Key Takeaways from our Independent Food Systems Dialogue

By Kristiann Koris and Anya Petranovic


In September 2021, the UN Secretary-General will convene a Food Systems Summit as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. In response to the Summit’s invitation for civil society participation, the Movement for Community-led Development (MCLD) is taking bold and collective action to emphasize that resilience starts at the community level

On May 19th, we hosted an official Independent Dialogue to explore people-based solutions to the problems our food systems face at the grassroots level. The dialogue also focused on different ways to elevate local food systems that build local capacity in the Summit’s five Action Tracks.


  • Rowlands Kaotcha, MCLD Southern Africa Coordinator and Vice President at The Hunger Project
  • Simon Mkandawire, Assistant Project Coordinator, Restless Development

Keynote Speakers:

  • Dr. Jemimah Njuki, Director for Africa, IFPRI
  • Dr. Myrna Cunningham Kain, Member of the Food Systems Summit Advisory Committee
  • Dr. Madhura Swaminathan, Chair, M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation

Food Systems and COVID-19

COVID-19 disrupted food systems all over the world through government enforced lockdowns and restrictions, changes in labour supply, movement of input, logistics and consumer demand for food. This year, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) launched their Global Food Policy Report which focused on transforming food systems after COVID-19. There were two important findings which have demonstrated the value of community-led food systems and gender equality in food systems.

Community-led Food Systems

Although traditional and local supply chains suffered throughout the pandemic, they suffered much less in comparison to others. This is mainly because much of the food is marketed around where it is produced and communities have designed ways of collaborating that actually protects food systems.

Although this information is hopeful, Dr. Jemimah Njuki noted that traditional and local supply chains still face significant infrastructure problems including lack of investments by governments and well-developed markets with sanitation and provisions that allow women and local people to use markets in efficient ways. 

As Dr. Jemimah Njuki explained, COVID-19 has presented us with a huge opportunity to improve our systems, and building forward “we have to invest in local food supply chains as they have shown much more resilience in the face of shocks”. 

Gender Equality in Food Systems

Our speakers pointed to the growing gender gap in food systems. For instance, many women in food systems lost their jobs due to the informality of their positions and as children went home to learn, women had additional care burdens which affected whether or not they could continue with economic activities. 

Part of Dr. Jemimah Njuki’s role as IFPRI’s Director for Africa is to ensure that “as we transform food systems we transform them in ways that are just and in ways that are equitable”. There are several reasons why she believes this is important: 

  • There is a strong connection between gender equality, food systems, food security and nutrition. As Dr. Jemimah Njuki noted “the countries with the highest gender inequalities also tend to be the hungriest”
  • Women play a critical role in our food systems through their involvement in production, consumption, forestry, fishery, trading and science. However, women are playing these roles while facing countless barriers, including access to resources, lack of land rights, social norms and institutional barriers. Dr. Jemimah Njuki urged, “we have to be so intentional about addressing these barriers if women are actually to benefit if systems are going to work for them”.
  • Women are visible in production, processing and trading, however as you move higher up the value chain, you see fewer women. We want to see women’s voices and leadership across the whole food system.

In order to ensure that women’s voices are heard, we must prioritize and address:

  1. Women’s voice and leadership in food systems
  2. Gender transformative systems and institutions
  3. Systems in which women work 
  4. Structural inequalities

Value and Participation of Indigenous People in Food Systems

Indigenous people have connected with cultures and long evolving patterns of life in local ecosystems, and as a result have created food systems that are biodiverse, nutritious, climate resilient, equitable and rooted in sustainable livelihood practices. Traditional Indigenous practices and values have not only ensured the food sovereignty, health and wellbeing of Indigenous communities over generations, but have contributed to biodiversity conservation and sustainable development for the benefit of all humankind. 

For the past two decades, Dr. Myra Cunningham Kain has been working to advance the rights of Indigenous women, knowledge on Indigenous people and the impact on climate change. She explains that traditional Indigenous cultures, however, are being decimated through the mass production of junk food, the erosion of Indigenous languages and the lack of recognition and respect of Indigenous knowledge by scientists. 

According to Dr. Myrna Cunningham Kain, “National and Independent dialogues need to help change the narrative of looking at community-led and Indigenous food systems as underdeveloped.” These dialogues play an essential role in shaping conversations around food systems, and  must acknowledge that Indigenous communities are not ignorant, but rather consist of people who have a rich degree of knowledge regarding the development of food systems for different ecological floors. 

Our current food systems are underpinned by traditional Indigenous values and sacred relationships with nature which have led Indigenous communities around the world to evolve, to consequent values of consensus building, gender equity and sharing of collective territory. As Dr. Myrna Cunningham Kain noted, “these are values we desperately need for developing a more caring and equitable post-pandemic world.” 

In order for us to continue alive, well fed and with strong cultures, we need the full recognition and protection of the rights of Indigenous people over their land, territories and resources. In this regard, Dr. Myrna Cunningham Kain proposed various recommendations to ensure game changing and resilient food systems. 

