Jessica Duncan is Associate Professor in Rural Sociology at Wageningen University (the Netherlands). She holds a PhD in Food Policy from City University London (2014).
Jessica’s main research focus concerns the practices and politics of participation in food policy processes, particularly the relationships (formal and non-formal) between governance organizations, systems of food provisioning, the environment, and the actors engaged in and across these spaces. More specifically, she maps the diverse ways that actors participate in policy-making processes, analysing how the resulting policies are shaped, implemented, challenged, and resisted, and she theorizes about what this means for socio-ecological transformation. Participation and engagement is at the core of her approach. In turn, she is active in a broad range of local, national and international initiatives with the aim of better understanding participation processes with a view towards transitioning to just and sustainable food systems.
She is involved in several research projects including ROBUST, HortEco & SHEALTHY.
Jessica is published regularly in academic journals. She recently co-edited the Handbook on Sustainable and Regenerative Food Systems (2020). Her other books include Food Security Governance: Civil society participation in the Committee on World Food Security (2015) and an edited volume called Sustainable food futures: Multidisciplinary solutions (2017).
Jessica has received several awards for her teaching and in 2017 she was awarded Teacher of the Year for Wageningen University (shortlisted again in 2018 and 2019, longlisted in 2020). With the funds she has received for these awards she launched a story-telling workshop for students and faculty, with storytelling trainer, Emma Holmes.
Jessica is on the Editorial Board of the journal Sociologia Ruralis and is an advisor to the Traditional Cultures Project (USA). She is a member of the Wageningen Young Academy and sits on the Sustainability Board of Experts at Wageningen University.
In this video, we interview Professor Joost Dessein, Department of Agricultural Economics at Ghent University, and President of the European Society for Rural Sociology.
Joost reflects on the innovativeness of the RSO Group, our passionate dedication, and our academic skills that allow us to stay at the cutting edge. He points to the role of members of RSO, notably Professor Bettina Bock, for their leadership in Rural Sociology across Europe.
He shares a story of meeting Professor Jan Douwe van der Ploeg after he came across his work.
In terms of the future of rural sociology, he anticipates the emergence of new themes given the dynamism ahead.
Thank you to Joost for taking the time to share these memories and thank you to Yanick Bakker for her editing skills.
Professor Peter Oosterveer, from the Environmental Policy Group, first became aware of the Sociology Group as a student in the 1970s. When he came back to work at the Environmental Policy Group, he maintained strong collaborations with the group through research and education.
In this interview, he mentioned the way in which RSO has stayed ahead of the debates over the last 30 years. He also reflects on the influence of Bruno Benvenuti as a teacher, but also for his critical look at more macro developments (e.g. technologies) and how farmers deal with these. Peter highlights the value of the RSO Group’s focus on rural development, especially at a time when much attention is turning towards a globalizing, and urbanizing world.
For the future of rural sociology, he notes the importance of continuing to understand the way rural regions are changing in relation to other regions.
Thank you to Peter for taking the time to share these memories and to Yanick Bakker for her editing skills.
In this second interview in the Friends of RSO video Series, we speak with Gianluca Brunori, Professor of Food Policy at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment, at Pisa University. In our interview, he reflects on the central role the RSO group has had on his career. He notes the impact of the group, based in part on the methodological approaches and a strong, critical view: the attempt to go beyond the common discourse to challenge situations, while also looking the alternatives.
He reflects on the blurring of disciplines and the challenges and opportunities this poses for Rural Sociology. He makes a plea for enhanced engagement with economies to enhance our understandings of alternatives, without losing the “hard core” of the discipline.
Professor Brunori shares an experience of a rainy group camping trip that led to the consolidation of professional relations that have spanned more than 30 years.
Many thanks to Gianluca for sharing his reflections and to Yanick Bakker for her editorial work.
Over the last 75 years, we have made a lot of friends from around the world. In this short series, we interview a few of these friends with strong roots in RSO and who have gone on to have internationally recognized scientific careers.
In this interview series, we ask them to reflect on their connection to the group, the legacy of the group, and the future of rural sociology more broadly.
In this first interview, Professor Myriam Paredes, of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences, (FLACSO), in Ecuador, reflects on the novel approaches and contributions of the group to sociological debate, notably moving beyond traditional actor /structure dichotomies.
She also recalls fondly the deep conversations and good company she experiences while studying at RSO. She shares that students and staff would come together to debate the ageless question of what different realities mean, as a way to introduce non-sociological students into sociological debates.
She also shares her trajectory from MSc student to PhD candidate and reflects on the quality of the teachers, and ‘friends for life’ that supported her on her journey.
A special thank you to Myriam for sharing her memories and to Yanick Bakker for her editorial support.
