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Ensuring Genuine Farmer Involvement and Inclusion in Food Systems National Pathways

26 October 2023
Anna Locke


In July 2023, the UN Food Systems Coordination Hub convened the UN Food Systems Summit stocktaking moment (UNFSS+2), which aimed to get urgent action at scale on food systems for “better and more viable outcomes for people, the planet and prosperity”.

Since 2021, 126 countries have adopted a national pathway outlining each nation’s vision, objectives and actions for transforming to a sustainable food system. Over 100 have submitted voluntary reports on progress against the five action tracks adopted in 2021: ensuring access to safe and nutritious food for all; shifting to sustainable consumption patterns; boosting nature positive production; advancing equitable livelihoods; and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress.

Successful implementation of the national pathways will only be possible if policy makers actively listen to the voice of all people affected, particularly farmers. Farmers will be responsible for many of the changes needed on the ground to respond to the challenges of meeting the triple objectives of food and nutrition security, climate change mitigation and adaptation, and halting and reversing biodiversity loss. Such changes will have knock-on effects across the food system.

To fulfil their role and help to bridge the implementation gap that still exists between the current situation and countries’ ambitions, farmers need to be fully involved in the process of designing and rolling out national pathways, and other related processes.

A side event convened at the UNFSS+2 brought together representatives from regional farmers’ organisations from Asia and Africa and international initiatives to promote a just transition to sustainable food systems to discuss their experience in participating in national pathways. The event featured positive examples from countries while highlighting challenges to genuine farmer influence over design and implementation of national pathways.

Key findings

Envisaging a just transition to sustainable food systems

The starting point for ensuring inclusion in national pathway design and implementation is to understand what kind of change we need see across the system as a whole, who is affected and how to achieve such change. The Just Rural Transition Initiative’s Principles for Just Food System Transitions set the scene, identifying the 10 outcomes needed from sustainable food systems transitions, including nutritional needs, respecting planetary boundaries, ensuring decent livelihoods and human rights, protecting animal welfare, enhancing resilience and reversing environmental degradation.

Although achieving such outcomes should deliver net benefits to society, it requires substantive change and certain stakeholders could experience costs, risks and disruptions to livelihoods. Achieving that change in a just way requires understanding the way that risks and costs associated with change are distributed and managing them to fairly distribute costs and benefits among different stakeholders.

It also means ensuring that all stakeholders affected – including beyond farmers – are part of the discussion to influence their distribution, bringing in marginalised and vulnerable groups and providing meaningful engagement in the process, recognising power imbalances and differential capacity to engage to go beyond those who are usually involved.

Farmer experiences

Farmer representatives from the Eastern Africa Farmers Federation (EAFF) and The Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA) discussed experiences that could serve as positive examples:

  1. In the Philippines, government consulted farmers, fishers and herders on national pathways, discussing the social and economic agenda, food security and nutrition.
  2. In Lao, the LAO Farmer Network put forward key issues to be discussed as part of the national pathways, including the importance of collective resources, such as forests, and agricultural land from encroachment for other uses, and the need for farm diversification and increased market share for smallholders.
  3. In India, the Self-employed Women’s Association (SEWA) has had regular conversations with national convenors and have already agreed ways forward for a representative to be a continuous part of co-creating national pathways.
  4. In Uganda, members in the National Union of Coffee and Agribusiness Farm Enterprise (NUCAFE) engaged with the Uganda Coffee Development Authority (UCDA) and the Government on the country’s national coffee policy.
  5. In Burundi, the Confederation of Agricultural Producers Associations for Development (CAPAD) engaged with the government on the national cooperative law of Burundi.
  6. At regional level in Eastern Africa, farmer representatives took the lead in bringing the East Africa Cooperative Societies Bill (2015) to fruition, drawing on experiences in other countries to provide concrete suggestions for what the Bill should contain to have a regionally integrated approach to cooperatives as a special purpose vehicle for economic transformation.

