IPES-Food: 10 principles to guide the transition to Sustainable Food Systems

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) is a new transdisciplinary initiative to support, inform and advise the policy debate on how to reform food systems across the world. This is a new panel guided by new ways of thinking about research, sustainability and food systems. The panel is co-chaired by Olivier De Schutter (former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food) and Olivia Yambi (nutritionist and former UNICEF representative to Kenya). The Panel brings together different disciplines and different types of knowledge, comprising environmental scientists, development economists, nutritionists, agronomists and sociologists, as well as experienced practitioners from civil society and social movements.

This diversity reflects the holistic approach of IPES-Food, based around a broad definition of sustainability that covers not only environmental sustainability, but also social equity and adequate nutrition dimensions. It approaches food systems from farm to fork and encompasses processing, packaging, waste and producer-consumer feedback loops. The approach of IPES-Food values local knowledge and the experience of social actors in exploring pathways for transition, as well as taking into account power relations and the political economy of food systems. Its working methods are based on participatory mechanisms and recognize the need for scientific experts to collaborate with actors across food systems in order to produce policy-relevant knowledge.

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The first report of the panel has been called “The new science of sustainable food systems. Overcoming barriers to food systems reform“, and was launched in May 2015. Moreover, the panel has also identified 10 key principles to guide the urgently-needed transition to sustainable food systems:

What types of knowledge and analysis are needed to support the transition?
– Holistic & systemic. Hunger, obesity, environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, the pressures on smallholder livelihoods, cultural erosion, workforce exploitation and other problems in food systems are deeply inter-connected. Holistic thinking is needed in order to identify systemic ‘lock-ins’, and to find integrated solutions and potential levers of
– Power-sensitive. Analysis of food systems must not ignore the differential power of actors to influence decision-making
and to set the terms of debate for reform. Power relations and the political economy of food systems must take center-stage.
Transdisciplinary. Knowledge must be co-produced with farmers, food industry workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and other social actors and movements who hold unique understanding of food systems. Actors from fields such as public health, environment and rural development also have much to contribute to the debate on food systems reform.
Critically engaged. Producer organizations, retailers and other actors in food chains must be fully engaged in defining and developing sustainable food systems. The interests of some private sector actors, in particular multinational agribusiness firms, have typically been aligned with existing political arrangements, e.g. policies favoring export-led production systems for bulk commodities and processed foods. This makes it all the more challenging, and all the more necessary, to critically engage agribusiness firms in the debate.
Independent. Science and knowledge cannot be made to fit within the parameters set by dominant actors: IPES-Food is
a fully independent panel, without financial or organizational ties to any corporations, governments, intergovernmental
agencies or advocacy groups.


What principles and values should underpin the sustainable food systems of the future?
Sustainable in all dimensions. Sustainability must be the benchmark of food systems reform, and must include environmental, health, social , cultural and economic dimensions. Sustainable food systems must deliver diets that are nutritious, affordable and culturally acceptable ii , and must provide food security without compromising the ability of future generations to do so iii .
Diverse & resilient. Food systems must be fundamentally reoriented around principles of diversity, multi – functionality and resilience. This shift is required in agriculture in order to sustain yields and agro-ecosystems in the longer-term, and must be complemented by diversity in supply chains and markets in order to support diverse and nutritious diets . As an embodiment of these principles, agroecology must be fully supported.
Democratic & empowering. Decision-making in food systems must be democratized in ways that empower disadvantaged actors and help to realize the human rights of all , including the right to food. Access to these processes must not depend on gender, age, ethnicity or wealth. The needs and perspectives of small – scale farmers, indigenous communities, disadvantaged consumers and other groups must not be drowned out by more powerful and visible actors.
Socially & technologically innovative. The transition to sustainable food systems requires complex and holistic change processes in which social innovation plays as big a role as technological innovation, and extends to food distribution and retail practices, as well as modes of production. The impacts of innovation pathways should not be assumed to be only benevolent, and should be continually assessed.
Adequately measured. New indicators of progress must be developed in order to capture the benefits of equitable, resilient, diverse, nutrient-rich food systems in ways that productivity growth, net calorie availability and other existing measures do not. Efforts and initiatives to improve the sustainability of food systems should be assessed with a view to seeing continuous improvement; accountability must be clearly assigned in order to hold actors to their commitments.
What do you think about these principles? How do you think they could be implemented?


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