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Transcript for

Ep9: Jessica Duncan on "We eat, drink and breathe food policy"


Matthew  0:06

Welcome to Feed, a food system podcast presented by TABLE. I’m Matthew Kessler -

Samara 0:12

And I’m Samara Brock. And today we're joined by Jessica Duncan, associate professor at Wageningen University in the rural sociology group.

Jessica 0:20

We eat drink and breathe public policy. Because we do, every bit of food we put into our mouths, for the most part has been impacted at some level by a different kind of food policy.

Matthew 0:31

We really enjoyed discussing with Jessica how she understands the structures that impact food policy and decision-making spaces. While she is always working on sustainable food systems, her research focuses on the politics of participation. So alongside our typical examination of scale in the food system, we ask Jessica about who is involved in local and global food systems change and the important links between local organizations and decision making at the global scale. 

Samara 0:57

In our conversation today we talk about dialogue and participation in food policy, why we shouldn’t always be seeking consensus, and the importance of bringing diverse local actors to global policy spaces. We unpack Jessica’s recent report written for the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (or the CSM). The CSM is a space where civil society organisations from all over the world gather to advise the Committee for World Food Security (CFS). The report titled “Covid19, Gender and Food systems”, touches on critical issues facing women around the world.

Matthew 1:33

How did you first become interested in the politics of participatory policy processes and food systems?

Jessica 1:40

That's a bit of a tongue twister. I was an activist when I was growing up, I was very much involved in a number of different environmental movements. But in the last year of high school, I got involved in refugee issues with a number of issues that were happening in British Columbia where I'm from, and I quickly realized that the more social refugee issues weren't dealing with environmental problems, and that the environmental problems I'd been dealing with hadn't really addressed the social issues. And food became a way of dealing with both of those. And the policy stuff just came naturally. Because I'm, I guess the policy nerd by habit. I was involved in the BC Youth Parliament. And I've always been deeply interested in the role that policy plays in shaping our futures.

Matthew 2:22

Did you have a formative experience or recognition how all these related to food?

Jessica 2:27

I think so actually, when I started my undergraduate degree, I started working in a community center and Lennoxville, Quebec. And it became really clear that food was a really useful tool for social change. So I thought in terms of how we could shape discussions around environmental concerns, but also social concerns, and also at the micro level, so I was working with kids who had never eaten at a restaurant before didn't know how to use a menu. So I got really interested in the cultural elements of food.

Samara 2:57

From your background, it sounds like you started out in a very local food system activism and engaging at a very local level. And now you're doing more work at an international level, doing, you know, the report that you did for the civil society mechanism. How did you go from the local scale to the international scale? And sort of how do you see the links between those?

Jessica 3:19

Wow, big question, I wish I had a better answer. The reason I started studying the global scale is because I became a bit nomadic in my own lifestyle, I started moving a lot and I moved to Europe after my master's moving from country to country. And it just when I started my PhD in London, I had no contacts in the UK, I wasn't connected at all to a local food movements. So it made sense to start looking at the global food movement, where many of the local movements I had been involved in were converging. So in that sense, that's the reason I turned to the global level, it just made sense in terms of where I was at in my life. But what I love about studying the global scale is the interaction between these global processes and the local actors. And that's where I think a lot of my research focuses on in trying to understand the different ways that local actors, well, localized movements, people working, in particular localized context, translate those experiences up to the global level, and how those are translated back down through policies and programs.

Matthew 4:15

And we've been talking about food policy so far, but we haven't really unpacked what is food policy. Is it something that we can define? Or is food policy something explicit? What exactly is food policy to you? And what people might think it is that it isn't?

Jessica 4:27

That's my favorite question. Because I tell people, I study food policy, and they either think they're an expert, or they think that it's the most boring topic you could ever imagine. And I think both are maybe true and false. So if we start with a policy, that's quite contentious in the literature, but I think of it just as a principle or a statement of intent that guides decisions to achieve particular anticipated outcomes. So if we think about that, in terms of food, it's any decision, program, project that can be endorsed by a government an agency, a business, an organization, which affects how food is produced, processed, distributed, purchased, protected, disposed of. I think it's important to think about policies from local to global levels, governments recognizing that individuals also have policies. But I tend to focus a lot on public policies. So policies designed by governments or government agencies, and one of my PhD supervisors, Tim Lang would always say, we eat, drink and breathe public policy. Because we do, every bit of food we put into our mouths, for the most part has been impacted at some level by a different kind of food policy. So it's fundamentally important to understand what food policy is what it's not. And what people often think it is, is a law. It's not necessarily legislation, these are just plans. So they don't have the kind of formal status of something that might be legally binding.