If sociology can be broadly defined as the study of social life, social change and consequences, it should not be surprising that many sociologists have played, and continue to play, an active role in processes dedicated to social change.
There are indeed threads of advocacy and social change that weave their way through RSO’s history up to the present. Some work is explicitly radical, aligned with movements and working to support alternative visions of the world. Others engage in more subtle ways, seeking to promote change ‘from within,’ using their research and credentials to push for more just and sustainable futures. Others still research and engage in micro and/or individual actions with a view towards existing otherwise.
These dynamics correspond to a long history of engaged scholarship that has been, and continues to be, appreciated by academics, practitioners, civil society and movement actors, as well as our students.
It is in this spirit that we share this blog reflecting on the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit and explain why so many civil society organizations and academics are boycotting it. The implications are significant for rural people around the world and the event itself demands critical sociological analysis.
In 2015 the United Nations General Assembly agreed to a 15 year action plan for sustainable development. The result was a collection of 17 interlinked global goals designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. The second sustainable development goal related to zero hunger. In 2020, to accelerate action around the goals, the UN launched a decade of action. However, the world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. And instead of seeing reductions in hunger, we have seen increases, even before the Covid-19 pandemic.
Recognizing the urgent need for food system change and action, UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared that the UN will convene a Food Systems Summit in 2021 as part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development.
The Summit claims it will launch bold new actions to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems, noting that we can build a just and resilient world where no one is left behind.
However, many concerns have been raised about the approach the Summit has taken. Issues have been raised about high-level of corporate influence; lack of grounding in human rights; the lack of a truly transformative vision. Another major concern relates to the undermining of democratic institutions and inclusive multilateralism. This is reinforced by a failure of the FSS to build on the legacy of past World Food Summits.
Why this matters: participation and historical context
The UN Food Systems Summit has sought to develop a participatory process involving global, national and individual dialogues, but the process has lacked transparency, while bypassing existing processes and ignoring power relations.
It is widely recognized that to address the complexity of our food system challenges, those most affected and those already implementing solutions need to be central actors throughout the entire process. Over the last three decades, the UN has opened spaces for participatory engagement. The UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is a functioning example of a multi-level, highly inclusive participatory process that has been developing comprehensive policy outputs to support food systems change over the last 10 years. It brings together states, civil society, the private sector, philanthropic donors, researchers and other UN agencies and is supported by an independent panel of experts.
But the CFS was initially not even invited to the table. It was only added to the Summit’s Advisory Committee only in November 2020.
The answer comes from a long history of trial, error and struggle that led to the establishment of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSM). The CSM is self-organized and autonomous, and has developed sophisticated governance mechanisms that ensure and facilitate grassroots participation. It is made up of participating organizations from 11 constituencies: smallholder farmers, pastoralists, fisherfolks, indigenous peoples, agricultural and food workers, landless, women, youth, consumers, urban food insecure and NGOs. Each constituency represents people who share a collective identity. At the same time, the CSM facilitates the participation of organizations from 17 sub-regions, to capture regional differences.
How does the CSM work?
Through its unique mechanisms and processes, the CSM manages to respect, foster, and give voice to this diversity of identities and experiences. At the same time, it helps the CSM constituencies articulate joint positions, so as to have more weight in CFS negotiations. This is quite an achievement considering that participating organizations, particularly those who organize small-scale food producers and consumers, have more than 300 million affiliated members from all continents. These are the most important contributors to food security and nutrition worldwide.
The CSM also uses a quota system to ensure gender equity as well as a balance of generations and regions, enhancing diversity.
The CSM and the CFS are not perfect. Yet they represent an innovative and well-tested mechanism for participatory policy making that gives priority to the organizations and social movements representing the people who are most affected by hunger and malnutrition, recognizing that they are the organizations of the rights-holders that are the subjects of their own development.
It is often claimed that the CFS is ineffective and takes too long to make decisions. This is mistaken. The CFS, while highly under-resourced, has consistently developed high-quality policy recommendations. These recommendations are legitimate because they are the outcome of intergovernmental negotiations and benefit from the inputs of a diversity of actors, including the private sector. This is necessarily a messy process that requires time and debate. The CFS has put human rights at the core of food systems. Human rights are at the heart of these recommendations, building on existing international norms, with attached accountability mechanisms.
In contrast, the UN Food Systems Summit has not been designed as a governance space where true debates will take place and where valuable solutions will emerge through meaningful and inclusive dialogue. This is because of how the agenda was developed, who developed it and how participation has been organized. In addition, the UNFSS is a one-off event with no institutional follow-up capacity, while the CFS, with its decades of experience, is the natural place for long term dialogue.
Who will decide the future of food, and how?
For more information and to read the research that informs this content, check out: