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Why the Great Food Transformation may not happen – A deep-dive into our food systems’ political economy, controversies and politics of evidence



This paper explores the conditions under which the changes leading to the Great Transformation of food systems called upon by a growing number of international experts and development agencies, will (or not) happen. After discussing the meanings of ‘transformation’ in the specific context of food systems, we draw on different elements of political economy to show how various self-reinforcing dynamics are contributing to lock food systems in their current unsustainable trajectories. Those include the concentration of economic and market power in the hands of the Big Food transnational corporations but also other actors’ ideology, policy incoherence, national interests or culturally-embedded aspirations, which together create irreconcilable trade-offs and tensions between divergent individual and societal objectives and prevent the system from aligning toward a more sustainable trajectory. In this context, while innovation is often presented as a ‘game-changer’, we show how the current profit-driven nature of its evolutionary selection creates a random, adirectional, process incapable of steering food systems towards sustainability. We argue that unless those different issues are tackled all together in a resolutely normative, global, and prescriptive manner in which science would have a new role to play, there are serious risks that the Great Transformation will not happen. Based on these analyses, we identify pathways to move the systems past its current locks-in and steer it toward its long-awaited sustainable transformation. In doing so we demonstrate that what is needed is not just a transformation of the food systems themselves, but a transformation of the governance of those food systems as well.
Why the Great Food Transformation may not happen – A deep-dive into
our food systems’ political economy, controversies and politics of
Christophe Béné
Alliance of Bioversity and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, Km 17 Recta Cali-Palmira, Zip Code 763537 Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia
article info
Article history:
Technological innovations
Food system governance
Food system sustainability
Power and politics
This paper explores the conditions under which the changes leading to the Great Transformation of food
systems called upon by a growing number of international experts and development agencies, will (or
not) happen. After discussing the meanings of ‘transformation’ in the specific context of food systems,
we draw on different elements of political economy to show how various self-reinforcing dynamics
are contributing to lock food systems in their current unsustainable trajectories. Those include the con-
centration of economic and market power in the hands of the Big Food transnational corporations but
also other actors’ ideology, policy incoherence, national interests or culturally-embedded aspirations,
which together create irreconcilable trade-offs and tensions between divergent individual and societal
objectives and prevent the system from aligning toward a more sustainable trajectory. In this context,
while innovation is often presented as a ‘game-changer’, we show how the current profit-driven nature
of its evolutionary selection creates a random, adirectional, process incapable of steering food systems
towards sustainability. We argue that unless those different issues are tackled all together in a resolutely
normative, global, and prescriptive manner in which science would have a new role to play, there are
serious risks that the Great Transformation will not happen. Based on these analyses, we identify path-
ways to move the systems past its current locks-in and steer it toward its long-awaited sustainable trans-
formation. In doing so we demonstrate that what is needed is not just a transformation of the food
systems themselves, but a transformation of the governance of those food systems as well.
Ó2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.
1. Introduction
The need for a ‘‘Great Transformation” of our food systems is
widely recognized among the scientific community. In its 2019
report, the EAT-Lancet Commission for instance presents this
transformation as a necessary condition to restore the sustainabil-
ity of our planet:.
‘‘(...) global food systems can provide winwin diets to everyone
by 2050 and beyond. However, achieving this goal will require
(...) nothing less than a Great Food Transformation.” (Willett
et al., 2019, p. 448, our emphasis)
Prior to the EAT-Lancet report, similar calls have been made by
other high-profile expert groups and individual scholars (GSDR,
2015; IPES 2016; Haddad et al., 2016; HLPE 2017; Caron et al.,
2018, etc.). By ‘‘transformation”, those different experts generally
refer to the scale/magnitude of the change, but also to its
normative nature. Haddad and his colleagues, for instance, argue:
‘‘Piecemeal action will not do: the trends are so large and
interconnected that the entire food system needs overhauling”
(2016, p. 31) –referring here to the scale of the transformation -
while its normative element relates to the intention to build a
‘‘better” system, i.e., one ‘‘which is inextricably knitted with the
Sustainable Development Goals” (op. cit).
Yet, along with the urgency (Webb et al., 2020), the challenges
that such systemic change would induce are are not so much about
the technological innovations that would be necessary to support
the changes, but more about the governance, political-economy
constraints and policy trade-offs that are inherent to the system
and would need to be addressed (Béné et al., 2020; IPES & ETC
group, 2021).
The justifications for such food systems’ great transformation
are undisputed: in 2019, 690 million people were still undernour-
ished and 340 million children estimated to suffer from micronu-
trient deficiency while, at the same time, 2.1 billion adults were
diagnosed overweight or obese (FAO et al., 2020). Food systems
0305-750X/Ó2022 The Author(s). Published by Elsevier Ltd.
E-mail address:
World Development 154 (2022) 105881
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have also been recognized to be major sources of global environ-
mental degradation (soil erosion, natural resources depletion,
deforestation, etc.) (Ranganathan et al., 2016), and the cause of
30% or more total greenhouse gas emission (IPCC, 2019).
Beyond their nutritional/health and environmental unsustain-
ability, food systems are also highly criticized for their poor perfor-
mances in domains such as social justice, human rights and equity:
agriculture and agri-food industry are indeed the economic sector
with the world highest prevalence of forced and child labour
(Hodal, 2015; IPES, 2017; USDL, 2020).
Against this background, the objective of this paper is to iden-
tify and weigh the conditions that would be necessary for the food
systems’ Great Transformation to take place. The analysis is struc-
tured around the following research question: ‘‘What are the most
important barriers and locks-in which contribute to hinder societal
discussions and reduce the abilities of the different actors to
engage in the necessary process leading to food systems’ Great
Using a slightly provocative title, we argue that unless a combi-
nation of stringent conditions is fulfilled simultaneously, there are
reasons to believe that this Great Transformation will not happen.
Already, a number of scholars have expressed doubts about the
ability of the system to transform. Their reasoning builds essen-
tially around political economy arguments. To paraphrase them,
the extremely high concentration of most agri-food industry’s
resources in the hands of a few, very powerful, transnational food
corporations (hereafter referred to as the ‘‘Big Food”) is greatly lim-
iting countries’ domestic policy spaces and impeding the capacities
of governments and other legitimate stakeholders to act
(Bernstein, 2016; IPES, 2017). The rationale is that these powerful
incumbents have very strong financial interests to maintain the
status quo and make sure that the current trend as we observe
it, continue. The fear is therefore that those strong politico-
economic forces may lock in the system and prevent or delay the
structural changes that are deemed necessary to achieve, or to
recover, food systems’ sustainability (ETC group, 2013; IPES, 2015).
This paper argues however that combined to those political
economy considerations, other lenses are necessary to compre-
hend the situation appropriately and, importantly, to identify path-
ways to move the systems passed those current locks-in. In short,
we posit that food system transformation is not just about private
sector’s interests versus public health or environmental considera-
tions; instead it is about the perceptions, believes and views of
individual consumers, institutions, public and private policy-
makers, investors, suppliers, interacting all at the same time in a
space where structuring factors others than power and dominance
are important, including social values, cultural identities or even
knowledge and expertise.
More specifically, we posit in this paper that four major, self-
reinforcing, forces are responsible for locking the food system in
its current unsustainable trajectory and will need to be addressed
simultaneously if we want a ‘true’ Great Transformation to take
place and contribute on time to the SDGs. Those are: (i) the resis-
tance to change raised by transnational corporations and their
shareholders in an attempt to maintain the system in its current
direction; (ii) the divergence (or misalignment) observed in the
interests and values of the other legitimate actors’ (governments
and consumers) which prevent those actors from being able to
redirect the system into a more sustainable trajectory; (iii) the fact
that technological innovation (arguably the main engine of the
Great Transformation) is by nature driven by profit and not by sus-
tainability; and (iv) the failure of science to play its role in this crit-
ical socio-techno-environmental debate, failure that can be related
to what we will refer to as dysfunctional ‘politics of evidence’.
The rest of this paper will start by clarifying the concept of
transformation as used in the food system literature, making in
particular the semantic distinction between the term ‘‘transforma-
tion” as employed until recently in the literature to describe the
scale of the changes that have characterized food systems over
the last three decades (e.g. Burch & Lawrence, 2005) and the more
normative interpretation proposed more recently to refer this time
not just to ‘drastic changes’ but to ‘changes that lead to an
improved system’ (in the sense of transformative change) (e.g.
Haddad et al., 2016; Salomaa & Juhola, 2020).
We will then turn to our research question. However, instead of
framing it using a conventional political economy approach, we
propose to adopt a broader framework, intermixing traditional
principles of political economy (e.g. role of dominant actors and
unequal distribution of power) with three other lines of argu-
ments; the first one derives from a more sociological interpretation
of politics where political issues are embedded into a wider soci-
etal context and other modes of political influence are considered
(Orum & Dale, 2009; Clemens, 2016). To ground the discussion,
our argument will be articulated around the highly debated issue
of animal-based protein transition (Winders & Ransom, 2019;
Lundström, 2019). The second line of argument will consider the
role that technological innovation is generally expected to play in
societal transition, namely that of ‘driver of change’ (e.g., Geels &
Schot, 2007) and revisit this assumption in the particular case of
food systems. For this, we intend to build on some of the recent
analyses proposed in the sustainability transition literature (e.g.,
El Bilali, 2019) and associated literature on innovation and socio-
technical change (Avelino et al., 2016). Finally, the third part of
the analysis will draw on the literature on politics of knowledge,
and the way in which knowledge and science, through the ‘‘power
of expertise” (Reed, 1996), are being used (or mis-used) in policy
setting (Béné, 2005; Powell, 2006; Bosch-Capblanch et al., 2012).
We will show in particular how this politics of evidence and the
related evidence-based policy agenda (Broadbent, 2012) can con-
tribute to work against the process of societal transformation.
The last section of the paper will then revisit these key locks-in
that will have been shown to contribute to hinder the abilities of
the different actors to engage in the necessary transformation pro-
cesses, with the ambition to identify avenues that can help move
the system beyond those locks-in and lead it, through a Great
Transformation, to more sustainable trajectories.