Samara  5:52

Participation and dialogue are increasingly being seen as essential to food policy processes, but these are often understood in different ways. Can you talk about some of the trends you’ve seen in stakeholder participation in food systems and how you would advance or design a more equitable process?

Jessica 6:13
I think we've seen a really steady move towards stakeholder or active participation over the last 30 years, to the point where it's now seen almost as a prerequisite. You can't really have a legitimate food policy process without some level of stakeholder engagement. How participation is structured really differs depending on the scale, the issue the domain, you see everything from online consultations to full participation from problem articulation through to policy development process through to monitoring and evaluation and rollout. I think maybe some of you have participated in an e-consultation. So that's an example I know, the European Union's pretty famous for these E-consultations, or maybe you've been involved somewhere, I think you've been involved in the Vancouver Food Policy Council, for example. These are really distinct ways of organizing participation. Each have pros and cons. And I think each are effective in different ways.

Samara 7:03

So what would be your advice to people designing a major participatory process about food systems, for example like  the  UN food system summit that is underway right now? How do we effectively connect the issues and concerns of local actors to global processes like this? As you know, some Civil society organizations and movements connected to the CSM have been critical of the Food System Summit’s engagement with civil society. What are your thoughts on how participation in these kind of complex global processes might best be approached? 

Jessica 7:39

What I think is really important in building a participatory process that's meaningful and legitimate is including diverse participants from the beginning and creating concrete mechanisms to support and facilitate that participation. And I'm often surprised to see how little effort or design is put into the establishment of these processes, it's almost assumed that as long as you have enough bodies present that that constitutes adequate participation or adequate consultation. And I think we have enough research to show that that's simply not the case. So if I was to design a new food policy process, a participatory global food policy process, I would start very much from the beginning, identifying key stakeholders, key networks, I think it's such a huge scope, right? You're talking about the global food system, it impacts everybody. So identifying the key networks, diverse networks, and creating platforms that facilitate their active engagement from the beginning, from problem definition, all the way through, and creating space for dialogue and debate. So often, there's not enough time and space for these kinds of dialogues to happen. And I think that's where the legitimacy of the participatory process really happens.

Samara 8:50

So something we're trying to get at with people through this podcast is sort of this idea of a food system and how we change a food system. And how we envision the future has a lot to do with how we see things in the present moment. And so we wanted to ask you, what do you think are some of the key challenges facing us currently. In the global food system or food systems plural, where to start?

Jessica 9:15

I would say from my perspective, right now, we need a lot more thinking around trade offs and strategies for making difficult decisions. What I've noticed over the last few years is there's been a push away from describing the problems towards identifying solutions. But part of bringing those solutions into fruition, so to speak, is difficult tradeoffs, difficult decisions, where there's losers and winners. And I'd like to see more effort going into understanding what those are and making sense of those and dialoguing about those, and then creating strategies to minimize the impact of those and I feel we need to do this quickly. And this, I think, leads to the second biggest challenge that I see, which is political will, the ability or the willingness of politicians or decision makers to take these bigger steps is limited and there's a whole host of reasons for that. But the urgency is clear. And the failure of governments and decision makers to take these big steps is worrying, deeply worrying.

Samara 10:13

What do you think some of those trade offs are?

Jessica 10:17

I think one that comes up a lot is jobs. For example, what happens if we change the way that we produce food? Do we create more or less jobs? Are those jobs of quality? Do we move toward more intensive forms of agriculture that could maybe more efficiently use the land? Or do we work towards more agroecological approaches that could provide more jobs that could produce perhaps less intensively or more intensively again, I could find an article to produce evidence on both sides of that argument. So it becomes very difficult to assess these tradeoffs as well, I really recognize that. Another trade off might be health versus environment, it might be how strict we want regulation, do we want really top down laws? Or do we want more consumer education?

Samara 11:00

You touched on something that's really sort of central to what we're trying to do in this podcast is, as you said, you can find evidence on either side of these debates. So how do you think we move forward given that?