However, farmers’ organisations felt that these cases were too isolated and highlighted the room for country government to “up their game” to fully involve farmers in the implementation of national pathways.

Government experiences

FCDO drew on their experience with the Policy Dialogue series on accelerating transition to sustainable agriculture — first launched in 2021 together with the World Bank; this brings together government representatives from many countries to share experiences on policy reform, including different approaches to engaging stakeholders in that reform process. Governments are key to supporting a transition to a different food system, through establishing incentives through public expenditure, with a current total of over US$800 billion per year, much of which is not targeted at reducing emissions or boosting resilience and adaptive capacity of agricultural production.

FCDO highlighted experiences shared from four countries which demonstrated different approaches to engaging farmers and wider stakeholders:

  1. In some cases, government take the approach of establishing a draft policy framework and inviting views from farmers before finalising a policy. For example, in New Zealand, with the government’s proposed the agricultural carbon pricing system to be introduced in 2027 to bring down GHG emissions from agricultural production. The government set up a partnership with business, farmers and Maori representatives to invite feedback. Farmers preferred a farm-based approach to carbon pricing, which was made the central part of the government’s new policy.
  2. The Canadian government established a legal framework to reduce emissions and gave autonomy to farmers and other stakeholders to set out their own net zero pathways to achieve that.
  3. In Vietnam, the government is developing participatory methodologies for policy – partnering with CGIAR to reduce emissions from rice, combining traditional knowledge with new science through FGD;
  4. in the UK, the government is co-designing policies with farmers to move away from land use subsidies to environmental land management schemes. The government has set up a consultation test and trial process to trial with farmers different methodologies of bringing in new incentives to reward for environmental outcomes.

Ingredients for success

The event identified several ingredients for successful involvement of farmers in the design and implementation of national pathways – and other relevant policy processes:

  1. Farmers need sustained support for regular engagement. Effective engagement in the Philippines was made possible by international (IFAD) support for regular participation in national processes over a sustained period, including support for travel. Engagement needs a “full bottle of patience” and often takes many years.
  2. Effective engagement requires active networking and strong contacts across different government institutions and other stakeholders. Coordination at national level can be impeded by lack of coordination across sectoral government institutions. Farmers’ organisations need to spend time to identify different government organisations and key people both within and outside of government. In Indonesia, farmer organisations engaged a wide range of stakeholders – different agencies, research institution and NGOs – to help farmers to engage with a proactive, informed agenda.
  3. Identifying or cultivating champions within government can provide an entry point for such networking and help to create and maintain momentum for policy reform. An MP from Uganda was key in getting the East Africa Cooperative Societies Bill on the table for discussion at regional level.
  4. Knowledge products and capacity building are vital for farmers’ organisations to follow policy reform processes and proactively provide inputs. In the regional process of reform of cooperative law, the EAFF studied cooperative law in other countries and partnered with other institutions, e.g., university to get support in accessing knowledge and shaping ideas. Farmer organisations can also use tools already available for policy, lobby and advocacy work, e.g., the Farmers Advocacy Consultation Tool (FACT).
  5. Farmers organisations need to make the most of – and connect – different windows of opportunity for policy reform, mobilising members and other stakeholders around these, e.g., using the decade of family farming as a basis to institutionalise processes of continuous participative engagement and connecting the national pathways process to existing networks and processes, such as NDCS.
  6. Think beyond farmers to include other stakeholders affected by change, particularly those normally most vulnerable and marginalised. In some cases, farmers are not among the most vulnerable (although in some cases they certainly are), whereas other groups may suffer if not included in planning. The experience of transition will be gendered, so effort should be made to understand and listen to women (farmers, in communities, etc.) as part of the process.


This event demonstrated that it is possible to put farmer participation at the heart of the process, viewing them as equal partners. Policy design and implementation – of national pathways and other relevant policies – can only benefit from replicating this at a wider scale.