Can food and food sovereignty be the catalyst for a Commons Transition? For over 30 years, FIAN International has been advocating for the right to food sovereignty. Their work unites bottom-up grassroots movements and local administrations, with a special focus on inclusivity and enfranchising those who are most often left out. Mirroring some of the developments in the Ghent Commons Transition Plan and the ongoing work on Food as Commons, we felt that their ongoing work warranted a deeper exploration from a P2P/Commons perspective. To find out more Michel Bauwens from the P2P Foundation interviewed Astrid Bouchedor, Manuel Eggen, and Hanne Flachet from FIAN Belgium and Emily Mattheisen from FIAN International.

Dear Astrid and colleagues: first of all, can you introduce your work, i.e. what is FIAN, and what is the philosophy behind your publication Beet the System? Personal details about your individual engagements are also welcome.

FIAN Belgium is part of FIAN International, a human rights organisation advocating for the right to food and nutrition (RtFN) worldwide since 1986. FIAN consists of national sections and individual members in over 50 countries around the world.

Our mission is to expose violations of people’s right to food wherever they may occur. We stand up against unjust and oppressive practices that prevent people from feeding themselves and we support the struggle of individuals and groups who are determined to defend their rights.

FIAN is also collaborating with the peasants movements and other social movements to advocate for a transition towards sustainable food systems and food sovereignty.

In Belgium, we have a small team of 8 people working part time, and approximately 200 members.

Our new publication, “Beet the system”, aims at collecting analysis, testimonies, and experiences of the food sovereignty movement, in Belgium and in Europe. We want to provide a space for expression to the very people who are building the movement for food transition and food sovereignty. We also want to reflect on our movement with the help of researchers and academics.

In this issue, we collaborated with representatives of peasants movements from Europe (Flanders, Basque countries, Switzerland), with “Urgenci”, the international community supported agriculture network, and with the network “la Ceinture alimentaire liégeoise”, a local network facilitating food initiatives to achieve food autonomy in the Liège region, as well as with academics. We aim at publishing this magazine once or twice a year. And we also have many other publications on thematic issues related to the rights to food and nutrition on our website.

Your report has a strong focus on Food Transition councils. Why are they so important, and can you give one example that you think contains interesting lessons for the food transition movement? If you are familiar with Ghent, any comments on Ghent en Garde are very welcome.

We think that Food Policy Councils could be a useful tool to democratise food systems and to induce sustainable change.

The Food Policy Council represents a model of collaborative governance that emerged during the 1980s in North America, and that has since expanded to different parts of the world. It seeks to democratise food system governance, favouring the participation of different actors within the food system (public sector, producer representatives, food activists, small and social entrepreneurs, etc.) and developing a holistic vision for meeting challenges at the local or territorial level.

For decades, environmental, social and economic problems tied to food have been understood in a fragmented manner and managed by a multitude of institutions and public services at the local, regional and national level. This generally leads to a proliferation of sectoral policies, without a real connection between them, which prevents them from having a strategic and coordinated approach for solving food system problems and fulfilling the right to food and nutrition. This fragmentation is particularly significant in Belgium with the complex institutional architecture (federal state, regions, communities, provinces, local level).

In light of this constant fragmentation, the Food Policy Council allows for the development of a more holistic and interdisciplinary approach by bringing different and complementary expertise to the table. In doing so, it makes collaborative governance a reality, manifested by the active participation of different actors in the political process.

Regarding Ghent, Ghent developed a local food strategy in 2013. To stimulate participation and to make sure the strategy is borne by the community, a policy group or council was created in 2014. The council regroups different types of actors and different sectors of the food system such as agricultural organisations, civil society, retail and restaurant sector, education sector and researchers. Among civil society there are organisations focusing on agriculture, environment, fair work and social inclusions. The aim of this council is to be a sounding board for the strategic vision and the food policy of the city of Ghent, to give advice on trajectories and to propagate the vision of the city on sustainable food production and consumption. In this sense the food policy council in Ghent fulfils the principal functions of a food policy council which we identified in our publication on these type of councils1.

The council is chaired by a member of the city council responsible for environment and was initiated by the city of Ghent. The food policy council could be categorized as an informal government agency. Until now there is no specific budget for the council, although some trajectories are financed by the city as well as the work of a public servant who coordinates the food policy council. The support of the city allows for the council to be sustainable. According to Katrien Verbeke, who coordinates the food policy council, the initiative is very useful because it brings different actors together around a common goal. It is an opportunity to get to know each other and to create mutual respect and understanding. Ghent is the only Flemish city who has an official policy advisory group and could be an example for other cities.

