About the Project

A Discovery Early Career Researcher Award funded by the Australian Research Council

“Realising the vision of the 2030 Agenda is more than just meeting its goals and targets. It ultimately requires changing the structures that generate inequality and poverty to ensure that no one is left behind. ‘Transformative localisation’ of the SDGs – meeting diverse needs and transforming economic, social and political structures at the local level in an inclusive, democratic and sustainable way – is crucial”. 

(United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, Research and Policy Brief #24, September 2017)

Fair Food, Civil Society and the SDGs

The United Nations 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) present a challenge to the international community – how to transform towards a more sustainable and ‘just’ society. The goal of Zero Hunger especially calls for a ‘fundamental transformation of the way we grow and eat food’. While Australia is not widely seen to have a food security problem, inequitable access to food is a significant local problem. Some 3.6 million Australians are food insecure; up to 40% of edible food is wasted; there has been a 10% rise in people seeking food relief in the past 12 months; with Indigenous people, migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, the aged, unemployed, young and rural people most vulnerable.

In Australia, and elsewhere, community food networks such as urban gardens, community supported agriculture, farmers’ markets, organic cooperatives, food charities and ‘fair food’ organisations are important civil society stakeholders, who actively confront these inequalities within food systems. These organisations emphasise equitable access to food that is ecologically sustainable, healthy and fairly produced, exchanged and consumed – widely understood as food justice. This idea differentiates them from food security approaches focused on producing more food and provides a potentially progressive framework for thinking about alternative food futures. They are examples of food utopias that we can learn from. And they are growing.

How can community food networks influence the kind of wider paradigm shift towards sustainability that the 2030 Agenda requires? In other countries, civil society participation in food system decisions has resulted in major transformations in people’s ability to define healthy, sustainable and just food systems and improve food access. In Australia, however, civil society is often excluded from food governance despite evidence that it is instrumental in addressing hunger and social and ecological justice. More research is needed to examine the role that civil society might play in implementing the SDGs locally.

Fair Food Futures will explore the visions for change put forth by community food networks in Australia as a way to progress transformation to sustainable food futures. This builds on existing research into community food networks that argues:

  • Community food networks emphasise food justice, not just food security
  • Community food networks are important for food system governance, but are often excluded
  • Community food networks can be instructive for localising the SDGs
  • Community food networks have the potential to transform future food systems and can help point to potential sustainability pathways.

The project has 4 aims:

1. To examine the discourses, strategies, successes and limitations of community food networks as they seek to address food access, justice and sustainable food production and consumption.

2. To explore how Australian community food networks at multiple levels (local, regional, national, global) envisage a more sustainable and just food future, and examine how these visions connect to the global Sustainable Development Goals.

3. To identify the factors that shape, enable or constrain the capacity for community food networks to inform food systems governance in Australia, localise the Sustainable Development Goals, and provide recommendations for policy reform.

4. To interpret findings from the above research in the context of emerging sociological theory on food utopias and food system governance.

Research design

Using qualitative case studies and future scenario building, Fair Food Futures will enable a more inclusive discussion about what a just food system should look like. The project will use an innovative food utopias-governance framework to understand how community food networks contribute to food justice, and the governance challenges they face. As both theory and method, food utopias can widen whose voices are heard through: (1) providing a critique of conventional narratives; (2) documenting experiments whereby food is being done differently; and (3) focusing on the process of creating dialogue. Case studies of local community food “experiments” will produce findings on how civil society makes change happen, at what levels and scales, and in what directions, and allows us to question different narratives of socially desirable change.

Food future scenarios will then be created to explore the visions of civil society and connect these with food system governance. Future scenarios as a method acknowledges that different futures are possible and provides a process for exploring multiple scenarios for embracing or avoiding certain possibilities. With food justice at the centre, these scenarios will help communities and policy makers to debate equitable pathways to achieve Zero Hunger and localise the SDGs.

The SDGs and Australia’s Food System

What are the SDGs and why do they matter?

In September 2015, Australia – along with 192 UN Member States – committed to implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The SDGs have potentially major implications for transforming the workings Australian food system, particularly through the following Goals:

  • SDG2 Zero Hunger aims to “end hunger and ensure access by all people … to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round”. Other targets include ending all forms of malnutrition, doubling the agricultural productivity and income of small-scale food producers, ensuring sustainable food production systems, and maintaining the genetic diversity of seeds and crops. (A full list of targets is available here.) Although Australia is a wealthy first-world country, research has found rates of food insecurity ranging from 2% among older Australians to 76% in remote Aboriginal communities, and Foodbank’s 2020 Hunger Report has found that the effects of COVID-19 has exacerbated existing food insecurity. Ending hunger in Australia will require a transformation of the way food is produced, distributed, and consumed. There is a clear role here for community food networks in imagining and enacting alternative food futures.
  • SDG11 Sustainable Cities and Communities focuses on improving the sustainability and resilience of urban centres. Part of this involves improving links between urban, peri-urban, and rural areas, by strengthening national and regional development planning. As local food networks and urban agriculture projects offer economic and environmental sustainability benefits – as well as mitigating urban food insecurity – there is scope to include such initiatives in efforts to implement this goal.
  • SDG12 Sustainable Production and Consumption aims to achieve the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources. Local and alternative food networks can provide more sustainable methods of production and consumption – e.g. by using fewer or no chemical pesticides or fertilisers; shortening supply chains to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions; and reducing food waste. Meeting this goal will therefore likely require finding methods by which these networks can play a greater role in the Australian food system.