Jessica 11:14

That is a Nobel Prize winning question, how do we move forward to so much competing evidence? I think that what's fundamental and why also believes so much in these meaningful participatory processes is that it's through dialogue, and debate that we start to really understand the different positions. And I very much do not believe that we're going to find answers or consensus on any of these topics, because the positions are too divergent at this point, and I don't know that we should be looking for any kind of consensus, but creating policy spaces where we can understand these differences and really start to come to at least common definitions, we might agree that they're terrible definitions, but at least we're talking about the same thing. That's really an important starting point. From there, I see approaches like the pathway approach that's put forward by the STEPS centre is really promising. So this is the idea that transitions have multiple pathways. And depending on what people in those particular regions are particular countries, or whatever scale you want to address, depending on which pathways they see most appropriate for themselves, then we can turn to different bodies of literature, different experiences, and design particular pathways for the particular features that are desired in those places. Easier said than done, I guess.

Matthew 12:30

The STEPS centre is a really interesting framework. And we'll link to it in our show notes too. So if people want to explore it, they can dig into it there. Perhaps we can talk about these debates and anchor it on something specific, the food security and food cyber discourse have become a bit more aligned compared to where they were historically. So maybe we could talk a little bit about that, about how those discourses have changed over time and maybe influence each other.

Jessica 12:52

The food sovereignty in the food security discourse are often presented oppositionally. You either want food sovereignty or food security. And I think that traditionally, different stakeholders have been, have aligned themselves with different concepts. But I really liked the analysis before by Jennifer Clapp, where she challenges this oppositional nature and suggests that they're really actually different scopes. And that the end goal of food sovereignty is also food security. And food sovereignty is a political framework and a people's vision for achieving food security. And Matthew, you mentioned that they're increasingly aligned. And I think that's true. I think a lot of the principles of food sovereignty around gender equality and around the importance of local markets have been taken up in very mainstream discussions on food security. And that's because of the long term and constant engagement of food sovereignty movements in spaces like the FAO and the Committee on World Food Security, and as well as outside of those spaces. You also see, for example, that 10 years ago, there were tensions, more tensions between rights based approaches and food sovereignty approaches, and now those are also quite harmonized, I think Priscilla Claeys, his work highlights really nicely that development, where I see the most tensions are not so much in the food sovereignty, food security, but how we define sustainable agriculture and the tensions around agro ecology versus sustainable intensification versus ecological intensification. And I, I use veruss quite deliberately because it's really a battle, you know, in terms of defining a paradigm and defining solutions. We've seen how challenging it can be to try and advance dialogue around agroecology, how political that is. You look at the process that's underway in the Committee on World Food security around agrocology. You can see how how contentious the concept is and how important it was for particular governments to ensure that we didn't just look at agroecology as a solution for sustainable food systems but added other innovations.

Matthew 14:45

And do you see that that level of polarization, could you attribute a specific root cause to that?

Jessica 14:52

The root cause I think is your starting point, the ideology and your values that you start with and I wouldn't say any are better or worse. I think that's the wrong way to go. I would suggest though, that they're not easily reconcilable, and that they suggest very different visions and very different scales and scopes. Very different understandings of the problems and that leads to very different understandings of solutions, I think an effort to better understand the sustainability science and coming back to this question of the tradeoffs, what are the tradeoffs of moving to new kinds of agriculture of shifting of scaling? That becomes a really important question.

Samara 15:22

So it's a question I have in general about how we reconcile the age we're in where we're all feeling that there's an urgency that we have these problems that we need to generate solutions to in order to not trash the planet, and, you know, maintain our species survival. So how do we reconcile that need for urgency with the need to have these dialogues that look at multiple ways of understanding, but also sort of what you were just saying, like, we don't necessarily know the right way to proceed? And we have to take steps anyway, how do we move forward in sort of an iterative way, given those time challenges that we're all facing.

Jessica 16:05

I would suggest that one of the opportunities that comes from these more deliberative spaces is the sense of urgency really comes out, when you have actors who are given a voice who are deeply impacted by the crisis at hand, the sense of urgency becomes undeniable, and the push for movement on the parts of decision makers becomes stronger, if we can say that it becomes hard to deny the urgency. So in a way, I think that dialogue doesn't necessarily have to slow things down, it can actually speed things up, because my experience observing global policy processes for the last 15 years is that if you don't have these voices, and you don't have people reminding everybody how urgent this is that you can get into a bit of business, as usual, and that doesn't get us very far, as we've seen.

