What do we want from the systems so intricately woven through our lives? Which systemic outcomes are in whose interests? What are we trading off when we design necessary transformations? It is clear that profoundly difficult questions about trade-offs need answers. Our systems are failing a frightening proportion of humanity and our current trajectory will make this much, much worse.
There are trade-offs between measures on managing climate change, ensuring food security, and tackling biodiversity loss. It is possible to deliver improved nutrition and better livelihoods, but at some cost to nature, and some cost to those in the middle of our food systems. Others may prioritise the environment but have negative economic impacts in the short and medium term. Let us focus on two things that are critical in talking about trade-offs: interests and time.
Tackling the immense systemic problems in food security, environmental sustainability, and livelihood security require the exploration of different interests. This is a societal process that should involve all relevant actors across spatial and institutional scales represented in a level playing field. This assemblage will have varying degrees of power and agency. One goal of trade-off management will be to ensure that the least powerful are represented and their interests protected. Participatory stakeholder processes are meant to address this, but do not always succeed. The reason we talk about transformations and trade-offs is because this is not happening.
Other interests that tend to fall off the radar in terms of immediacy are the non-human and non-immediate voices. The environment, biodiversity, resources, and future generations. Protecting the interests of the environment may not have the quick, short-term benefits that our systems have geared us up for. Research demonstrates the economic and human benefits to protecting the environment. These are modest figures and should be attended to. But it is not easy to plan for benefits that will accrue in three decades when families need food, shelter, and support now.
We live in a time where environmental personhood has emerged as a way to protect the interests of natural entities. Will this change how we think about interests in trade-off analysis? How will this interact with the interests of indigenous peoples? Or will environmental persons also be relegated to the low power/high end of the stakeholder interest matrix? How will we manage trade-offs for an entity with a different relationship to time and space as us? Can we give legal personhood to soil? What will this mean for the use of agro-chemicals, intensive farming, and the use of concrete and paving in cities? Can we give legal personhood for entire generations that currently do not exist? What will that mean for climate negotiations and massive forest cut-backs?
Time is a critical and important interloper in this discussion. Actors and their interests will invariably map differently onto a timescale of transformations and trade-offs. Small-scale farmers need help now. Their activities have a short and long-term impact and their climate-smart practices improve the system’s resilience, but they do not operate in a vacuum, and transformations in food systems need to benefit them now.
The triple challenge of managing food, climate and biodiversity is upfront and present. Trade-offs need to be understood and acknowledged for all relevant actors. But are we losing something when we start from an exploration of trade-offs? We start from an acknowledgement that political leaders, decision makers, policy makers, researchers, and the civil society have responsibilities in addressing these challenges going forwards. These actors have power. This is why we look to them to guide and shape the process. They are called upon to include the excluded, empower the vulnerable, and give voice to the silent. Debates and negotiations will be framed from their perspectives. Of course, participatory processes ensure that input from everyone is then absorbed into the process, but some actors are bringing others to the table. What are those with the table trading off?
Is it possible then to re-frame the discussion of trade-offs in a way that doesn’t start from the assumption of loss? This is not to argue for a ‘win-win’ framing either, but to start with a process that is not headlined by the fact that some actors will come out losing, either in this generation or the next. A process that acknowledges that for some things wins and losses are relative. A win for a poor community in a low-income country cannot be held at the same level as a win for a multi-national company. Again, this is not to demonise large corporations but to acknowledge that interests and representation function differently, operate under different social rules, and have real consequences for those involved in a wicked systemic problem. These can be accounted for in a sophisticated trade-off analysis, but more often are not.
How then do we address the impacts of transformations and strategic pathways? Is it possible to start with robust dialogue and discussion support that allows actors to engage with the necessary conversations on ‘What Ifs’ that open up the debate to possibilities instead of closing it down to trade-offs? Is it possible to have a process that includes the rich discussions alongside a scientific process that measures the impacts of interventions without reinforcing differences in power? How do we arrive at a process that is not limited by the terms of political leaders, interests of policy makers, and funding and contracts of researchers? All are resource constraints of those that often drive these processes. Can we have a process driven by the urgency of poor and vulnerable communities, the decay of environmental entities, and the shrinking assets of generations as yet unborn? Because our current approach to trade-offs is falling short.