2. Food system transformations
In this section, we discuss the meaning of ‘transformation’ in
the specific context of food systems. We will show that beyond
its original meaning of ‘substantial change’ used in the more gen-
eral literature, two more specific ways in which transformation is
used in relation to food systems can be identified: (i) the first is
one already discussed abundantly in the global environment
change literature, e.g., O’Brien 2012, where politics of change are
stressed and ‘transformation’ often means challenging the current
status quo. ii) the second, more recent, interpretation, is one where
transformation is given a normative nature, often with the idea
that transformation can lead to ‘improved’ system (Webb et al.,
2.1. Food systems have always been transforming...
The common definition of transformation is one that refers to
fundamental, drastic changes (as opposed to incremental changes)
which, usually, involve interactions between human and biophys-
ical system components (Brand, 2016; Hölscher et al., 2018).
Importantly, transformation in this original sense ‘‘describes the
depth of change, but not its origin, breadth or trajectory” (Pelling
et al. 2015, p. 115); and, as such, can –like resilience in this original
C. Béné World Development 154 (2022) 105881
sense (see Béné & Doyen, 2018) – be associated with, or lead to,
negative outcomes (e.g., Butzer, 2012).
In the context of food systems, the term transformation under-
stood in this common meaning was already in use in the mid-
2000s (e.g., Pingali 2004). In effect, one of the first references to
‘‘food system transformation” was that used to describe the struc-
tural changes that took place in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, as a
result of what Reardon et al. (2003) coined as the
‘‘supermarketization” of food systems, that is, the rapid establish-
ment of foreign-owned supermarket chains in those regions.
Many other instances of ‘transformation’-understood as epi-
sodes of major structural changes- are found in the literature,
including the ‘homogenization’ of crop plants and food supply
(Khoury et al., 2014); the ‘westernization’ of Asian diets (Pingali,
2007); or the wide use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
(Bawa & Anilakumar, 2013). Arguably, the biggest ‘transformation’
that food systems have experienced in the last 50 years has been
the adoption of high-yielding varieties in Asia and Latin America,
referred to as the Green Revolution
The important point is that food systems have always been
transforming and will continue to do so in the future. Yet those
‘‘transformations” (be it the supermarketization of the retail sector,
the westernization of diets, the homogenization of crops, or even
the Green Revolution) which for their main part have been the
result of, or driven by, technological innovations, did not bring only
positive outcomes, and in many cases led to less healthy or less
sustainable food systems.
2.2. Transformation as a political process
In recent years, the concept of transformation, alone or some-
times together with the concept of transition (Avelino et al.,
2016; Hölscher et al., 2018), has been given a more political conno-
tation (Leach et al., 2018). Scholars such as O’Brien (2012) or
Pelling (2010) made clear that transformation, by the very fact that
it brings changes, cannot occur without contestation of the under-
lying social, political, and economic structures that had created and
maintained the existing status quo. For those authors and many
others (e.g., Meadowcroft, 2011; Scoones et al., 2015), transforma-
tion is therefore inherently political, and understanding the condi-
tions that lead to such transformation cannot be done without
recognizing the contested nature of the process and addressing
the power relations that underlie it.
In the literature focusing on food system, this political dimen-
sion is not yet fully established. With few exceptions (Harris
et al., 2019; Webb et al., 2020; Dekeyser et al., 2020; Béné et al.,
2020), papers that discuss the pathway to food system transforma-
tion still focus essentially on what needs to be done –often from a
technical perspective (e.g., Willett et al., 2019) – not on how to do
it. In sum, the contested dimension of food systems transformation
is not yet fully recognized (Anderson & Leach, 2019). Part of the
reason for this is that, at the difference of the literature on global
environmental changes (e.g. Feola, 2015), socio-ecological systems
(e.g. Westley et al., 2011) or sustainable transition (e.g. Geels,
2014) where this political dimension is now well established, the
discussion on food system transformation is still very much framed
around narratives dominated by nutritionists, and public and plan-
etary health scientists (e.g. Willett et al., 2019), with very few
social/political scientists invited to contribute to the debate
(Caron et al., 2018; Béné et al., 2020).
2.3. The normative element of transformation
In relation to, but distinct from this political dimension, another
facet entered the transformation discourse recently. This is the
normative component that is progressively attached to the concept
of transformation. Departing fundamentally from the common
meaning of transformation described as a radical but random
change, this normative discourse presents transformation as a
deliberative, purposive process aimed at improving the system
and its outcomes. As such, transformation is no longer just endured
or experienced, but wanted and planned, as it is viewed as the ‘‘so-
lution” (O’Brien, 2012, p.4).
Unsurprisingly, this new interpretation has already been appro-
priated by policy-makers and international actors. The United
Nations launched the sustainable development goals (SDGs) for
instance under the auspices of ‘‘transforming our world” toward
more ‘‘dignity and equality and in a healthy environment” (UN
2015, p.5). Similar positive interpretations of transformation are
now found in a growing number of international (or national) doc-
uments, leading some scholars to claim that transformation has
become a new buzzword in political discourses (Feola, 2015;
Hölscher et al., 2018).
In the food system literature, this normative element is also
becoming ubiquitous. The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food
Systems for Nutrition for instance explicitly links food system
transformation to the Sustainable Development Goals (Haddad
et al., 2016) while the EAT-Lancet report argues that ‘‘The present
unhealthy, unequal, unsustainable food system can be transformed
into an improved system”(Willett et al., 2019 p.478 –our emphasis).
While reviewing the literature on food systems outcomes,
Stefanovic et al. (2020, p.6) identified several pieces that discuss
transformative strategies that claim to facilitate the transition
toward ‘‘a regenerative and resilient, agrobiodiverse, food secure,
equitable and healthy [food system] with higher well-being of
rural communities”.
In sum, within 20 years, we passed from an interpretation of
food system transformations close to the original common mean-
ing, referring to the scale and magnitude of the change but also
recognizing the unpredictability (and possibility undesirability)
of the outcomes –as in Popkin & Reardon (2018) account of Obesity
and the food system transformation in Latin America- (our emphasis),
to a more positive re-interpretation of the concept where ‘‘trans-
formative change [leads to] substantial and widely distributed
benefits [to] both society and ecosystems‘‘ (Marshall et al., 2012,
p.2); in other terms, where transformation is not seen as referring
to problems of the past, but (more rhetorically) as solutions of the
3. Locked-in by Big Food
In this section, we will adopt a relatively traditional political
economy approach and show how the concentration of resources
in the hands of the largest seed, agrichemical and agri-food corpo-
rations, as well as large retailers (what is called the ‘‘Big Food” see,
e.g., Stuckler & Nestle, 2012) constitutes the first of three major
barriers to the Great Transformation. This will speak directly to
the ‘‘Transformation as a political process” section discussed above
where it was argued that, by its very nature, transformation chal-
lenges the status quo and, as such, is expected to be resisted by the
main incumbents (IPES, 2015). This line of argument is not new or
specific to food system. It has been, and still continues to be dis-
cussed for instance in the case of the green energy transforma-
tion/transition where dominant actors in the oil industry and
related sectors actively resist the necessary shift to petrol-free
economy (Phelan et al., 2012; Geels, 2014). Relying on the few pub-
Interestingly, this transformation was not called transformation but Revolution,in
reference to its underlying geopolitical motivation by the US to counteract agrarian
reforms triggered by the ‘‘Red Revolution” and the spread of communism in what was
called at that time the underdeveloped world (Patel, 2013).
C. Béné World Development 154 (2022) 105881
licly available data compiled by others (ETC group, 2013; Money
et al., 2015; IPES, 2017; FoEI, 2019), our contribution in this section
will be to synthesize the situation in the case of the agri-food
industry. We will highlight the degree of extreme market concen-
tration that characterizes food systems
and rely on the numerous
attempts made by the Big Food to weaken or even oppose regula-
tions and policies intended to redress the current market failures
of the food system, to demonstrate their toxic influence on the gov-
ernance of the system.
3.1. The Big Food and its concentrated power
In 2005, pursuing her earlier work on food regime (Friedmann &
McMichael, 1989), Friedmann (2005) suggested that a new
corporate-food regime had emerged since the 1970s, characterized
by the dominance of transnational retailers and agro-food compa-
nies, thereby creating a ‘‘new order” in the world food system –see
also McMichael 2009; Pritchard 2009. The premise of this postu-
late, which emerges from a political economy perspective, is that
the global food system is now characterized by an extremely high
concentration of power in the hands of few transnational agri-food
corporations, leading to the quasi-absolute control, by those actors,
of the governance of food systems (Lang & Barling, 2012; IPES,
2015; Clapp, 2021). Strongly embedded in a productivist paradigm,
the focus of this new regime is on producing large amounts of stan-
dardized food ‘efficiently’, which are then directed essentially,
although not exclusively, to rapidly growing or emerging con-
sumers’ markets in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)
(Stuckler et al., 2011). Boosted by mass-marketing campaigns, this
rapid expansion in LMICs has also benefitted from substantial for-
eign investment (Hawkes, 2005).
The level of market concentration
reached by the Big Food in
recent years is unprecedented (Clapp, 2021). According to ETC Group
investigations conducted in the early 2010s, the world’s 10 leading
pesticide companies are estimated to control 94% of the world sales.
Yet, six of those (Syngenta-ChemChina, Bayer-Monsanto, BASF; Lima-
grain; Dow-DuPont, and KWS-AG) are also six of the biggest seed
companies (Agropages, 2019) and together, those control more than
75% of all private sector crop research (Money, 2018). In farm
machinery business, three companies (John Deere, CNH Industrial
NV, and AGCO) account for around 77% of worldwide sales (Financial
Times, 2014). In meat production, four firms account for 97% of poul-
try Research & Development and for broilers, three companies (Tyson
Foods, EW Group, Groupe Grimaud) control 95% of the market shares,
while the same three companies supply 95% of the commercial
breeding stock for those broilers (ETC group, 2013). In the retail
industry, the supermarket sector has grown to the point where, for
instance, more than 70% of UK grocery purchasing is concentrated
in four main supermarket chains: Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Mor-
risons. Similar patterns are observed in other high-income countries
(SAPEA, 2020). Fig. 1 provides a graphic summary of the level of con-
centration of power observed across the agri-food industry.
