Tackling inequalities on the way to sustainable food systems – JUST-FOOD

Harvest season: industrial soybean production in Brazil.
Harvest season: industrial soybean production in Brazil. Photo: Vinicius Bacarin / Shutterstock.com

Research evidence shows that current food systems have substantial adverse climate and health impacts – and that this can only be remediated by fundamentally transforming these systems. Besides switching to more sustainable and resource-efficient production methods, we must also tackle food waste and significantly change our diets.

Little is known, however, about the social and economic impacts of such a transition to healthy, climate-neutral, and sustainable food systems. As a result, we risk creating new problems as we solve existing ones. For example, we might inadvertently increase economic instability for producers, widen health disparities across social groups, or outsource environmental impacts instead of reducing them.

Bringing ethical questions to the fore

The project’s interdisciplinary research team explores potential transition pathways to more appropriate food systems and develops means to make such transitions just and socially acceptable. It works to identify the different types of injustice that may arise as food systems are transformed, and to find ways to address and resolve them.

JUST-FOOD is designed to support policymaking by providing

  • empirical information about the distribution of environmental, economic, and nutritional impacts of food system transitions;
  • co-created policy options and means of alleviating the identified injustices; and
  • procedures for involving vulnerable food system actors in managing and governing just transitions.

A transdisciplinary approach

The project takes a transdisciplinary approach. To create integrated knowledge on just food system transitions, JUST-FOOD combines theoretical work on food justice and food system analysis with environmental research, agricultural economics, as well as nutrition and social sciences. In addition, knowledge is co-created with stakeholders throughout the different stages of the project.

JUST-FOOD: work package structure
JUST-FOOD: work package structure.

From research to interventions for just transitions

CDE is involved in two work packages of JUST-FOOD.

  • Work Package 1 focuses on advancing the conceptual understanding of just transition, its various dimensions, and barriers to it. The team is developing analytical tools to evaluate injustices arising from transition. The tools are applied and enhanced through activities in other work packages. Further, this work package includes developing criteria and an indicator-based methodology for evaluating transition means and pathways. The tools developed in this way are put to practical use in concrete applications. For example, CDE supports Bio Suisse – the leading association of Swiss organic farmers’ organizations – in the development of their climate strategy.
  • Work Package 5 is about detecting and reducing distributive, recognitive, and procedural injustices among affected groups and activities. In a case study, CDE has been working with the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro to examine how different soy production systems are linked to livestock production in Brazil, and to assess their socio-economic and environmental impacts.
typical Brazilian babassu agroforestry
Under major pressure from soy production: typical Brazilian babassu agroforestry. Photo: Theresa Tribaldos

Results of the case study on soy production in Brazil

Since 2019, the project has examined different aspects of soy production in Brazil:

  • The links along the soy value chain to food systems at different spatial scales
  • Different narratives that oppose or defend the industrial soy production model
  • The implications of soy production on two different local food systems in Santarem in the Amazon region with a view on landscape changes, injustices and inequalities, perceptions of local actors, and the relations to international debates such as sustainable development or climate change

The aim was to gain knowledge about the implications of soy production from a social-ecological system perspective, including, among others:

  • the socio-economic and environmental conditions facing producers
  • tensions and conflicts that arise from the industrial production model
  • changed food security conditions and health impacts
  • relations with livestock production systems and commodity trading
  • potential policy options in Europe to support sustainable production

The case study results revealed injustices related to soy production, instrumentalization of narratives to defend or oppose the industrial production model, impacts on local food systems and food security, as well as advantages and disadvantages of different scenarios in Brazil and their effects on European buyer countries, including Switzerland. Further, it provided options for intervention, with a focus on specific public policies and sustainable trade. Overall, the case study offered a useful global perspective on developing criteria for and indicators of just transition.