In our view, several factors are important when defining how a food policy council will be governed: the nature of the council, the relation to the government, the composition of the council and membership, the internal organisation, the formal process, funding and staff, the functions of the council and the decision making process. The question of composition is fundamental and is composed of 4 aspects: criteria of representation, way of designation/election of members, amount of seats and duration of the mandate.

When we look at the case of Ghent, we see many of the governing factors are in place.

In terms of composition, the council represents different types of actors and different sectors. Efforts were done to create a balanced and well represented council, nevertheless, some groups are under-represented. According to the city itself mainly representatives from the commercial sector are lacking. The city did make an effort to have a balanced and well represented council in which vulnerable groups are also represented. At the start of the council, criteria were put in place to define which type of actors and how many could take part in it. The criteria are: being a representative for a segment in the food chain and living or being active in Ghent, having sufficient knowledge on one of the goals of the food strategy and being motivated to contribute to Gent en Garde. At least 1/3 of the participants should be women. Defining clear criteria which assure participation of different groups in society with a special focus on the most vulnerable and taking into account possible power imbalances is extremely important.

Looking at the relation to the government, the aim of the policy council in Ghent is that it is independent of the government even though it was created by the government. A basis of independence is an independent budget which assures sustainability in time. Until now this was not the case, but there is a plan to change this in the future.

The council has not an official function as advisory board. This means the city of Ghent does not have to be accountable towards the food policy council. They do not have to explain why they would not take into consideration certain propositions or advice. At the same time the lack of procedures can also have advantages, as it makes the council less time consuming and more flexible.

Your report also mentions Brussels, what did you learn there?

The Consultative Council, derived from the Good Food Strategy, is an interesting example in the Brussels Capital Region. The Good Food Strategy aims to gradually establish a sustainable food system in Brussels and organise its transition. This policy was co-constructed with Brussels actors. The initiative comes from the top, but the process is based on a ground of actions already present at the beginning. Although it is not the first initiative to encourage the sustainability of the Brussels food system, it is unprecedented in terms of its scale and the ambition of its objectives: to protect 100% of agricultural land, increase fruit and vegetable production, involve all school canteens, allow quality food for all, including people in precarious situations, reduce food waste by 30%, develop a sustainable food culture, etc. It is also a major step forward in the fight against climate change. To achieve these objectives, the Strategy divides them into 7 main areas of work (local production, sustainable supply, demand for all, food culture, waste and governance), with relatively precise requirements. They aim to stimulate fertile ground on food issues in the Region, but also to direct energies towards collective objectives.

Governance, as a fully-fledged line of work, makes it possible to envisage a certain sustainability of governance bodies, beyond the Good Food strategy alone. The “Consultative Council on Sustainable Food and Agriculture” meets at least once a year, with a view to “exchanging views with stakeholders in the field”. Its role is primarily advisory: it is for the administration in charge of the Strategy to report on its activities, and to gather the opinions of stakeholders in the field on how the Strategy is being deployed in order to improve and amend it if necessary. The Council’s task is to enable an exchange of information, develop proposals and guidelines and give advice.

The actors represented are varied. The Council is initially composed of 28 members, ensuring that the balance between the representatives of the various components of the agri-food system is respected, according to a precise distribution (listed in the Council’s Rules of Procedure).

The Council remains an initiative of the strategic decision-making bodies (Strategic Steering Committee and Coordination Committee – operational) which are led by the administrations responsible for implementing the strategy and the Minister’s office. Therefore, it is within the discretion of the administration to follow them or not, in substance, in part or in whole. This is particularly valuable for the administration, which benefits from a learning effect and the possibility of adapting the programmes to the expertise of the players on the ground in Brussels. For the latter, it is a question of following the steps taken, as well as of participating in drawing up the broad outlines of food programmes or policies.

Thematic commissions have been envisaged to develop opinions and proposals on the implementation of the strategy (operationalisation, evaluation, reorientation, etc.) on specific themes. The establishment of the 3 remaining commissions: food culture, food waste, research/innovation and the active role of the 3 existing commissions will be crucial to strengthen the involvement and relevance of the members of the Council. A proposal, in this context, is perhaps to envisage closer integration of the field players, after two effective years of implementation of the Strategy, into the other decision-making areas, which are the steering committee (strategic) and the coordination committee (operational). These actors could then become co-decision-makers. This would encourage them over the long term to participate fully in the Strategy. However, it should be stressed that it is important to clearly separate the time of the discussion from the time of the decision, because it must then be fully accepted, despite any differences or disagreements at the time of the discussion. A position that should be passed on to a third party for political clarity.

Perhaps it would be stimulating to involve the Council more closely in decision-making, in certain specific matters or situations, but also to allow citizens or other associative and economic actors to question the Council without being a member. In this sense, formalizing what is expected of the participants and clarifying their role during the sessions would undoubtedly be beneficial to encourage and maintain their involvement in this area of the flourishing Brussels food sector, which proves that the participation of civil actors in the definition of public policies can be fruitful.

Your report also has a strong regional focus. You mention the experiences in the Flanders, in the Basque countries and in Switzerland. Can you give a few comparative highlights?

In the report, these different “case studies” you mention were written by actors directly involved in these local dynamics. We at FIAN Belgium do not have a sufficient mastery of these different experiences to draw up a comparative analysis.

In your work, how do you see the interplay of the different territorial levels, for example the city, region, nation, and levels beyond, such as the EU or even the global stage? What is the suggested complementarity between the local and global levels in achieving sustainable change? 

As an international organisation, we try to be active at different levels of the food governance (local, national, European and international). FIAN has an international secretariat with people trying to influence international bodies at the UN level (like the FAO, the Human Rights Council, the World Health Organisation, etc.). And the national sections of FIAN in Europe are trying to collaborate to influence relevant policies at EU and national level. We think it is important to have this global approach at different level. However, we are increasingly convinced that the radical change needed to build sustainable food systems will emerged from the local level. Institutional and political locks-in are too strong in huge and complex institutions like the EU and the UN, and big food lobbies are too powerful. The local level offers more space and flexibility for social innovations and the emergence of new food systems. The challenge is then to link up those local initiatives and structured them to create a critical mass for sustainable change. In this sense, we promote a bottom-up approach.

Furthermore, it depends on how you define “sustainable change”. For FIAN such a change should be rooted first and foremost at ensuring those persons who are most marginalized in society are fully part of the direction of change – policy making, implementation, etc. For us, the human rights framework and ensuring that policies and programs- from regional, national, local levels- are working towards implementing human rights obligations of states is fundamental- not just in food policies, but in general. And these obligations are not just reserved for national government, but also are obligations of government at all levels. The human rights cities and right to the city frameworks make this local accountability very clear, with clear analysis, cases, etc.

Global frameworks are important in creating an agreement on principles, but it is up to national and local governments to implement such frameworks, such as human rights instruments and other “soft law” instruments on specific issues. Creating the space and dialogue between these levels of government – and ensuring that the global and regional levels take into account the reality that there must be a clear role for local actors is an ongoing struggle, particularly in the rural contexts.

The interplay between levels is different in every context—in terms of actual functioning and strategic engagement. Currently the city-government (not just local level- but specifically city/urban) is on the rise as a key actor in development actions- and in particular with food issues. However, as these discussion go forward it is clear that without a supportive national government, many changes cannot occur at the city level as policies and protocols, and of course budgets, often lie at national level. Real change in social situations through programs and policies takes time, and often means implementing programs that are not “sexy” but address the root causes of issues. However, the term of city governments are short and the constant need to be campaigning oneself and impressing other levels of government means that these long term, slow solutions are rarely seen and rather “band-aid”, short-sighted solutions take the lead – i.e. food waste policies.

There is an important relationship between cities and surrounding regions in creating shorter food networks and more sustainability. This has the potential to facilitate better access to healthy food for urban residents and better livelihoods for producers in the surrounding region. The benefits, under the right conditions, are clear and should be advocated for. However, there is also the other side of the story which is not enough taken into account by many people. There is also the risk involved in this city-region food system approach, as it has the potential to play into the dominant development narrative in which cities are the center of development in which rural areas supply food, labor, energy, etc. through a linear supply chain. This model of development, which is not new, but rather accelerated now with the adoption of the SDGs, the New Urban Agenda, etc. – risks to continue the empty rural areas through lack of investment, and further consolidate cities all under the guise of sustainability and green development. (Please read the article “Territorial Food Systems Protecting the Rural and Localizing Human Rights Accountability” )

Do you pay attention to bioregional realities, and how do you see the relation between cities and their surrounding agricultural regions?

Cities are often a hotbed of citizen initiatives, including in the realm of food policy (urban agriculture, social groceries, food cooperatives, etc.). Certain cities, furthermore, present themselves as pioneers in the development of public policy on sustainable food, like the example of the cities engaged in the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact (an initiative gathering more than 150 cities worldwide towards more resilient food systems). It is necessary, however, to avoid segregation between urban and rural policies. Current thinking is too restricted in its limited conceptions of the urban space and does not sufficiently take into account the importance of connections and interactions among domains, including rural and suburban zones. It is obvious that cities need the countryside to ensure their food needs are met. For their part, rural zones cannot be reduced to an agricultural supply function or a dormitory city. It is important to think about policies reinforcing the connections and interactions between domains, including urban, suburban and rural zones.

The “Ceinture aliment-terre liégeoise” initiative is a good example in that sense. It aims at creating a local network of food producers and to connect them with local food processing enterprises and consumer groups in short-supply chains. Therefore creating resilience and economic development in the whole region.

What do you see as the ideal interaction between the civic sphere, the market sphere, and the public/state sphere?

In our advocacy work we promote a human rights based approach (HRBA). This approach is inspired by philosophers like Amartya Sen who tried to reconcile human rights and development policies.

If we are serious about human rights this means that people, and especially the most affected and marginalised groups, should come first and be placed at the center of decision making. We believe it is essential that affected people and their representatives from social movements and civil society should be systematically consulted and associated in any decision which might affect them. We like to use the slogan “nothing about us without us”. In a human rights based approach people are seen as “actors” of their destiny with the ability to claim their rights. They are not passive beneficiaries of development policies. We also believe that social progress is the result of social struggles.

We consider States and policy makers as duty bearers and guardian of the general interest. They have an essential role to play in order to respect, protect and fulfil the human rights of people and they are accountable to them. States should particularly protect the rights of the most marginalised and discriminated groups and should create an enabling environment to realise the human rights of all people. In this regard current neoliberal governments in many countries whose first objective is to create economic growth but creating at the same time social exclusion and the deepening of inequality are not in line with a human rights based approach.

The market sphere is of course an important mean to facilitate exchange and to create prosperity. But it can also contribute to violations of human rights as we experience all too often. States should better regulate the market to ensure that profit making interests do not interfere with the enjoyment of human rights. We are particularly concerned about the current corporate capture of the public debate. Private lobbies are extremely powerful and are influencing policies at every level. They are doing so in shadow corridors but also more and more openly in multistakeholder platforms, i.e. policy space dialogue where large companies are invited to discuss policies of general interest (policies related to development, the environment, food security, etc.). For example, the Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation, Alexander De Croo, has signed a partnership with large companies and some CSOs to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)1. For us this is dangerous. It should be the affected people and social movements sitting in the driver’s seat if we want to achieve sustainable change, not large corporations who are only accountable to their shareholders.

Specifically for food policy councils, it is important to find a balance between sufficient support from the state/local governments to allow for sustainability, influence and recognition, while allowing sufficient independence. Food policy councils must allow for the harnessing of local citizens’ innovative spirit without having it be controlled and absorbed by institutions. Furthermore, food policy councils, in particular those which have a government mandate, should serve public interest and guarantee democratic participation of everybody, but specifically from marginalized groups in society. Therefore, participation of the private sector should be balanced and policy making should happen without conflicts of interest from large corporations or business. When a food policy council is being created the aspect of participation and representation should receive sufficient attention. It is extremely important to define clear criteria that can assure participation of different groups in society, hereby taking into account power imbalances and the need to focus on public interest. Special attention should be given to the role of the private sector.

Do you pay any attention to the commons, commons-based peer production, peer to peer learning, global knowledge commons, and other emerging phenomena related to digital networks?

For us, food is both a fundamental human right and a common.

In our advocacy work at the international level with the human rights institutions, we try to push for the recognition of collective rights and the protection of commons.

For example, we are actively engaged in the current negotiation for a UN declaration on the rights of peasants. The current draft declaration contains important provisions recognising collective rights on lands, seeds, and other natural resources for peasants. It also stipulates that States shall recognize and protect the natural commons and their related systems of collective use and management. This would be a breakthrough in international law. Unfortunately some conservative States (especially the US and the EU) are very reluctant to recognize such rights and they are currently trying to undermine the process. Once again, it is only with the pressure of social movements (especially La Via Campesina, the international peasants movement) that we can hope that the Declaration will be adopted.

We also advocate for food and agricultural policies to be withdrawn from the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and from Free Trade Agreements (FTA). Food should not be treated as a commodity like any other.

Apart from these advocacy activities, we think it is important to create a new narrative around food and natural resources as commons as opposed to commodities. Food is essential for human life. It is part of the history and culture of each population. Land where food is produced should be cherished and taken care of and not seen as a purely commercial asset. Landscapes are also essential for cultural and social life. Many current seeds still used by peasants have been carefully selected and reproduced throughout the centuries by peasants’ communities and are part of the common knowledge. We are collaborating with some academics in different countries to explore and reinforce this vision of commons related to food.

As regard peer to peer learning and other emerging phenomena related to digital networks, well, in our office we use some open source software, and we develop some new communication tools to enhance peer to peer exchange and learning (like webinars). We also initiated a new initiative called “Brigade d’actions paysannes”. It is a web platform where food activists can subscribe and we connect them with peasants in their region who need help in their farms. They are also informed about mobilisation activities on food issues. We want to make this platform more interactive in the future.


Al images courtesy of FIAN Belgium