Part of this unprecedented concentration has been achieved
through mega-mergers across the whole agri-food industry
(Howard, 2016; FoEI, 2019). Those operations generally involve
substantial amount of capitals. In 2015 for instance, Heinz and
Kraft Foods merged, creating the world’s fifth-largest food and bev-
erage company combining 13 brands valued more than $500 mil-
lion each. In the same year, Dow Chemical and DuPont merged
to create the world’s biggest chemical company, valued at $130 bil-
lion. The goal of these financial operations is thus to increase the
control over a wider range of agricultural inputs and activities
ranging from the production of fertilizers, pesticides, livestock
genetics and farming machinery, all the way down to the distribu-
tion of agro-commodities, food processing and retail (IPES, 2017;
FoEI, 2019).
3.2. Visible and hidden influence, and how Big Food uses it to maintain
the status quo
The effects of those mega-mergers and the subsequent shift of
the centre of gravity of the global food system governance materi-
alizes in two ways; one relatively trackable way, essentially
through power of influence; and one more ‘hidden’ way where
those corporations use their R&D resources to protect their own
assets and investments -what is called ‘defensive R&D’- and pre-
vent any disruptive innovation from reaching the market.
3.2.1. Concentration of resources, corporate political activities and
power of influence
A first part of the (visible) way the Big Food influences food sys-
tems’ governance is transmitted through the weight that any deci-
sion made by those giants has on the system itself: as the 2015
IPES ‘Barriers to food system reform’ report put it clearly: ‘‘When
up to 90% of the global grain trade is controlled by four agribusi-
ness firms, a change in sourcing policy by a big player may become
de facto regulation across the entire sector” (IPES 2015, p. 4). This
influence often goes beyond the sector itself and can have substan-
tial impact not only on the economy of entire countries or regions,
but also on the lives of hundreds of millions of households who are
affected sometimes in a dramatic manner (an illustration here
would be the documented cases of farmer suicides in India, argu-
ably triggered by some of the Big Food actors’ commercial strate-
gies around seed monopolization -see Thomas & De Tavernier,
2017 for a discussion).
A second aspect of this Big Food visible influence is through its
lobbying activities. Lobbying, which usually involves direct, face-
to-face contact with government officials, may also include what
Mialon et al. (2015) refer to as ‘‘corporate political activities” such
as disseminating ‘specific’ information; providing financial incen-
tives to politicians, political parties and other decision makers; or
challenging proposed policies in the news-media and in court
(see e.g. Clapp & Fuchs, 2009; Hendrickson & James, 2016). Numer-
ous studies have documented those political activities taking place
in ‘‘grey area”
and the many attempts made by Big Food actors to
influence policy-makers in ways that are misaligned with public’s
interests (IPES, 2015), for instance when the US restaurant industry
used its political influence for several months in 2006–2007 to try to
weaken a series of state and federal legislations aimed at compelling
restaurant chains to post the calorie information of the food they
were serving (Bernell, 2010)
. Beyond this example, our intention
In doing so, we strongly dispute the position of those who claim that ‘‘No one
controls even important sub-systems, much less the whole [agri-food system]”
(Barrett et al., 2020, p.1).
Market concentration traditionally refers to the share of market sales held by the
largest firms in a particular sector. The concentration ratio is the main indicator used
to assess market competitiveness by evaluating the total market share of a given
number of firms relative to the whole market size. A market is generally deemed no
longer competitive when four firms control more than 40% (Bryce 1978;Shepherd
and Shepherd, 2004).
For instance over the last 10 years John Deere, the world’s leading farm
machinery company, formed alliances not just with other machinery firms (horizon-
tal integration), but also with all six of the dominant seed/pesticide companies
(vertical integration).
OECD talks about ‘‘grey area” between legitimate advocacy activities on the one
hand and illegal influence-seeking activities such as bribery on the other (OECD 2021,
This behavior has some clear similarities with the case of the Tobacco industry
(Brownell and Warner, 2009;Stuckler and Nestle, 2012) which, for decades, had tried
to deny or to hide the harmful effects of smoking on human health despite the
mounting scientific evidence accumulated for more than 30 years on this issue
(Sharma et al., 2010).
C. Béné World Development 154 (2022) 105881
is to highlight the deliberate attempts by the transnational agri-food
corporations to influence lawmakers in ways that are often question-
able or may even involve illegal influence-seeking activities such as
bribery or price fixing. The fertilizer industry or the grain trading
companies for instance have been suspected to operate as de facto
cartels/oligopoly and fixing prices since the 1950s (Murphy et al.,
2012; Gnutzmann & Spiewanowski, 2016). Oligopolistic behaviour
has also been observed in food manufacturers (e.g., chocolate)
involving transnational corporations: Cadbury, Mars, Nestlé
(Culliney, 2013).
3.2.2. Concentration as a barrier to transformative innovations
The discourse of the agri-food industry –backed up by the
orthodox economic theory– is that concentration and mergers
are ‘good’ not just because they can reduce costs, but also because
they allow economy of scale in resources allocated to R&D and
therefore, in theory, boost innovation. From a distance, this rheto-
ric seems coherent and it is correct that the Big Food sits on signif-
icant R&D resources, especially when compared to international
public research on agriculture
. In reality, however, mergers and
consolidation don’t necessarily translate into more resources allo-
cated to R&D and innovation as the R&D budgets of large firms are
frequently downsized as a result of consolidation (Lynch & Chazan,
Evidence from a range of sectors also suggests that the econo-
mies of scale achieved through mergers rarely leads to transforma-
tive innovation (Adams & Brock, 2004). Investigation by the US
Federal Trade Commission for instance found that level of concen-
tration and level of innovation are generally negatively correlated
(USFTC, 2003). The explanation for this relates to the concept of
‘defensive R&D’ where ‘‘resources are diverted (...) into the
defence of existing products rather than into investment in new
ideas; [thus] instead of fueling innovation, [defensive R&D] are
used to keep ‘old’ products or substances on the market.” (ERF,
2008, pp.1–2). Empirical data from the agri-food sector perfectly
illustrate this: while the volume of R&D officially invested by the
sector may be substantial, the scope of innovations that derived
from this R&D remains strikingly narrow. In the last 50 years, the
number of domesticated species which seed companies have
focused on was reduced to less than 200 (from initially more than
30 times this number), and almost all investments are now on no
more than a dozen crops (IPES, 2017). Likewise, in the livestock
sector, the industry has narrowed its innovations to five species
—poultry, pigs, bovines, sheep and goats —and roughly 100 breeds
(ETC Group, 2013), while in crop chemicals, the number of new
active ingredients undergoing R&D decreased by 60% between
2000 and 2012 (McDougall, 2013). Recent trends suggest that
although the number of patents related to agri-food innovation
has increased, the majority of those do not represent new break-
throughs (IPES, 2017) and, instead, reflect ‘‘patent overgreening”
In the US, three firms (DuPont, Monsanto, Syngenta) accounted for
nearly three quarters of all US patents issued for crop cultivars
between 1982 and 2007 (McDougall, 2013), most of them being part
of this overgreening strategy –see also IPES (2017).
In sum, instead of being a source of innovations, the largest
agri-food corporations direct most of their resources at protecting
their own assets and investments, resisting changes and prevent-
ing any new or disruptive innovation from entering the sector, thus
de facto contributing (purposively) to lock the system in its current
status quo.
4. Impossible trade-offs between too divided interests
The previous section draws on traditional political economy to
identify some of the main strategies used by the Big Food to
lock-in the food system. This section will extend this analysis by
adopting a wider, more pluralist interpretation of politics (Orum
& Dale, 2009; Clemens, 2016) which still accounts for the Big Food
actors but also recognizes the central role played by other societal
actors and processes. Through this part of the analysis we intend to
highlight the existence of irreconcilable trade-offs between too
many and too divergent interests, preventing food system actors
from being able to align the system with a more sustainable trajec-
tory. The case of red meat is used as the basis for this discussion.
4.1. An accelerating demand for red meat
When it comes to red meat, we know what it would take to
align food systems with sustainable targets: a greater than 50%
reduction in global consumption of beef, pork and lamb (Willett
Fig. 1. Level of concentration of market power in the agri-food industry. In economics, a rule of thumb is that an oligopoly exists when the top five firms in the market
account for more than 60% of total market sales. Data compiled by S. Berkum (WUR) from IPES (2017) and Mooney (2018).
To put this in perspective, in 2013 the combined R&D budgets of the big largest
agrochemical and seed companies, valued at that time around $6.59 billion, was
twenty times bigger than the CGIAR’s $332.2 million expenditures on crop-oriented
research/breeding in the same year (CGIAR, 2013) – information reported in IPES
Evergreening denotes the use of various strategies by the owner of a given patent
to extend the length of the exclusivity period beyond the 20-year patent term in order
to retain royalties from it and/or to prevent any new firm from using the
technological innovation included in the patent (Faunce and Lexchin, 2007;Collier,
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et al., 2019)
. With the exception of sub-Sahara Africa where the
average individual consumption is close to the reference diet intake
suggested in the EAT-Lancet report (30 kcal per day) and excluding
South Asia (and in particular India where red meat is not consumed
due to religion rules), data indicate that in all the other regions of the
world, the consumption of red meat is exceeding the reference diet
intake by a factor of 300% to 600% (Willett et al., 2019).
Yet, despite the need to reduce it by more than half, the global
consumption of meat is still projected to expand in the coming
decades. According to the OECD (2020), beef consumption will
increase by another 76 million tons over the next ten years, while
the global pork consumption will increase by 127 million tons
Overall, red meat consumption is therefore going to continue
growing far beyond its already unsustainable level. Even if high-
income countries have reached some degree of saturation (OECD,
2020), as income continues to rise and life-style to change in
LMICs, so will red meat per capita consumption. In this regard,
what is happening in China is emblematic. While the Time maga-
zine hinted recently: ‘‘How China could change the World by tak-
ing meat off the menu” (Time, 2020), alluding at the pivotal place
that this one country plays in this entire read meat balance, unfor-
tunately, China’s appetite for meat is not falling. On the contrary,
the country, which is already the world’s largest consumer of meat
with about 40.3 million tons of pigmeat consumed in 2020, is
expected to continue on a step increasing trajectory in the future,
as disposable incomes increase and the middle class continues to
expand (OECD, 2020).