In terms of how we grapple with the speed of change, and the outcomes that are gonna come out of that. I don't know. That's what I think is the biggest challenge. I think there's some interesting work being done on reflexive governance. So creating governance systems that are that are flexible and allow you to respond to changing dynamics. There's some really cool work being done on anticipatory governance, that I think could be really helpful in terms of getting people to imagine the futures they want, and then helping create pathways towards those futures and enabling mechanisms, and then ensuring that we reduce the sort of limitations to achieving those futures. And then I think, again, it comes down to this question of scale, at what scale should this be happening? Should this be happening really, at a local level, a regional level and national level, global level? And how do we coordinate these given, again, the diverse perspectives that people have. The challenge is about recognizing that there are a number of securities that are equally valid economic security, food security, nutrition security, climate security, social security. And we have to tackle these all together. And as long as we don't do that, we're creating new new problems. So again, it goes back to this issue of political will.

Samara 18:02

I love what you said about dialogue actually not slowing things down, because I think that's maybe like a narrative that needs to be challenged. Is that sort of multi stakeholder participatory processes are slow through their deliberation. But I like that framing, that they might actually help to move things forward in a more productive way.

Jessica 18:23

To be clear, they are deeply slow. They're moving slowly. [laughs] But at least at the end of them, if they're done well, and you have these competing voices, and you come to an agreement, at the end, at least there's something usually at least what I've seen watching, for example, the Committee on World Food Security, the outcome is far more valuable, at least as it's written on paper, perhaps not politically, but at least as it's written on paper, far more valuable than not having that dialogue through a faster policy process.

Samara 18:47

There's this notion that like dialogue is something that gets us all around a table to reach some sort of consensus. And that that isn't necessarily the case. And conflict can be generative.

Jessica 19:00

So I think, especially when we think about food, because we hold our food culture so closely, we hold a lot of our food norms so closely, and we take it quite personally when people challenge those. Yeah, we already feel a kind of personally confronted when we start talking about various food policy issues, or food politics. But again, like we talked about the competing science, I have so many colleagues here at the same university, and we just really don't understand the problems the same way, or see them the same way. And there's no, I can't see an easy path to agreement. We all want the same end goal, I think. Healthy sustainable food systems. But we really see different pathways and I I'm sure they're smarter than me, so I can't necessarily suggest that they're not right. But I'm also not willing to compromise on my own perspective, my own values and to try and limit that debate can only lead to more of the same solutions.

Matthew 19:49

You mentioned values. How do you think about values and morality as they relate to the food system?

Jessica 19:57

I get very nervous when we talk about morality in relation to food systems. I really align myself with Chantal Mouffe and others who say that when you start structuring problems around the register of morality, you create an antagonism that's really hard to come back from. So when things are organized morally, you become right and they become wrong, you become good and they become evil. And there is where we get stuck if we can agree to disagree, but if I think you're a bad person, and it becomes really hard to negotiate and really hard to, to come to any kind of common ground, so I try to avoid the the good and bad and the moral register and think more about sort of diverse pathways, recognizing that the, for my own normative stance, of course, there are things that I think are better and worse, but I try and refrain from suggesting that they're, they're intrinsically better.

Matthew 20:45

Do you think that's a bit how the food system operates, though? I guess in terms of like purchasing power, the consumer will think that they're going to put their dollar every – oh goodness, there are so many phrases here –

Jessica 20:58

Vote with your fork!

Matthew 20:59

You vote with your fork three times a day.

Jessica 21:02

Yeah, those make me very allergic. I often talk to my students, you know, they ask me, yeah, I'm here because I want to be a better food consumer. And I think great. So let's say you're on a student budget, and I'm on a Associate Professor’s budget. I get to consume better than you just economically speaking, does that make me a better person. And that's basically what we're saying with vote with your fork, it's not to say that we should make good consumer choices. But given the vast wealth inequalities that we see, I find it very problematic to rely on consumption arguments for shaping the morality of our food system, I would rather step back and look from a social justice perspective at the redistribution of wealth. And that goes also to redistribution of profits in the food chain. And then we can start talking about morality.

Samara 21:42

That actually moves us nicely into our next question, we wanted to ask you about your report that you wrote with Priscilla Claeys - Covid 19, Gender and Food systems. In the report you’re connecting local experiences to global conversations, and you talk about the importance of viewing the crisis from below. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?

