conversations. Canadian Scholars.