Beyond China, the general trend in ‘emerging’ countries is wor-
risome. Overall the annual growth in per capita meat consumption
is projected to double, compared to last decade (OECD, 2020). As
pointed out by many (e.g., Drewnowski & Poulain, 2018; SAPEA,
2020), the factors leading to this higher demand for animal-
based protein are not limited to the simple mechanistic effect of
household purchasing power through income rise; they also
include individual and collective societal aspirations, responses
to desires of (new) identities, social pressure and newly created
preferences, as well as expression of cultural belonging
(Vermeulen et al., 2020).
Many of these factors reinforce each other and lead to individ-
ual and collective food choices that directly and completely go
against the changes that are needed for the food Great transforma-
tion to happen. Some would argue that opposing those negative
trends, many positive changes are also happening; that an alterna-
tive, plant-based protein transition is emerging for instance across
several European countries
, leading to a rise in low-meat diets
(Tziva et al., 2020). Yet, even if these trends are real, they reflect only
a very small fringe of the world population, rising from a low base-
line of vegetarians and vegans (Vermeulen et al., 2020). In fact, even
at the EU scale (7% of the world population), these retail trends did
not even made a dent in livestock import and export figures (OECD,
2018). More importantly, they weigh little against the far bigger
momentum in meat consumption described above, with billions of
consumers across Asia and Africa entering the middle class, thus
driving a projected 74% increase in demand for meat by 2050
(Ranganathan et al., 2016).
The one-million-dollar question then is: How do we expect to
reconcile the need to reduce by half the global consumption of
red meat in the next 20 years when more than 3 billion people
are projected to continue increasing their consumption, driving a
more-than-double increase in demand for meat by 2050? Behind
the pure arithmetics of the question lies however an even deeper
ethical dilemma: who is to decide how to ‘‘impose” those reduc-
tions, even when it is widely acknowledged that our individual
preferences are direct threats to our collective sustainability?
4.2. Not just societal aspirations, governments’ national interests
Fuelled by this growing demand, the production of meat is also
on the rise. The annual global red meat production is projected to
expand by more than 19 million metric tons by 2029, reaching
nearly 345 million tons per year (i.e. 304% of the quantity that
would be needed based on the EAT-Lancet reference diet).
A handful of corporations have come to dominate the meat
industry as it expanded over the past five decades. Importantly,
these corporations, the largest based in US, China and Brazil, have
not just benefited from the world exponential increase in demand;
they also benefited from substantial support from their respective
governments (Winders & Ransom, 2019). In the US, for instance
Starmer et al. (2006) and Starmer & Wise (2007) estimate that,
between 1997 and 2005, Tyson & Smithfield, two of the largest
agri-food firms involved in beef and pigmeat industry saved an
estimated US$572 million per year through direct payments pro-
vided by various USDA’s subsidies programs. Likewise, in China,
if grants, subsidized loans, and tax breaks are accounted for, Chi-
nese pork industry receives an estimated US$22 billion per year,
or US$47 per pig (the Economist, 2014). In Brazil, Pigatto &
Pigatto (2015) described how JBS –which is now the world’s largest
meat processor when accounting for beef, pork and poultry-
received substantial financial support from the Federal Govern-
ment, including access to very advantageous low-cost loans, in
exchange for the Brazilian government to become a shareholder
of the firm.
Howard (2016), Schneider (2017) and others (e.g., Peine 2013)
provide detailed accounts of those various interferences of national
governments in the economics and finance of the ‘‘Big Meat”
industry. At the end, even though, some of those governments
are officially fighting the Big Food actors’ oligopolistic behaviours
with one hand (see section 3.2.1), they actively support those same
actors with the other hand. Their own financial interests and polit-
ical agenda are becoming so entangled with those of the industry
that it is currently impossible for those governments to reverse
the tide and engage in the type of drastic policy changes that
would be necessary to make the Great Transformation happen.
5. Innovation as an evolutionary process driven by profit, not by
‘‘So far, few studies have explored the boundaries of what would be
feasible if the world adopted more disruptive, ‘wild’, game-
changing options that could accelerate progress in many desired
dimensions of food systems simultaneously. Some of these game-
changers are no longer in the realms of imagination; they are
already being developed at considerable pace, reshaping what is
feasible across different sectors‘‘. (Herrero et al., 2020, p. 266)
In this section, we will discuss technological innovation’s role in
relation to food systems and the Great Transformation. Our pre-
mise is that although technological innovation is generally pre-
In this discussion we restrict our argumentation to the upper-bound of the red
meat consumption. We acknowledge that animal-based foods provide a concentrated
source of vitamins and minerals that are necessary for the healthy development of
young children (HLPE, 2017), and therefore that while our argument is centered
around the trend observed in the global consumption of red meat, it does not apply to
those individual households in countries where the consumption of red meat is below
the suggested reference level.
For sheepmeat, the global consumption is projected to increase by ‘only’ 2 million
tons over next 10 years.
For instance, in UK supermarkets reported plant-based products to be their
biggest source of growth in 2018 and wider industry research revealed that products
labelled as ‘vegan’ increased sales by 276% in a year (Waitrose, 2018;WBCSD, 2018).
C. Béné World Development 154 (2022) 105881
sented as the main expected ‘engine’ of the Great Transformation
(as Herrero et al.’s quote illustrates above), the very fact that inno-
vations are themselves intrinsically driven by profit and not by
sustainability prevent them from creating the strong uni-
directionality needed for the Great Transformation to happen.
5.1. Innovation as the engine of changes
While it is recognized that social change and technology devel-
opment are inseparable and have to be analysed accordingly (e.g.,
Scrase & Smith 2009; Avelino et al., 2016), the emphasis has always
been on technological innovation as being the driver of those soci-
etal changes. The literature on socio-technical transitions for
instance has generated many insights into how, when and why
innovation is at the core of most socio-technical change (Geels &
Schot, 2007; El Bilali, 2019). Some of the dominant strands of liter-
ature in this, in particular the multi-level perspective on socio-
technical transitions (MLP), describe how the process of innovation
starts from what is called technological niches, how these innova-
tions are then scaled up to destabilize and eventually displace
incumbent socio-technical regimes, and how a series of landscape
factors are necessary for this change to happen (Geels, 2004; Grin
et al., 2010).
5.2. Random process as opposed to normative choice
These innovations (or ‘‘game changers” as in the UNFSS new
lexicon) have therefore traditionally been at the service of eco-
nomic expansion and societal transformations (Grin et al., 2010;
Moberg et al., 2021). In food systems, we mentioned already sev-
eral of them (e.g., the Green Revolution based on High Yielding
Varieties; the use of GMOs based on genetic engineering tech-
niques, etc.). Yet, having been at the start of these different societal
transformations and shaping the world as we see it, those innova-
tions have also de facto contributed ‘‘massively to the current
resource-intensive, wasteful and fossil fuel-based paradigm of
mass production and mass consumption” (Schot & Steinmueller,
2018, p. 1562) which characterises this same world. In sum, tech-
nological innovations may be part of the solution but they are also
part of the problem -or as Weber & Rohracher, 2012 put it, part of
the ‘‘failures”- thus justifying the reject of this ‘‘fetishism for inno-
vation” (Tyfield et al., 2017, p. 9) which is increasingly observed in
the discourse of many scholars and international organizations in
recent years (e.g. WEF, UNFSS, etc.).
Instead, it is important to keep in mind that major transforma-
tions occur through what Scrase & Smith (2009, p. 708) describe as
an ‘‘unpredictable and often disruptive evolutionary social and
technological change”, driven by economic priorities and prof-
itability, and where the prime selection mechanism is constituted
by the market (Hausknost & Hass, 2019). Indeed, for an innovation
to survive the pilot stage and be scaled up, the primary condition is
its economic viability not its potential future societal benefits. In
other terms, the dominant dynamics of socio-technical progress
is one that is driven by economic success and associated higher
profits (Hausknost & Hass, 2019; Schneider et al., 2020). In theory,
there is nothing wrong with this, except that the process is not fit
for purposive societal transformation. Beyond the fact that technol-
ogy may create undesirable lock-ins (Cowan & Gunby 1996;
Magrini et al., 2016), more fundamentally, the inherent dynamics
of profitability leads to a random process reflecting its evolutionary
selective mechanism where multiple innovations will ‘‘intersect,
overlap and conflict in unpredictable ways” (Scoones et al., 2015,
p. 33). The pattern of change that typically drives innovation pro-
cesses is therefore ‘‘random” (Geels et al., 2015, p. 7) and lacks
the purposive, normative and goal-oriented component that would
be necessary for a sustainable transformation to happen. In that
sense, although Herrero et al. (2020) are correct pointing at the
large number of existing or near-ready innovations that could con-
tribute to a ‘sustainable’ transformation of the food system, they
forget that the 75 ‘‘technologies with transformation potential”
that they identify (listed in their Fig. 1 p. 268) result from a
cheery-picking process which aims exactly at counterbalancing
the random nature of innovation. In essence, through their careful
selective process, what Hererro and his colleagues did was to add
the normative element that is currently missing from the market.
Symbolistically, they replace the ‘invisible hand’ by a visible one
in an attempt to steer innovations towards sustainability. But the
market, left alone, is blind to sustainability. Competing with, and
overcrowding those 75 sustainability-friendly innovations, 3 times
more, or maybe 10 times more innovations will be put on the mar-
ket and will, sometimes indirectly and sometimes conspicuously,
offset the sustainable effects of those 75 ‘positive’ innovations -
see Fig. 2.
6. Politics of evidence (and evidence of politics) in food systems
The last section of this analysis draws on some of the arguments
deployed in the ‘‘politics of evidence” literature (Smith, 2013;
Cairney, 2015). It will show how science and knowledge are being
used (or mis-used) by different actors –including the Big Food
industry, but also policy-makers or even scientists– and how this
politic of evidence and the related evidence-based policy discourse
(Hammersley, 2005; Broadbent, 2012) can contribute to slowing
down the process of societal transformation.
6.1. Evidence-based policy and the failure of science
‘‘The importance of evidence-based policymaking should not
obscure the fact that evidence alone is never sufficient to make pol-
icy choices, which almost always involve some trade-off between
competing interests and values”(OECD, 2021, p.88)
Scientists generally hold the view that the use of evidence in
policy-making is inherently a ‘good thing’ (the so-called
evidence-based policy discourse) (Broadbent, 2012) and that the
function of generating neutral and impartial evidence is the ulti-
mate role of scientists (Smith, 2013; Hammersley, 2013). This
vision fails to recognize, however, that more often than not, evi-
dence (or lack of it) is explicitly used as a tool for the promotion
of specific interests -especially when the issue at stake may be
highly contested (Weiss, 1989; Parkhurst, 2017) as it is the case
for many aspects of the Great Transformation. We see two ways
in which sciences are misused in this process: either as part of
what we call (i) the politicisation of science; or as part of (ii) the
depoliticisation of societal debates.
6.1.1. Politicisation of science
Politicisation of science refers to the process by which specific
pieces of evidence are cherry-picked –or on the contrary ignored
or hidden– as a way to advance particular agendas, ideologies or
ideas (Wise, 2006; Parkhurst, 2017). To some extent this starts
with unethical or ‘weak’ science, when scientists alter their own
results to confirm their own hypotheses, to find a positive impact,
or (more often than we think) to ‘align’ their results with the cur-
rent mainstream paradigm (Fanelli, 2009). But this process
becomes really ‘political’ when it refers to the mis-use of science
by other actors (pharmaceutical companies, policy-makers, gov-
ernments or administrations
) which deliberately distort evidence
Some of the most infamous examples include the G.W. Bush administration who
has been shown to make selective uses of evidence to justify the 2003 war in Irak
(Pillar, 2006;Van der Heide, 2013).
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as an attempt to misinform or influence their clients, constituency,
or patients. One well-established example is that of the tobacco
industry which managed to deter or delay live-saving laws and pub-
lic health policies for more than 30 years through the systematic
manipulations of evidence (Bero, 2005; Stuckler & Nestle, 2012).
There is unfortunately a disturbing parallel between the 1960–
1990s behaviour of the tobacco industry, and the current beha-
viour of Big Food actors (Brownell & Warner, 2009). Considerable
evidence has now been accumulated that shows how food and
beverage companies for instance adopt unethical tactics to chal-
lenge public health responses such as taxation and regulation
(see, e.g., Ludwig & Nestle, 2008; Stuckler et al., 2011). Every sys-
tematic review available in the literature converges toward the
same conclusion, namely the frequent manipulation of evidence
by the industry and the researchers who work for them.
Mandrioli et al. (2016), for instance, found that industry-
sponsored reviews assessing the effects of sugar-sweetened bever-
ages are all statistically more likely to have results favourable to
the industry compared with non-industry sponsored reviews. Sim-
ilar results were found by other systematic reviews, including Bes-
Rastrollo et al. (2013); Massougbodji et al. (2014) and Lesser et al.
. More concerning, Mandrioli et al. (2016) also found that
almost half of the papers they reviewed had authors who failed to
disclose relevant conflicts of interest with the food industry
sum, the politicisation of science and its instrumentalization by
the transnational agri-food corporations is a reality that needs to
be debunked and fought against as it contributes to slow down the
changes in laws, regulations and policies that are necessary to sup-
port the transformation of the sector toward healthier and more sus-
tainable foods.
6.1.2. The depoliticisation of societal debate
The depoliticisation of societal debate refers to the process by
which the political dimension of a particular issue (for instance
winners and losers created by a public or private investment) is
eliminated by the careful reframing of the problem (in the sense
of Van Hulst & Yanow, 2016) or the selective choice of particular
pieces of evidence over others. An illustrative example (reported
in Schmidt et al., 2020) would be when the Coca Cola company jus-
tified the launch of a new bottling plant in Colombia in 2016 by
highlighting that the new plant was to ‘‘decrease the carbon foot-
print and encourage the use of sustainable packaging”, but
neglected to mention that the same new plant was also going to
consume 68% of the water resources of the entire municipality
(Schmidt et al., 2020). By reframing the problem around carbon
footprint but ‘forgetting’ the water usage, Coca Cola eliminated
the political debate about the actual impact of the plant on the
local community.
Although this particular example involves some of the main
actors of the Big Food, the issue of depoliticisation of the agenda
is not exclusive to the private sector, and researchers and policy-
makers themselves very often are involved (Liverani et al., 2013;
Parkhurst, 2017). Academics and researchers, for instance, by
insisting about the centrality of the evidence-based policy (EBP)
approach as the primary path by which ‘good’ policy can be formu-
lated, often encourage, or at least indirectly contribute to, this
depoliticisation of societal debates in which decision-makers
decide to prioritize issues for which a large or more coherent body
of evidence is already available (e.g. the nutritional benefits of bio-
fortification on populations with limited access to diverse diets,
Bouis & Saltzman (2017), and move away from more complex
social and/or structural interventions for which it is not always
easy to identify direct causal mechanisms or gather evidence of
immediate effect (e.g. effect of land redistribution reforms on food
security e.g. Valente, 2009). Relying on a systematic review of pol-
icy in public health, Liverani et al. (2013) remark:.
‘‘unreflective acceptance of over-simplified concepts of ‘evidence
based policy’ is not conducive to good governance practices (....),
[P]olitical pressures may encourage a selective use of evidence as
a rhetorical device to support predetermined policy choices or ide-
ological positions, or may delay decision-making on contentious
issues while less contentious topics with clearer, uncontested evi-
dence bases are followed”(Liverani et al., 2013, p.6).
In situations where ‘things are complicated’, with many differ-
ent groups of stakeholders involved and where trade-offs between
outcomes are likely to occur as it is the case in food systems (Béné
et al. 2019), the promotion of particular evidence can therefore
depoliticize the policymaking process and eventually fail to pro-
vide the appropriate frame for analysis. A recent example of this
is found in Vietnam where the policy focus on food safety pro-
moted by experts (e.g., World Bank, 2017; Nguyen-Viet et al.,
2017) has been instrumentalized by the central government to
push for the modernization and supermarketization of the Viet-
namese food system, at the detriment of other important issues
such as the rapid raise of obesity (UNICEF et al., 2020; Beal et al.,
2020). In a sense, this case illustrates perfectly the ‘‘selective use
of evidence as a rhetorical device to support predetermined policy
choices” referred to by Liverani et al. (2013) above. More nuanced
analyses of the Vietnamese case reveal, however, that this super-
marketization agenda and the underlying instrumentalization of
Fig. 2. Too many ‘innovations’ put on the market are not driven by sustainability principles and go against what is need for a Great Transformation to take place.
Bes-Rastrollo et al. (2013) found for instance that about 80% of studies without
any reported conflict of interest conclude that sugar-sweetened beverages could be a
potential risk factor for weight gain, while by contrast, 80% among reviews disclosing
a financial conflict of interest with the food industry, conclude that the scientific
evidence is insufficient.
This systematic bias is not exclusive to the Big Food industry. It is also observed in
pharmaceutical industry (Bekelman et al. 2003;Lundh et al., 2012) and more
systematically across industrial sectors (Pielke, 2002;Oreskes and Conway, 2011;
Fabbri et al., 2018).
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the food safety crisis not only lead to a ‘‘tunnel vision” (Béné et al.,
2021, p.18) amongst the policy-makers who are then unable to
identify and engage in longer-term issues such as the raise of obe-
sity amongst urban population, but also completely obliterates
other politically thorny issues such as the question of the status
of informal street vendors (Kawarazuka et al., 2018) who operate
in country’s major cities and contribute to the food security and
nutrition of a large part of the urban population –in particular
the poor (Wertheim-Heck et al. 2015; Béné et al., 2021).
Other examples of this depoliticisation of the decision-making
process abound in the literature including the impacts of the Green
Revolution which for many years has been essentially framed
around agronomic and economic aspects (allowing to highlight
the positive effects on agricultural productivity, food prices, or
even returns to investment), while other more equity-related
issues (such as the widening of disparities between regions as
the poorest areas relying on rain-fed agriculture were being left
behind, Pingali, 2012; Patel, 2013) were excluded from the
Currently, the way the digitalization of the food system is
framed in the literature could be seen as another example. While
a lot of the literature focusses on what is called the ‘‘digital divi-
dends”, documenting in particular the role of big data, artificial
intelligence, use of blockchain etc., in farm production systems,
value chains and food systems (see, e.g., Deichmann et al., 2016;
Sparapani, 2017), equity and power issues around who access
and benefit from those technological innovations (the ‘‘digital
divide”) and whether this digital revolution increases or decreases
inequality among men vs. women, small-holders vs. larger firms,
OECD countries vs. Global South, is more rarely debated
. In that
case again, the framing of the discussion around the what,as
opposed to the who- allows to evacuate the political economy ele-
ments of the debate.
In sum, the depoliticisation of the decision-making process as
we see it already at work in the food system –to which science,
by reframing societal complex problems into simple technical
issues, participates– contributes to devalue or to ignore the inher-
ent political nature of the transformation of the system and its
unavoidable trade-offs.
7. For the Great Transformation to happen...
In the previous sections of this paper, we identified several
barriers-to-change, which we posit are contributing to lock the
food system in its current unsustainable trajectory. In this last sec-
tion, we will revisit those with the intention to identify how to
reconfigure the system and steer it in the direction of the Great
7.1. First, destabilizing the status quo and dis-empowering the Big
‘‘It is important that well-meaning critics understand that food
companies are not focused on making people fat; they are focused
on making money”. (Mike Huckabee -former US Arkansas Gover-
nor, quoted in Wilde, 2009, p.159)
In light of Mr. Huckabee’s statement, we argue that, in order to
happen, a normative, purposive transformation would imply a
foundational shift in the current governance of food systems with
the ambition of dis-empowering the incumbent Big Food actors
and destabilizing the status quo.
Food systems as they operate are not sustainable and the
transnational agri-food corporations that control them will not
be able to become the agents of change that are required to redi-
rect the systems toward more sustainable outcomes. Currently,
the incentive structures of those agri-food corporations are largely
determined by global financial markets’ priorities (Clapp, 2014;
IPES 2017), including the demand for continuous profits and high
returns on investment (Wiist, 2011; Clapp, 2017). Those priorities
are simply and clearly not compatible with the objectives of a sus-
tainable food system. As Stuckler & Nestle sagaciously pointed out
almost 10 years ago, ‘‘food systems are not driven to deliver
optimal human diets but to maximize profits (2012, p.1). There is
therefore a fundamental and intrinsic contradiction between the
vision of a sustainable, healthy and just world that those calling
for the Great Transformation have in mind, and the Big Food’s core
business and structure and their disproportional concentration of
market share, wealth and power (IPES 2017; Schneider et al.,
In those conditions, the claims that transnational agri-food cor-
porations can ‘‘become a positive force in sustainability transi-
tions” (Folke et al., 2019, p.3) and drive the re-directing of the
system toward sustainability are difficult to justified based on evi-
dence. What a Great Transformation would imply, instead, is a dis-
continuation of the Big Food oligopolistic hegemony on the food
system, in order to reintroduce a true competitiveness in the sys-
tem and permit smaller actors and new comers to engage, destabi-
lizing the current status quo through disruptive innovations, and
participate to the changes that are required.
7.2. Second, aligning innovation with sustainability
Complementing the destabilization of the current status quo
and the dis-empowerment of the Big Food, we need also to remem-
ber that innovation left on its own will not solve the problem. A
prescriptive restructuration of the innovation process is also
required. The second critical element in creating the conditions
for a Great Transformation to happen should therefore be the
establishment of not just an enabling but a normative environment,
guiding the technological innovation process. We saw in section
5.2 that under ‘normal’ conditions, the factor that drives technolog-
ical innovations and conditions their success (or failure) is their
economic profitability, and that, as a consequence, the pattern of
change emerging from this selection processes is ‘‘random”, lead-
ing to both desirable but also undesirable innovations. Said differ-
ently, at the present time, the process lacks the purposive, goal-
oriented dimension that is necessary to ensure that innovations
arriving on the food market are not just economically viable but
also aligned with the societal goal of sustainability (Hausknost &
Hass, 2019; Schneider et al., 2020). What is needed therefore is
the establishment of a governance system through which a clear
directionality is enforced so that innovations stop being random
and become sustainability-oriented. The same ways that Herrero
and his co-authors’ visible hands had picked up specific innova-
tions which, based on their expertise, were deemed desirable, this
normative process will need to ensure that innovations that are
desirable are identified and supported, while those that are not
aligned with sustainability objectives (such as the one displayed
on Fig. 2) are deterred.
The few exceptions to this are studies based on high income countries analyses –
see e.g. Bowen and Morris, (2019); or the special issue edited by Klerkx et al. (2019).
C. Béné World Development 154 (2022) 105881
The transformation will have, therefore, to be significant and
bold. It will have to avoid the trap of the self-regulation dis-
, and resist the false promises of the corporate responsi-
bility and other social-license-to-operate’s rhetorics
. Those
governance models, which have been tried for more than 30 years,
are part of the reasons why our food systems are, today, unsustain-
able. What we are discussing here is therefore not just transforming
food systems themselves, but transforming the governance of food sys-
tems and in particular altering the mechanisms driving the innova-
tion process. As remarked earlier, left in the invisible hands of the
market, innovations are not capable of self-alignment with sustain-
ability. We need to create that alignment. For that, the system needs
is to be put on its head. Instead of having innovations driving societal
changes and public policies playing the role of enabling environ-
ment, we need public policies proactively driving the process and
innovations following.
In this new governance system, small innovators and entrepre-
neurs (organic or biofarmers, inventive processors or transporters
reducing the carbon footprint of their activities, owners or man-
agers of restaurants proposing healthy or environmentally friendly
menus, municipalities prioritizing recycling, etc.), all those actors
who are currently dwarfed by Big Food, would be the ones sup-
ported by the new system so that, within 10 years, the only inno-
vations that would come through would be those systematically
aligned with sustainability norms.
7.3. Third, directionality and accountability of governments’ decisions
The third element in this governance transformation is about
international accountability. We claim that the directionality
needed for an effective food system Great Transformation will have
to be generated through political will and strong accountability at
the international level (Fanzo et al., 2021). The current two-face of
many governments, who, on one hand, preach the need for an
urgent transition to more sustainable and healthier food systems,
while, with the other hand, continuing to offer significant subsidies
and financial support to national and/or trans-national corpora-
tions which objectives are not aligned with the changes required
for the Great Transformation (see section 4.2 in the case of the
red meat industry), needs to be exposed.
Mechanisms of soft accountability already exist. The Hunger
and Nutrition Commitment Index (HANCI) is one example in the
specific domain of food security and nutrition. The HANCI mea-
sures countries’ political commitment to tackling hunger and
undernutrition, and document where governments fail in address-
ing those issues, thus providing greater transparency and some
level of public accountability (te Lintelo et al., 2014). But the
majority of the commitments and pledges made by those govern-
ments are voluntary. Other monitoring and tracking initiatives
exist, such as the Countdown for Maternal, Newborn and Child
Health (Boerma et al., 2018), the Lancet Countdown for Climate
Change and Health (Watts et al., 2019), or the Global Nutrition
Report’s annual tracking of World Health Assembly and SDG nutri-
tion targets (GNR, 2020). While those initiatives are critical instru-
ments to monitor progress toward specific goals, the magnitude of
the changes required for a Great Transformation and the multi-
sectoral nature of that transformations is beyond the scope of
those individual initiatives.
The objective here would be to ensure that governments don’t
shy away from their responsibilities and duties not only vis-a-vis
their own citizen but also the citizen of other countries. We could
therefore imagine a system where governments would be held
accountable (by other governments or by civil society organiza-
tions) for continuing to support transnational food corporations’
investments in unsustainable activities.
Our view is that only an Intergovernmental organization with
enough ‘‘teeth” (including the power to enforce participants’
adherence to international norms on food system sustainability
(to be established –see Fanzo et al., 2021) and the abilities to
resolve potential emerging international disputes) would offer
the foundations necessary to compel individual governments to
align their national policies with a global food system sustainabil-
ity goal and create the international accountability mechanism
necessary for the success of such endeavour –see also Béné et al.
2020. The work of this intergovernmental organization would be
contributing, at the international level, to the governance transfor-
mation that was discussed at national level in section 7.2.
7.4. Science’s new agenda
‘‘(...)simply using evidence does not necessarily make a decision
democratically legitimate.”(Parkhurst 2017, p.30)
Evidence are critical for knowledge generation, and the case of
food systems (for which our understanding of what sustainability
looks like, or even more trivially how many people operate infor-
mally in LMICs’, appears still very patchy) certainly calls for an
upsurge of data collection. There is therefore a risk that, once again,
scientists confine themselves into a comfortable role of ‘‘knowl-
edge brokers” (as in Folke et al., 2019), focussing on generating
‘‘more evidence”, and in doing so walk away from engaging into
the politics and contested nature of food system transformations.
As reflected in Parkhurst’s quote above, for too long scientists have
failed to recognize that, while claiming to contribute to –or to try
to influence- policymaking process, they also need to accept and
embrace the political implications of their own research
(Parkhurst, 2017; OECD, 2021).
What is needed is not just more data or more evidence, but dif-
ferent types of data and evidence, in particular at the interface
between science, society and policy in relation to food systems
(Kennedy & Liljeblad, 2016; Caron et al., 2018; Webb et al., 2020;
Fazey et al. 2020), to better understand how the actors of those dif-
ferent spheres interact with each other and how those interactions
shape the environmental, economic, social, health, and cultural
outcomes of food systems, and contribute (or not) to align the sys-
tem toward a long-term sustainability (Patterson et al. 2017; Béné
et al., 2019; Fanzo, 2021). While going beyond simple technologi-
cal debates, we need to identify the wider governance models
and multiple pathways leading toward this Great Transformation,
dig deeper and more extensively into the potential barriers to
transformation and how country and more local specific dynamics
and contexts alter the dynamics around those different barriers.
While some analyses are already available (Murphy et al., 2012;
Clapp, 2017), we need more of this type of analysis to continue
Industry self-regulation refers to the ‘‘process whereby an industry-level
organization sets rules and standards relating to the conduct of firms in the industry’’
(Sharma et al. 2010, p.242). Self-regulation is voluntary and is typically framed as a
socially responsible industry practice that has consumer’s welfare as its central
feature. The narrative around the justification for self-regulation is that a self-
regulatory system conserves government resources and is less adversarial, more
flexible, and timelier than government regulation (USFTC, 2008).
The multiple analyses and systematic reviews that have been conducted all
converge toward the same conclusion, namely that the agri-food industry has not
been successful at implementing an effective self-regulation approach –see Lipschutz,
2000;Brownell and Warner, 2009;Koplan and Brownell, 2010;Sharma et al., 2010;
Stuckler and Nestle 2012;Ronit and Jensen, 2014;Kelly et al., 2019, amongst others.
Social License to operate, popularized in corporate usage over the last 20 years,
refers to the level of support and approval a company receives from its ‘social license
holders’ (employees, trade unions, communities, government) as a way to measure
the legitimacy of its activities and in theory contribute to encourage ‘‘good”
responsible corporate behavior (Gehman et al., 2017). The theoretical and practical
utility of the concept remains contested however and analyses shows that it is often
used opportunistically to advance individual agendas (van Putten et al., 2018).
C. Béné World Development 154 (2022) 105881
debunking the unsustainable behaviours of certain actors (Money
& ETC group, 2015; Howard, 2016), document governments and
private sector’s duplicitous discourses and policy incoherence
(Sharma et al., 2010; IPES, 2015) as those continue to perpetuate
the current status quo, and be more systematic and open at recog-
nizing and exposing the political economy implications of our own
research, including where and when trade-offs occur and who are
the winners and the losers (IPES & ETC group, 2021). We can’t hide
behind an alleged scientific neutrality any longer (Fazey et al.,
2020), as when it comes to food systems transformation, hard
choices will have to be made.