Jessica 22:03

Yeah, this report was really interesting for us. We wrote it peak crisis, we were both I think, locked down with our children. And we were asked by the Civil Society Mechanism Secretariat to participate in ongoing work around COVID and the food system. And we were very pressed for time and had a lot of other arrangements. So we said we could work on just a small project. And they said, Okay, well, the women's working group is looking for people to study and help them design a report on the impacts of women food producers and COVID. And they want to take from the ground perspective, we did some more research on what it means to look at the crisis from below. And what was super exciting about that, from our perspective was that it's a real focus on solutions on how people are coming together. And rather than looking at all the challenges, which we also had to do for this report, it gave us a very nice opportunity to look at all the solidarity actions that were coming, and all the ways in which the social fabrics were being re-stitched during this very difficult moment. So what we what we gained through this series of interviews that we did with women around the world was a deeper understanding of options, possibilities of survival of, of improving lifestyles of managing, of caring, during a very difficult moment. And it gave a lot of hope actually.

Matthew 23:16

Can you maybe speak a little bit more about the hope that it gave you. And also, were there any surprising solidarities that you found from the report?

Jessica 23:25

What I found most interesting from the report - and this is absolutely against the hope comment - was that the challenges facing women, food producers around the world were so strikingly similar, that the challenges facing the food producers in Europe were very similar to the women we interviewed in East Africa, in the Pacific, in North America. And that's really about access to land and recognition of the value of women food producers. And what's hopeful is that these women are persevering and that's very cool that they're managing to continue to produce food for their families and their communities and various supply chains. But I was shocked at how questions of access to land that I thought had kind of been addressed in Europe are still so prevalent, and the fact that so many women are not recognized as land holders or as farmers means they're not given access to so many of the social securities that are being put forward by governments and it's just creating an entrenching inequalities.

Matthew 24:20

And we spoke earlier about how the food security and food sovereignty discourses were starting to align a little bit more around inclusive transformations and just transformations. I was wondering if that is including women from different perspectives from international trade organizations from grassroots organizations. Do they both kind of suffer, or do they both struggle to actually have genuine inclusive just transformations?

Jessica 24:46

I think that gender mainstreaming language has been really well taken up in food policy, food security processes. Gender equality has been taken up perhaps more actively in food sovereignty processes. It's certainly not enough. It certainly remains a challenge, especially then if you move towards a more intersectional approach and you think of women of color, indigenous women, then we really have a lot of work to do we understand that women are primary food producers, they're the primary food givers from a primary food makers. And yet we continuously ignore them in our policy processes. The one of the tensions we had doing this research on women and the impacts of COVID on women food producers, was we were asking for precious time from these women to interview them to be able to claim that they don't have enough time. There's a real irony there in terms of research methodologies that we had to grapple with as researchers and think through the ethics of that. But I would say, from what I've seen that true gender equality - recognizing sort of the importance of gender parity, at least in terms of meetings, the food sovereignty movement has an a far better job. And they've done that because they have quotas. They have real quotas, around women's participation, and they have women's groups that hold influence and that meet in that lobby. And that can work as a bunch as a consortium, as a coalition. Within food security there's still a lot of this empowerment language, which raises questions, who's empowering who and who has the right to empower. And all those questions that have been addressed in the literature already, where I think we still have tons of work to do is we're working on really binary terms. So I think all the whole food security, food sovereignty movement haven't really addressed any issues around lgbtqia+. There's really a lot of resistance, I think, to opening that up, because it does challenge a lot of the quota systems and mechanisms that have been in place. But that's where I think it needs to go and also race politics have to come in here.

Samara 26:35

Actually leads well into our next question, which was how you grapple with these questions of representation in your own work.

Jessica 26:42

Yeah, I struggle with these issues of representation. Because I think people need to be represented by legitimate organizations and I haven't quite put my finger on what makes the legitimate representative organization, how do you how do you assess that? How do you ensure that the right people are leading? And how do you ensure that the people who have the skills to lead at the international level, for example, are in touch with those who are guiding or who you're speaking in the name of. When I talked to this with the social movements that I work with, when I interview people and ask, what is your legitimacy in the space? They're very clear about the legitimacy that their movements structures provide. So they have millions and millions of members in many cases, and that provides legitimacy to speak and to represent. For the private sector, it's also clear they have their own mechanisms and ways of representing. For states that's also clear. But how do you ensure that the right people are there that enough people are there? And how do you address the contradictions, that if you really want sort of the most effective voices represented at the table, it becomes almost impossible to ensure that. So one of the ways that the civil society mechanism has sought to address this question of representation is to say that you don't really have representatives. You have communication, focal points are facilitators, and they, they work to sort of transmit key messages from key constituencies and key networks. And they try and avoid this idea of representation to avoid the politics of representation, and all the challenges that come from that. And I think that's quite interesting. And as part of that, there's a real prioritization of social movement voices. In contrast to say NGO voices or researcher voices, where NGOs and researchers would speak on behalf of people, social movements speak on behalf of themselves in their own struggle. And that's a really important distinction that's made, at least within the food sovereignty spaces that I work in and a very clear distinction in terms of roles and responsibilities in those spaces. So in terms of who gets to speak, who speaks on behalf of whom it's very rare that you will see NGO speaking, for example, within a civil society mechanism, because there there's a supporting role, they don't have the necessarily the political authority to make these speeches.

