Good Food for Cities

Embracing a sustainable food systems approach at Rikolto

April 5, 2023
Charlotte Flechet
Good Food for Cities | Global director

From value chain development to sustainable food systems

Rikolto has been around for over 50 years. Half a century during which our mission, vision and approaches have evolved in a bid to remain relevant in the face of ever-evolving global and local challenges and to maximise our impact in view of our modest resources. Between 2015 and 2019, Rikolto went through a series of major changes: a transition from a Belgian-based non-governmental organisation to a network organisation with decentralised leadership, a new name closer to our mission (Rikolto means 'harvest' in Esperanto), an organisational structure built around 3 global programmes and the adoption of sustainable food systems as the overarching framework for our work. These changes were motivated by the ambition to decolonise our way of working and to amplify our impact beyond the immediate results of our activities on the ground. We realised that our approach focused maybe too narrowly on a better income for farmers through higher sales on export markets, at the expense of the availability of safe, healthy produce for local consumers. Systems thinking became more prominent in our strategy development and was gradually incorporated into the design of all our programmes and projects.

In this article, we describe what we mean by sustainable food systems and why we decided to make it our overarching programmatic framework.

What is the sustainable food systems approach?

The High-Level Panel of Experts defines a sustainable food system as a food system that ensures food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition of future generations are not compromised (HLPE, 2018). In practice, a sustainable food systems approach considers food systems in their totality, taking into account the interconnections and trade-offs among the different elements of food systems, as well as their diverse actors, activities, drivers and outcomes. It seeks to simultaneously maximise societal outcomes across environmental, social (including health) and economic dimensions (Alliance of Bioversity & CIAT, UNEP and WWF, 2021).

Key entry points of Rikolto’s sustainable food systems approach

  • Evidence-based collective action

Food systems are extremely complex and influenced by myriad factors from micro-level individual food preferences to macro-level global commodity prices, without forgetting the configuration of food environments which determine which food is available, accessible and affordable to citizens. Understanding how different parts of the system interact with each other and how potential interventions might affect different food systems outcomes is important to avoid unintended consequences and successfully navigate trade-offs. This process helps build consensus around facts and move away from biased discussions. For Rikolto, this means building partnerships with research institutions to conduct food system analyses and document the results of various innovations and interventions in the food system so they can inform multi-stakeholder discussions and policy formulation processes. Besides academic knowledge, we also embrace local and territorial intelligence by supporting people with lived experiences of the food systems (farmers, consumers, market vendors etc.) in sharing their knowledge and influencing those spaces. Importantly, the process through which the evidence is debated is equally as important as the evidence and knowledge itself which leads us to our second principle.

  • Multi-stakeholder and territorial coordination

To address issues that are interrelated in an integrated way, Rikolto supports initiatives that improve multi-stakeholder and territorial coordination. This means bringing people from different backgrounds (government, civil society, private sector, academia etc.), sectors (agriculture, trade, infrastructure, health & nutrition, transport, planning etc.) and territories (for example, several local government jurisdictions that are located - wholly or partly - within a particular region) around the same table to develop a shared understanding of the issues they want to collectively tackle. This also allows them to identify new resources, foster shared learning, navigate trade-offs and influence the design of new initiatives and policies. Power imbalances among participants can often hinder the process and prevent marginalised groups from actively having a say. To try to address this, Rikolto developed a toolkit on multi-stakeholder processes which includes several tools, tips and approaches for dealing with power imbalances and levelling the playing field.

Want to know more about our multi-stakeholder process approach?

Download our toolkit here
  • Multi-level collaboration for an enabling environment

This third principle refers to the collaboration between different levels of government and influence - local, provincial, regional and national - to have clarity on the competences, power, instruments and capacities that each level can leverage to support food system transformation. While Rikolto’s supported initiatives are anchored in specific geographies, our ambition is to use these pilots as evidence of what could potentially work on a larger scale with the support of national and regional actors (governments, companies, investors). Fostering a dialogue between these different levels at the different stages of the innovation’s design and implementation is essential to create buy-in and lay the ground for replication.

  • Inclusive business

To sustain healthier and more sustainable food systems in the long run, there must be incentives and/or compensations for all actors to change their behaviour. These incentives can be monetary through better prices, regulatory through legal obligations, cultural by shifting social norms or innovation-based, for instance by increasing the convenience of certain practices, to name a few. Behavioural change almost always requires a combination of these different measures. Creating these incentives is at the heart of our inclusive business strategy, which is about doing business with a long-term outlook, fulfilling the needs of farmers and buyers alike.

  • Mainstreaming environmental sustainability and circularity

To ensure that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition of future generations are not compromised, it’s essential that food systems remain within the environmental boundaries of our planet and do not harm biodiversity, ecosystems or the climate. Rikolto therefore strives to incorporate circular, climate-smart and efficiency-enhancing practices in the food chain. For instance, our activities at the level of sustainable food production aim to accompany producers towards the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices that restore degraded soil biodiversity and recreate an ecosystem where microorganisms such as fungi, insects, bacteria and microbes can store carbon, turn waste into nutrients and retain water efficiently. Learn more about Rikolto's approach towards regenerative agriculture here.

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Sustainable food systems in commodity programmes

While the need for a sustainable food systems approach is the subject of a large consensus among organisations working on urban food systems and access to healthy food for citizens, the value chain approach is still largely dominant among organisations working in the cocoa, coffee and rice sectors, 3 of Rikolto’s focus commodities. At Rikolto, we argue that this isn’t enough and that a true systems approach must be adopted in order to address the root causes that prevent cocoa, rice and coffee communities from earning a living income and to protect the natural ecosystems that they depend on. Isolated actions that address specific issues such as better production practices, farm plot sizes or the professionalisation of farmer organisations will not be successful if not accompanied by measures that tackle other significant challenges in the community. This requires a multi-strategy approach that combines activities targeting short-term needs with long-term investments. As a result, our strategy in key commodities goes beyond working towards a living income for farmers, to collaborating towards sustainable local food systems that enable communities to thrive. It is our firm belief that such an approach is necessary to realise sustainable cocoa, coffee and rice supply chains in the future.

A new series on sustainable food systems in practice

In the coming months, we will share a series of stories to illustrate how we put these principles into practice in our three global programmes. Our practice is far from perfect, and reality often catches up with us. Yet, we constantly learn from our experiences and strive to improve the way in which we design and deliver our activities with our partners to move towards a sustainable income for farmers and healthy, affordable food for all.

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