8. Conclusion
In this paper, we discussed the conditions under which the
Great Transformation called upon by many, can happen. Drawing
on analyses derived from different facets of political economy,
we argued that unless the interests, values and eventually beha-
viours of a large number of different actors are all re-aligned, the
Great Transformation will not happen. We showed how the eco-
nomic power concentrated in the hands of the main incumbents
of the system, the Big Food, has reached an unprecedented level
and how it plays a critical role in the lock-in of the system in its
current, unsustainable, trajectory. Beyond economic/financial
power, however, other processes are contributing to this lock-in,
including ideology, policy incoherence, expressions of societal
aspirations, and culturally-embedded individual preferences,
which all together prevent the system from aligning toward a more
sustainable trajectory. While innovation is currently presented as
the ‘game-changer’, we showed how the current profit-driven nat-
ure of its evolutionary selection also means that the aggregate out-
come of innovation, at present, is a random, adirectional process
incapable of steering food systems towards sustainability. We
argued that unless those different processes are tackled all
together in a resolutely normative, global, and prescriptive manner
at both national and international levels the great Transformation
will not happen. Based on this analysis, we identified a series of
transformative changes that would be necessary at the governance
level to unlock the system and steer it toward a sustainable trans-
formation. While the tone of this paper is relatively stern, it reflects
the severity of the situation. We believe however that the Great
Transformation can happen. It is a matter of political will.
CRediT authorship contribution statement
Christophe Béné: Conceptualization, Methodology, Investiga-
tion, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing, Funding
Declaration of Competing Interest
The authors declare that they have no known competing finan-
cial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared
to influence the work reported in this paper.
This research was funded by the Programme ’Fake news or
weak science? Implications for sustainable development
transitions in the agri-food, environmental and health areas’
supported by the Montpellier Advanced Knowledge Institute on
Transitions (MAK’IT). An earlier version of this research benefitted
from insightful comments from the 2020-21 MAK’IT cohort
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C. Béné World Development 154 (2022) 105881
... The need for food systems to be transformed is widely acknowledged [1]. The current food system is not delivering healthy and nutritious foods effectively. ...
... This solution, promoting local production and consumption of traditional foods, is also in competition with the cash crop export model supported by the Government of Uganda. This represents a classic example of a policy lock-in and raises questions of whether small-scale, local-level actions are able to provide a meaningful alternative model [1]. ...
... Food system governance represents an even greater challenge. In contrast to nutrition, for which there is a reasonable level of agreement around potential solutions, and some progress has been made in setting up governance structures, for food systems, there is some agreement around outcomes, meeting human dietary needs without exceeding the plant's carrying capacity, but not how those outcomes will be achieved [1,41,42]. MSPs working on food system issues, especially those which focus on nutrition outcomes, must work within the existing (multi-sector) nutrition governance space. In that sense, as long as governments function along sectoral lines, food system MSPs may also end up needing to work with existing structures and systems, which may lead to a gradual loosening of the multi-sector perspective. ...
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Transforming the current food system into one which delivers healthy, sustainable diets will require some form of governance. Due to the complex nature of the food system, multi-stakeholder platforms (MSPs), which bring together actors from multiple sectors into a shared space for joint decision making, have been proposed as one potential governance structure. Using the Food Change Lab, a multi-stakeholder platform led by a local civil society organization in Fort Portal, Uganda, as a case study, this paper uses an explicit conceptual framework for food system governance to understand how such an MSP can support improved food system outcomes. Local-level, civil-society-led MSPs have a limited ability to support a system-based problem framing, due to a tension between a holistic view of the system and identifying concrete entry points for action. They can support boundary spanning by creating horizontal linkages but are less effective in creating vertical linkages due to their locally embedded nature. Because such MSPs are not dependent on formal policy processes, they can be very adaptable and flexible in prioritizing issues and focus areas. The greatest influence of such MSPs in food governance is in supporting inclusiveness, especially of marginalized voices. While such MSPs are unlikely to be able to achieve food system transformation alone, they do play a key role in engaging with marginalized groups, supporting inclusion of local issues and promoting alternative food system visions.
... Nevertheless, in the food system, the concentration of power in the hands of a few large, well-established firms-the incumbents-makes the transformation process slow and complex [5,6]. Incumbents constitute the backbone of the food industry and could use their power to drive the sustainability transition by facilitating the diffusion of new technologies [7]. ...
... A dominant stream of literature depicts incumbents as unable or unwilling to modify their strategies to engage in sustainability transitions [5,[56][57][58][59]. In his recent article, Béné [5] analyzed the difficulties of making a substantial change in the food system. ...
... A dominant stream of literature depicts incumbents as unable or unwilling to modify their strategies to engage in sustainability transitions [5,[56][57][58][59]. In his recent article, Béné [5] analyzed the difficulties of making a substantial change in the food system. The article focused on the role of multinationals and large firms that polarize the power of the entire system, from the input supply to food production and distribution. ...
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Unlabelled: The urgency of sustainability transition requires large incumbents in the food industry to implement sustainability-oriented innovation (SOI). However, the high concentration of the food sector and the complexity of the sustainability concept make its understanding and overall transition challenging and slow. Incumbents would need to drive the transition by redesigning business models and practices and acquiring new competencies to integrate sustainability into their innovation strategy. This paper has a twofold aim: (I) analyzing the evolution of sustainability understanding over time and (II) evaluating the extent of dynamic capabilities of food incumbents to foster SOI. We developed an integrated theoretical framework combining the theory of dynamic capabilities with aspects of SOI and applied it to the case of the Norwegian food industry. We interviewed eight food incumbents and one food industry association, and we reviewed their annual and sustainability reports from 2016 till 2020. Key findings show a high strategic activity in SOI, as well as a notable and industry-wide ambiguity about what sustainability means in the food sector. Most companies reveal both an adaptive and expanding behavior implementing conscious sustainability-integrated product and process innovations. Most innovations are incremental without a radical modification of business models. Some exceptions have been detected resembling transformative changes. Clear initiatives of moving away from a linear supply chain to a more systematic approach are currently happening through food system collaborations. Supplementary information: The online version contains supplementary material available at 10.1007/s43615-022-00234-1.
... In addition to defining these narrative coalitions, highlighting their core differences and internal disputes, and discussing areas of common ground between them, we provide evidence that stakeholders within the three metanarrative coalitions are actively seeking to reshape global food systems in material ways. In conclusion, we argue, drawing from Leach et al.'s (2020) embrace of multiple pathways in the pursuit of dynamic sustainability, that the pluralist character of contemporary sustainable protein transition holds potential for increasing resilience in the agri-food system, though it also faces challenges which could hinder sustainable transformation (such as corporate co-optation and control, infighting and ideological determinism, and policy incoherence, as implied by Béné, 2022). We seek to contribute to ongoing debates in the literature about the trajectory and contradictory nature of sustainable food systems transition by highlighting the need for proponents of different sustainable protein meta-narratives to focus on shared objectives held by those with opposing perspectives, while also constructively engaging their most salient criticisms. ...
... Similarly, Guthman et al. (2022) note that the shifting of frames from specific food types (especially meat from animals) to a more generic notion of ''protein" -particularly in the context of purported ''protein crisis"has enabled some powerful actors in the global food system to obfuscate and divert attention from some of the destructive and harmful activities they have carried out. There is a real risk, then, that a diversity of approaches to a sustainable protein future may in fact contribute to stalled progress towards food system transformation (Béné, 2022), as different camps get locked in to entrenched ideological (unwavering) viewpoints; bicker instead of co-operate; drive incoherent policy responses; and fail to address the problem of corporate co-optation and control of the food system. An evident challenge stemming from protein pluralism is whether it is possible for these fundamental obstacles to be addressed in a world where distinct visions of the future compete within both discursive and material planes. ...
... While the meta-narratives appear to contradict one another in some respects, they share some underlying values in terms of seeking to address key problems of unsustainable food systems today, and feature some potential areas of common ground. While the existing sustainable agri-food systems transition literature emphasizes the potential irreconcilability of competing understandings of protein transition (Béné, 2022;IPES Food, 2022;Sexton, Garnett, & Lorimer, 2019), and the risks of stalled progress towards food system transformation, our assessment is hopeful that in reflecting the heterogenous nature of protein foods and the protein subsystem itself, protein pluralism may serve as a resilient response to the wicked problem of unsustainable protein. The challenge is to find a way for diverse pathways in food sustainability to overcome ideological determinism, policy incoherence, and collaborate on shared objectives such as tackling corporate control over the food system. ...
There is a very quickly growing literature regarding the appropriate role of protein foods in sustainable food systems transition. From this literature there has emerged several points of contention and debate. There is, for instance, contestation over the appropriate balance of plant- and animal- sourced protein foods in feeding the world’s growing population; competing interpretations of the contributions made by plant and animal protein foods to healthy diets and the alleviation of malnutrition; disputes over the welfare of animals and human workers in protein production, as well as over the ethics of genetic manipulation in the production of novel protein food products; environmental debates about the relationships between protein food production methods and climate change and biodiversity decline; and finally (though not exhaustively), disagreements about how various populations, economic sectors, and cultural practices could be impacted by disruptive alternative protein food technologies or new protein-oriented policies introduced in the name of fomenting a sustainable agri-food transition. Protein foods are thus deeply implicated in a range of debates about sustainable agri-food systems. This article provides a review of the literature on the future of sustainable protein across five core dimensions of sustainable food systems: i) food security; ii) nutrition and health; iii) ethics and welfare; iv) climate change and biodiversity; and v) social, economic, and cultural prosperity. Using a similar method of interpretive narrative analysis as that developed by Béné et al. (2019) in World Development, we identify and define three main “meta-narrative coalitions” on protein sustainability and examine their respective proposed solutions along these five dimensions. We label and define the three meta-narrative coalitions as i) “Modernizing Protein” (an approach which centers technological innovation as the primary mechanism for achieving sustainability in the global food system); ii) “Reconstituting Protein” (which prioritizes the reduction of animal protein consumption and the introduction of novel protein food products in order to achieve sustainable food system transition); and iii) “Regenerating Protein” (which seeks to restore human-nature relationships within protein production and consumption practices as a means of achieving sustainable development within the global agri-food sector). In addition to defining these meta-narrative coalitions and highlighting their core differences, internal disputes, and areas of common ground, we note how all three narrative coalitions are actively seeking to reshape food systems in material ways. In conclusion, we argue that the pluralist character of contemporary efforts in sustainable protein transition – wherein the world appears to be simultaneously moving in different directions at once – holds resilience potential, yet it also faces challenges which could hinder sustainable transformation. Our review contributes to ongoing debates in the literature by highlighting the need for proponents of different sustainable protein meta-narratives to work towards shared objectives, and constructively engage criticisms from opposing perspectives.