Matthew 28:48

What are some of those structural mechanisms that either hinder or hide representation?

Jessica 28:52

I think a key issue is language. And here, I mean, not just spoken language, but political language. So what I've seen is that it can be very hard to start to understand how policy processes operate. It’s not normal, colloquial language, it's very formal language. So even if you understand one of the official policy languages that the policy is being negotiated in, it can be really hard to participate or to be taken seriously. And this I think, applies, especially to people who are most affected by these policies and who we're trying to include in these policies. But then just regular language. I mean, at the Committee on World Food Security, there's, I think, five languages that are operative. We certainly have far more languages than that in the world that leads to a bias towards English, especially because the texts that they show on the screen when policies are negotiated is in English. It puts a huge reliance on interpretation. The second point would be money. Getting to these meetings is a really big problem. And it starts from being able to afford a visa, being able to have the skills to get the visa, having a passport, getting a flight, having somewhere to stay. For example, where I did a lot of my fieldwork is super expensive. That's a huge barrier. And these processes remain super underfunded. So we have sort of linguistic barriers. We have the time barrier that often these policy processes fall in October. Well, for the northern hemisphere, that's a really important harvesting time that can also restrict the kinds of farmers or food producers you have present.

Matthew 30:23

In your report, you mentioned digital equity. Can you say a little bit more about that, and how that comes into play in this conversation?

Jessica 30:31

This is a point that I'm so excited to observe over the next few years. As someone who's really curious about participatory policy processes. I see Samara nodding. Because this is an opportunity and a threat, I would say the opportunity is, yeah, people from all over the world can tune in and participate in policy processes that were previously very hard to access for the reasons I just gave: Money, time, language. However, the ability to actively and constructively participate in these processes through digital means becomes a lot more difficult, it's much more harder to intervene, it's harder to hold the attention of people, it's harder to ensure connectivity for eight hours a day. I think the other risk we see with moving towards digital participation is that these meetings, these moments of gathering around policy, these participatory policy processes are not only participatory policy processes. They are movement building their solidarity building, they're working through conflicts that are maybe internal to movements with a view towards creating consolidated proposals. They are social events, I mean, some of my closest friends are from these events, and I miss them dearly now that we can meet in real life. And these are not points to be underestimated. The people who participate in these dialogues do so for a number of reasons, only one of which is changing policy. And if we don't offer that framework, which I don't think the digital domain can actually offer in an effective way, if we don't offer that. If we don't offer the chance to just go stay in a hotel for three days, because that's actually super nice. For a lot of us, you know, that I can't imagine someone wanting to put in the time, if I have to manage a farm and manage your local movement and have a family and then I'm asked to sit for eight hours a day on a Skype call where there's not an immediate benefit and where the global processes have become so abstracted, because I'm not interacting with other people to share experiences in the same way that I would after a long day of negotiations over a cup of tea or a glass of beer, then I can't imagine maintaining the goodwill, or the active participation of many of the social movement leaders that we currently are able to see engage now. That worries me, I think if we do it, well, then there's really great opportunities. But if we're not careful of this, then it'll be the same people that we've always seen on these calls speaking and dominating. And that's not going to change anything.

Samara 32:46

Interestingly, as I'm thinking back to your report, you have these really sort of intimate - even though it was carried out during COVID - like you have the sort of intimate insights into people's daily lives - how were you able to do that?

Jessica 32:58

Well, we've both been in that space for about 15 years. So people know us, we've also done previous reports for them. One of the benefits of being a scholar-activist, I guess is you get to do a lot of extra work for free that really isn't academic work, but that contributes to the field that that matters to you. And so we've built trust, historically, over a long period of time, I hope. And that's what allowed, then the political bodies to give us the context and to make those links. So the people we didn't already know, they at least knew that the people who they work with knew us and trusted us. I think Priscilla and I we've also we work in three languages, we both speak French, Spanish and English. And that also helps when you can try and negotiate and discuss in people's more comfortable language that can help a lot. And just, I think a lot of experience, I think not enough recognition is given to the skill of interviewing and to doing qualitative research and how much practice it takes to create that safe space. And yeah, we've been doing it now for a while. And I think it's starting to pay off in terms of the data that we're able to get and the trust that we're able to build with our respondents.