  • Support Indigenous land tenure and community systems of protection and management
  • Establish a paired dialogue between scientists and knowledge holders from the community
  • Strengthen the landscape approach with a comprehensive and holistic vision that aims to recover and strengthen the production of traditional medicines, seeds, crops, livestock, sources of wild and Indigenouds foods with high nutritional potential
  • Support exchanges with other local communities and cultures to learn about the management of valuable seeds and food consumption
  • Facilitate the commercialization of Indigenous products by supporting community-based businesses and economic initiatives of Indigenous peoples
  • Improve access to information form the market and infrastructure facilities and management of post-harvest technology

Supporting the Income of Small Farmers – Speaker Madhura Swaminathan

Over the past 25 years, speaker Madhura Swaminathan (Chairperson of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation) has worked on issues of food security, agriculture and rural development. As Madhura Swaminathan explained, supporting the welfare, health, and income security of small farmer households is a key objective towards bolstering national agricultural sectors. She defines a combination of  low, inadequate and fluctuating incomes of small farmers, high cost productions and an unequal access to input and output markets as a  key barrier towards supporting resilient local food systems. 

The M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai facilitated projects focused on collective action that sought to investigate methods towards improving the livelihoods and incomes of small farmers in order to strengthen local food systems. This initiative consisted of two main projects: Plant Clinics or agricultural advising clinics and a Group Federation of Small Farmers. The results of these two initiatives demonstrates the positive impact of programs focused on collective action in supporting the income and production of local small farmers. The impact of these programs has resulted in lower input costs for farming, the use of safer farming practices (such as using less pesticide sprays) for local food production, and the provision of new technology to local communities which has in turn contributed to new methods and training towards making products in healthy and hygienic environments.

In regards to these results, Speaker Swaminathan suggests the need for collective action and public investment in latest science and technology and improved farming practices and participatory trials to ensure the continued support of these small farming communities. 

Breakout Groups

Separating into breakout groups, participants discussed the 5 UN Action Tracks and how they can be applied to improve and strengthen local food systems.

Action Track 1: Ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all. 

This group’s vision in creating a community-led food system included implementing policies that are inclusive towards indigenous communities. While smallholder farmers produce crops that possess market value, there is a long-term risk of losing indigenous seeds in local food systems.

Barriers towards strengthening community-based food systems involved effectively disseminating nutritional information from health experts to communities, and addressing climate change in local farming communities. Recommendations to achieve these goals included educating farmers on the importance of crop diversity and providing them with access to diverse seeds.

Action Track 2: Shift to sustainable consumption patterns

Visions for community action regarding a shift to sustainable consumption patterns involved supporting early childhood education on sustainable nutritious food, placing community pressure on governments and big retailers to prioritize local foods, building better rural roads and local transport systems to reduce the “time-to-market”, and campaigning to eliminate the use of plastics. 

Policy ideas discussed  for shifting food systems towards sustainable consumption patterns included moving government policy away from solely focusing on increasing production patterns and instead seeking to achieve better natural resource management, reducing the energy costs for small farmers (electricity costs are too high for cooking and they contribute to deforestation), and investing in research that improves the economics of sustainable nutritious food. 

Action Track 3: Boost nature-positive production

This group’s  vision for a community-led food system includes rebuilding a food system that reconciles the tension between new technology with indigenous knowledge on sustainable practices.Solutions towards constructing nature-positive systems of production included increasing nature-positive production such as integrating technology and indigenous knowledge, educating local producers on the implications of unsustainable practices, and acknowledging human rights at the heart of community based food systems with land and territory acknowledgement.

Action Track 4: Advance equitable livelihoods

This group discussed methods to overcome gender inequality for people who identify as women, ways to support economic, political and institutional infrastructures that promote equitable livelihoods, and how to incorporate men and boys into the conversation on involving women in agriculture. Solutions proposed to resolve these barriers included collecting measurable gender-sensitive data, supporting international agreements to measure gender data in farming (and other activities), supporting legislative initiatives to address gender inequality and engaging men in discussions of women in agriculture.

Action Track 5: Build resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks and stress.

Visions for a community-led food system involved supporting food-systems that encourage a sentiment of self-reliance in local communities and the engagement of younger generations in transforming local food systems and making them more sustainable. Existing barriers discussed towards achieving this goal include a lack of local access to farming technologies, lack of youth involved in community led development regarding food systems, and existing infrastructure to store and transport produce which may contribute towards income and product loss.

French-Speaking Participants

A community-led food system is one that is articulated around local assets, resources, and knowledge. Furthermore, the system is inclusive, and functions on the basis of justice and equality. The main barrier facing our food systems is the lack of a local food system supply chain that values local assets. To overcome this obstacle, we need the involvement of the government, in terms of investment, regulation, training, and communication. Relentless activism of the Civil Society and the support of scientists and researchers is also essential.

Spanish-Speaking Participants

Visions for community-led food systems within this group involved incorporating diverse actors such as women and indigenous populations into existing food systems, protecting and promoting local food systems, and generating community ownership of these systems. Barriers towards achieving these visions of community-led sustainable food systems are a lack of support for small-scale production practices, the impact of climate change on impacting production and crops, and a general lack of access to land tenure and means of production to bolster local food systems. Solutions discussed towards overcoming these obstacles include implementing public policies that are community-centered and provide local community members with a sense of their own resilience and capability.