... For example, highlight the significance of diversity, innovation, and transparency. Governance and consumption patterns are identified as important leverage points, although the latter are described as challenging due to the socio-cultural aspects of diets (Stefanovic, Freytag-Leyer, and Kahl 2020;Béné 2022;Béné et al. 2019 Governance has been proposed as an essential element of transformative pathways towards sustainable food systems; therefore, it is of great importance to explore how governance is envisioned in relation to the hyper-connected networks that constitute global food systems. These hyper-connected systems are created by the connections linking social, ecological, and technological networks and systems across the planet (Helbing 2013;Lenschow, Newig, and Challies 2016). ...
... Swedish stakeholders (including business sector representatives, paper I and II), alongside e.g. Blythe et al. (2018) and Béné (2022), emphasised the importance of a state that takes the lead in regulating in order to create equal conditions and support the competitiveness of local business. These diverse pathways highlight the importance of combining global-level governance with bottom-up approaches (Hajer et al. 2015) and efforts to integrate multiple perspectives that can contribute to transformations (Patterson et al. 2017). ...
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Food systems are central to global sustainability, while being complex systems where places and people are intertwined over large distances and at different scales. Transformations towards sustainable food systems have been called for in both research and policy, and Sweden and the European Union have declared high ambitions to act as global leaders in these transformations. While food production in Sweden and the European Union is often portrayed as largely sustainable in a global context, the region is highly dependent on food imports, with relatively large environmental footprints globally. This thesis aims to explore transformative pathways towards sustainability, with a particular focus on sustainable food systems, in a Swedish and European Union context. The thesis specifically studies the following research questions: (1) What constitutes transformations towards sustainability, and in particular sustainable food systems, from the perspectives of Swedish stakeholders, including food system practitioners, and European Union policy frameworks? (2) What roles, responsibilities, and agency do Swedish stakeholders, including food system practitioners and European Union policy frameworks, attribute to different actors? (3) How can interconnections and accountability in global food systems be understood and governed in light of societal transformations towards sustainability? (4) What are the implications for transformative pathways towards sustainability? The thesis builds on four papers that use focus group methodology (PI and PII), involving Swedish stakeholders, including food-system practitioners, analyses of European Green Deal policies (PII and PIII), and quantitative investigation of phosphorus fertiliser use in Brazilian soybean production and related biodiversity impacts (PIV). Four overarching conclusions are drawn from the findings: (I) Shared goals and consensus are emphasised as essential, while a diversity of transformative pathways and understandings of challenges and priorities needs to be recognised, with attention being paid to how specific choices might include and exclude pathways and actors. (II) Emerging shifts in how food is valued open up opportunities for transformative change in which the ‘true’ cost of food is acknowledged, alongside a recognition of non-economic values of food, which presupposes alignment at the practical, political, and personal levels. (III) The identified pathways comprise public accountability regimes, incentives for more sustainable consumption, regulations to reduce resource use and impacts of food production. (IV) The attribution of accountability to trading operators in the accountability regime proposed by the European Union highlights an extended focus from food production and consumption towards regulating flows and intermediate actors in food systems.
... HLPE 2020; IPES-Food 2022; FIAN and Focus on the Global South 2021; Guterres 2021). Despite this growing consensus, there is disagreement on how that might be accomplished (Béné 2022). I argue that it is instructive to look more closely at the previous major food system transformation, the one which brought us the current global industrial food system and its concentrated nature that makes it so vulnerable to crises, to gain insights that can inform the path moving forward. ...
... The point is that corporate actors have had nearly two centuries of experience in shaping food systems in ways that further their own interests, not just in terms of controlling the market, but also in terms of using their power to shape discourses on food systems transformation, technological innovation, and government policy directions. The current transformation agenda must grapple with these entrenched power dynamics (Béné 2022;Clapp 2021). ...
Full-text available
The world has experienced three global food crises in the past 50 years. While unique triggers sparked each of these crises, they all exposed extreme concentration within the global industrial food system at multiple scales – at the field, country, and global market levels. This multi-level concentration heightens vulnerability to worldwide food crises that have profound consequences for the world’s most marginalized populations. With a focus on staple grains production and trade, this contribution traces the origins of the high degrees of multi-level concentration in the industrial food system and draws insights for debates on the current food systems transformation agenda.
... Research in this field has mainly followed two strains: the liberal approach enriched with the humanright-based theories of Nussbaum and Sen (1993) and the critical approach of food regime studies (Friedmann 1987). Stemming from the 1990s, other topics such as food governance, self-regulation, and corporate power have been approached from a political economy stance (Clapp and Fuchs 2009), and the specific topic of food sustainability has also recently been taken into account (Béné 2022;Duncan et al. 2019;Leach et al. 2020). ...
... However, the great transformation that would make the transition happen faces many obstacles that are mainly about governance, political economy constraints, and policy trade-offs. Four actors/loci of powers (Béné 2022) play the main roles: the resistance by transnational corporations and their shareholders; the misalignment of interests and values of governments and consumers; the fact that technological innovation (arguably the main engine of the Great Transformation) is driven by profit and not by sustainability; the failure of science to play an independent role in the critical socio-techno-environmental debate. ...
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The paper addresses political issues related to policy interventions for food system sustainability. It presents the results of a literature review, which explores how the concept of power has been used so far by scholars of food system dynamics. Articles numbering 116 were subjected to an in-depth qualitative analysis, which allowed the identification of three main strands of the literature with respect to food and power issues: (1) marketing and industrial organisation literature, dealing with the economic power exercised by economic actors in contexts of noncompetitive market structures; (2) articles addressing the power issue from a political economy perspective and by using an interdisciplinary approach; (3) heterogenous studies. The results of the review witness a growing interest for the analysis of food systems, political issues, and the need of a wider use of analytical tools and concepts offered by social sciences for the study of power in sustainability policy design.
Conference Paper
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The perception of climate change (i), observations on climate change (ii) and climate change adaptation strategies (iii) of 37 transhumance farmers were questioned. The study was carried out in Silifke, Aydıncık, Erdemli district of Mersin province in the Mediterranean Region, Turkey. The data analysis was done both using qualitative and quantitative methods. Likerttype scale was used to measure perception on climate changes and adaptation strategies. Majority of farmers have heard of climate change (71%). Almost all farmers observed both the frequency and severity of extreme climatic events such as drought (58%), heat and unreliable rainfall (86%), reflecting actual trends in rainfall and temperature in the study area and farmers focused mainly on selling livestock (100%) (mostly to cope with degraded natural grassland/feed deficiency) as an adaptive strategy. There is a massive gap on the adaptative strategies action plan in the regional administration. In light of the aforementioned findings and shortfalls, it is suggested that early warning policy systems be developed with the goal of making transhumance farmers aware of future climate variability and potential shocks so that they can take proactive steps to employ various approaches that best suit different agro-climatic conditions.
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Within the nutritionism paradigm, in this article we critically review the marketization and medicalization logics which aim to address the pressing issue of malnutrition in low-and middle-income countries. Drawing from political economy and food system transformation discourses, we are using the popular intervention types of nutrition-sensitive value chains (marketization logic) and biofortification exemplified through orange-fleshed sweet potato (medicalization logic) to assess their outcomes and underlying logics. We demonstrate that there is insufficient evidence of the positive impact of these interventions on nutritional outcomes, and that their underlying theories of change and impact logics do not deal with the inherent complexity of nutritional challenges. We show that nutrition-sensitive value chain approaches are unable to leverage or enhance the functioning of value chains to improve nutritional outcomes, especially in light of the disproportionate power of some food companies. We further demonstrate that orange-fleshed sweet potato interventions and biofortification more broadly adopt a narrow approach to malnutrition , disregarding the interactions between food components and broader value chain and food system dynamics. We argue that both intervention types focus solely on increasing the intake of specific nutrients without incorporating their embeddedness in the wider food systems and the relevant political-economic and social relations that influence the production and consumption of food. We conclude that the systemic nature of malnutrition requires to be understood and addressed as part of the food system transformation challenge in order to move towards solving it. To do so, new evaluation frameworks along with new approaches to solutions are necessary that support multiple and diverse development pathways, which are able to acknowledge the social, political-economic, and environmental factors and drivers of malnutrition and poverty.
Conference Paper
This paper investigates on the effectiveness of climate adaptation measures in countering climate risk damage. Our paper provides a-depth costs and benefits assessment associated with the adoption of the climate adaptation measures in Italian farms. Concerns about global warming are currently attracting interest of global policy makers and the issue is central to the political and scientific debate. This paper use methodology that will be implemented in LIFE project "ADapation in Agriculture"- ADA which aims to help improve adaptation to climate change and promote sustainable and inclusive growth in the agricultural sector. In this context, we provide a methodology framework for costs and benefits assessment of adaptation measures to climate change and their economic and environmental effects at the farm-level in Italy to improve farmers ability to face current and future climate risks. We provide an exemplary estimation model based on entity of damage avoided - deriving by adverse climatic events with the climate adaptation measures adoption. The results provide a methodology to represent costs and benefits associated with the reduction of the climatic risk that countering the adaptation measure. The use methodology approach could be to support farmers in choosing to adoption of appropriate climate adaptation measures. This framework is a prerequisite for identifying the specific support interventions for adaptation measures, mainly deriving from rural development measures to which farmers will be able to access. Our challenge is to outline specific measures for the agricultural sector, to counteract impacts of climate change also at local level.
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The practice by which international actors consider and engage with negotiations that influence the food system — food systems diplomacy — has the potential to reframe the global food governance narrative to balance the health, social, environmental and economic domains of food systems.