Samara 34:06

Also related to that report. Why do you think it's so important to center things like gender and intersectionality in food systems discussions, and especially in terms of COVID impacts?

Jessica 34:19

Yeah, most of the things I've read on COVID really suggest that women are bearing the brunt of the impacts. So I mean, even from a non-feminist perspective, from a very pragmatic perspective, if we want to have positive impacts with our policies, then certainly targeting women needs to be a priority. We explicitly took an intersectional, we tried to our very best degree to take an intersectional feminist approach. We're still learning, we're not perfect yet. We're really learning a lot from others through deep conversations. But for us, we really took a very broad understanding of feminisms, looking at it as sort of a range of movements and practices and ideologies that try to expose and redress social political power hierarchies, and also uncover the privilege revealed in gender relations and challenge patriarchal relations and norms. So this for us was really important because what we heard from the women we interviewed and what we've read from the literature review that we did with how fundamentally important these gender norms are in terms of reifying the impacts of COVID, particularly when it comes to the burden of care and the burden of work. And then further, it's undeniable now that intersectionality, understanding the different - the interlocking systems of power that affects the most marginalized in society, how important that is to understanding impacts and how people's experiences are so different based on who they are. So we want it to be to be very clear that gender, race, class, sexuality, disability, religion, these all shape and put people at a different level of risk in terms of how they impact COVID. This was a main motivator. But then we were also, of course, we were writing support for the women's working group. And that was also a prerequisite for them.

Matthew 36:00

That leads pretty nicely into some of the policy recommendations from the report, and we won't have time to go through all of them. And again, we encourage people to read the report. But is there a particular recommendation that you'd like to highlight, either by theme or an example?

Jessica 36:15

Maybe we could, we've covered a bit, but the 3) participation representation and digital in inequality theme, I think, is perhaps relevant. So we had four themes in the report, if I recall correctly, there was the theme of: 1) economic activities and market, the theme of 2) care work in public health and gender-based violence, the theme of 4) participation and the theme of government responses and social protection. And each of these themes was developed through this crisis from below perspective, where we identified what people were doing and how they were impacted. And it was also framed by a number of principles which are explained in the report. When it comes to the theme of participation, representation and digital inequality. We felt that recognition was a really important domain and we identified a number of policy recommendations around recognizing women and their organizations as key actors and decision makers. It's frustrating and obvious to put this into a report. But it so needs to be in there every time. We're tired of writing it. So please change it. (laughs)

Actively ensuring meaningful participation of women in their organization. So again, taking the time to create the mechanisms to ensure that women can participate actively and understanding what the barriers to participation are, it's not enough to have women present at the table, but creating space to give voice to those women in whatever form that takes within the environment that they're having these negotiations. And that requires local knowledge and, and a lot of sensitivity and a lot of thought. And as I mentioned earlier, I don't think enough energy is put into really designing participatory processes. It's just like, Oh, yeah, we got 10 women, we're good, let's move on without recognizing the power dynamics. And that, to me, is crazy. And that leads to our third point, which was to invest in supporting women's leadership and women's organizations. And I, I say this with a bit of a caveat, recognizing that there's a problem with saying that women need more leadership training. I'm not convinced that leadership training is the problem. Perhaps if we had more time to think this through, we would have recommended more training for existing leaders with a view towards recognizing diverse forms of leadership, rather than putting the leadership training onus on the women. But that's not to suggest that there isn't a need for more leadership training for women, and for women's organizations. But I think my new recommendation if I can amend it –

Matthew 39:37

That’s what the podcast is for.

Jessica 39:38

Without the consent of my co author. Yeah. (laughs) That's, yeah, I change it, I would say yeah, much more training to recognize diverse forms of leadership and making space for those in these policy processes. The other thing that blew my mind doing this research was just how, how there was a lack of sex disaggregated data, how the important data that we have is not disaggregated. So we can't understand if it's impacting men or women differently. And I think we all intrinsically understand that the differences are very clear, and very prevalent, but they're not disaggregating a lot of that data. And this was really building on recommendations coming out of I believe West Africa, but there was an important need to democratize internet access and provide targeted gender appropriate training support to decipher information and disinformation. So skills to help people deal with fake news beyond just digital inequality, like once we get everybody online, how do we how do we ensure that everybody has the skills to make sense of the landscape out there?