What’s been done so far?

Since the SDGs were formally adopted in 2015, Australia has held several multistakeholder summits, a Voluntary National Review, and a Senate Inquiry into the SDGs. However, on its current development trajectory, Australia is off track to achieve the Goals. A quantitative scenario modelling study predicts that Australia will make, on average, 40% progress across all 52 SDG targets.

The Australian Government voluntary review into SDG implementation identifies Australia’s agriculture industry as key to achieving SDG2 Zero Hunger, and pledges support for “open markets and free trade, and for the reduction of market-distorting agricultural support”. As well as affirming a commitment to market liberalisation, the report focuses on the role of public-private research and development initiatives to improve agricultural productivity and efficiency. There is no mention of the importance of local and community food networks in addressing hunger or improving Australia’s food system. (While the report acknowledges the charity sector as key to reducing food waste and mitigating food insecurity, it does not mention initiatives attempting to challenge or transform the food system itself.) In the section on SDG12, reducing food waste is acknowledged as a major aspect of sustainable resource management, but the focus is on government policies to mitigate the problem, ignoring community-driven initiatives. Overall, the report ignores the potential of community food networks in localising and implementing the SDGs in Australia.

The Senate inquiry into the SDGs acknowledges that the 2030 Agenda “is not something that can be achieved just by the federal government or bureaucracy; it is something that needs different levels of government – national, state, and local – business and academia”. Submissions to the inquiry suggested that implementation efforts should involve expanding partnerships with civil society organisations (e.g. through small grants schemes) and that consultation should be established via a multi-sectoral reference group including representatives from civil society.

How will this research contribute?

This research aims to facilitate greater involvement of civil society organisations in building more sustainable food systems, including through localising and implementing the SDGs. Visit the findings to explore the scenarios and recommendations for policy and action.

Civil Society Participation in Food System Governance and the SDGs

Joanna Horton (PhD student)

Decisions about the food system affect all our lives, but who makes these decisions, and how? As part of the Fair Food Futures project, this PhD explores questions of food system governance: that is, the processes, rules, and structures that underlie decisions about how food is produced, distributed, and consumed. In particular, the PhD explores the role of civil society actors – that is, members of community food organisations, unaffiliated with governments or corporations – in localising and implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and especially SDG2 Zero Hunger.

While questions of governance can seem opaque and abstract, they have real-world consequences for the functioning of the food system. Where community food groups have been able to participate meaningfully in food system governance, this has been shown to reduce hunger and food insecurity, increase ‘food consciousness’, and bridge the gap between civil society and government bureaucracy.

Research into Australian community food networks – such as urban gardens, community supported agriculture (CSA) schemes, farmers’ markets, organic cooperatives, food charities and ‘fair food’ organisations – has found that many of these initiatives are experimenting with alternative models of food production, exchange, and distribution, emphasising equitable access to food that is sustainably and fairly produced. These networks go beyond a focus on food security to promote food justice – a rights-based approach to food that emphasises the central role of grassroots organisations and small-scale producers in realising fairer food systems. These actors could provide important perspectives and experience for the localisation and implementation of the SDGs. However, in Australia – as in many other countries – community food networks and other civil society stakeholders are often excluded from food system governance.

Working with Australian civil society organisations with a food justice orientation, this PhD project will explore the factors that currently determine these networks’ capacity to engage with food system and SDG governance in Australia, and how this might be reformed or transformed in future. It will use the the food utopias framework – which incorporates critique of conventional narratives, experimentation of different ways of doing food, and a focus on the process of creating dialogue around food system governance – with a particular focus on the third stage.

Specifically, this research asks: What are the factors influencing the ability of community food networks to participate in food system governance, and particularly in SDG localisation and implementation processes? And how could such participation be strengthened via alternative governance models?

While there has been previous scholarly work done on food security governance and the higher-level processes of UN forums (for example, the Committee for World Food Security), little to no work has examined smaller-scale participatory governance structures around the SDGs. Although alternative governance models have been proposed for moving beyond multistakeholderism, these have rarely been explored in depth, and never via participatory research with civil society actors in a particular local or national context. This research aims to fill this gap, thereby potentially developing useful tools for democratically reforming food system governance and building more just and sustainable food futures.

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