Matthew 39:29

Super important,

Jessica 39:30

And I'm learning everyday still, so I not trying to suggest that that's easy.

Matthew 39:35

In our next episode we speak with data scientist Vincent Ricciardi who examined how many smallholder farmers across the world have access to broadband connect to the internet in the first place!

Samara 39:44

So we'd love to hear what future visions of the food system inspire you. And on the other hand, which alarm you.

Jessica 39:55

Maybe I'll start with alarm, I'm alarmed by visions of the food system where production and processing and distribution become even more concentrated into the hands of a very few. This worries me, it contradicts principles of diversity, it contradicts opportunities for food sovereignty for choice. And the current structure of distribution of wealth and profits across the value chain worries me and causes even more worry when we see a greater concentration. So any kind of vision that promotes that I get a bit concerned, more than concerned, alarmed is a nice word.

In terms of what inspires me, there's so much to be inspired by right now. So the cases we outline in the report on COVID, for example, it's a depressing report, it was hard to write in that sense, but there's so much cool stuff going on. And there's so much energy and creativity out there. I'm also super inspired by what cities are doing. I think the leadership being shown by cities, municipalities around the world, fill a gap in political will that I spoke about to really take leadership and to make leaps in terms of integrated food policies in terms of creating innovative participatory structures. This is pretty cool. And I think this sort of, perhaps with COVID, there has been a refocusing to some degree on the importance of regional or territorial food supply chains. And this is a really neat moment to see how we can - I'm not saying like we need to all go local -but to see how we can perhaps restructure some of these supply chains, which have had pretty important and devastating ecological and economic impacts towards more just or alternative forms of distribution.

Matthew 41:30

And two more quick questions. What lessons do you try to impart with students when engaging with food system debates?

Jessica 41:38

Always challenge your own assumptions. So I'm a huge believer in the sociological imagination, which is this ability to see how things interact and influence each other and also to see them from different perspectives. So we use a lot of roleplay in my courses, and I like to be very provocative with my examples with a view to where it's always challenging what they what they take for granted.

Samara 42:00

And another question that we like to ask everyone that we interview. What evidence and knowledge do you draw from in your own research and work?

Jessica 42:10

I draw a lot from qualitative data that I collect. So I'm often doing interviews, participant observation, assessing literature. So a range of literature from grey literature, NGO reports, policy documents through academic literature. I'm also really inspired by the work and take up a lot of the work of my colleagues. So I think the work of Anna Moracus fauce around municipal food policies is really inspiring. I'm inspired by the work of Jennifer Clapp on financialization, and more recently, her work at the HLPE, the high level panel of experts around the global narratives. She just that collaboratively with many others. My colleagues here in the rural sociology group offer a lot of inspiration and we share data and share sources. So through many EU projects, Ww have some really exciting case studies, for example, right now around rural urban relations and, and creating new synergies for a foundational economy based on wellbeing. And we're trying to make sense of that. And that's also really cool. So really grounded evidence from territory's across Europe.

Matthew  43:13

Thank you so much.

Samara 43:14

Yeah, thank you. It was really great talking to you.

Jessica 43:16

It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Matthew 43:22

And that wraps another episode of the Feed podcast, presented by TABLE, a food systems collaboration between the University of Oxford, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and Wageningen University. If you enjoyed listening to the episode, please subscribe, rate and review us wherever it is you listen to podcasts. We’re trying to grow our audience and would appreciate if everyone that is still listening can tell a few friends and colleagues about the podcast.

Links to resources connected to this episode including the Covid-19, Gender and Food systems report can be found on our website: And while you’re there, you can subscribe to our free newsletter Fodder and receive weekly updates on the newest research, events and job listings on food systems sustainability topics.

This episode was edited and mixed by me, Matthew Kessler, with help as always from co-host Samara Brock and the extended Table community. Music in this episode by Blue dot sessions. Join us next week as we speak with data scientist Vincent Ricciardi

Vincent Ricciardi 44:22

I kept on trying to have a hooky statistic at first, so I would say, “70-80% of the world’s food comes from smallholder farmers and they are custodians for most of the agrobiodiversity in the world.” The UN FAO, they were citing in their reports.  I saw it some world bank reports. Then I saw it in New York Times and the Guardian in all these major news outlets, which is just wild, because it just came from a back of the envolope calculation and so we wanted to see if that was anywhere near correct.