The Governance of Seed & Food: Taking Stock

Conversations on Food Governance at the ‘Taking Stock Symposium’

By Carla Johnston

In late October, I had the pleasure of joining a roundtable discussion (at a not so round table) on transitions and innovation in food governance at The Governance of Seeds and Food: Taking Stock Symposium at Carleton University.

I sat with Phil Mount, the Associate Director of Just Food Ottawa, Amanda Wilson, the Coordinator of the New Farmer Initiative with Food Secure Canada, and Graeme Auld, Associate Professor of the School of Public Policy & Administration at Carleton University. Led by Peter Andrée, Associate Professor of Political Science at Carleton University, we were asked a series of questions that got us talking about what food governance currently looks like at the international, national, regional and community scale and how civil society efforts influence and relate to these governance structures and dynamics.

I came to this conversation as a graduate student that is collaborating with a community-level civil society effort, the Yellowknife Food Charter Coalition. The Coalition is working to navigate their role in relation to the formal governance structures that surround them- municipal, territorial, indigenous and federal governments. From our discussion at the table, I could see two themes that echoed the questions that the Coalition is working through to create their own governance structures. These themes included the synergies and constraints between scales and who has a voice when is comes to accountability.

Synergies and Constraints Between Scales

Recently at the international and national scale, we recognized that there has been a lack of government coordination around food system regulation. As a result, private and voluntary efforts that permeate many scales, such as organic certification, are taking a much larger role in food governance. This has created a complex patchwork of fragmented governance structures for civil society to navigate through. However, it has also allowed for innovation by regional and community-level groups, which often feel constrained by formal structures, to come up with their own governance mechanisms that are suited to their specific context. For example, the Coalition sees the food charter they created to be a tool that governs the diverse actions of different actors within the community towards a common goal. Being on a community scale, the food charter was also able to recognize the unique characteristics of Yellowknife, such as hunting, fishing and gathering as an important part of the food system.

However, this dynamic may be changing as Canada begins the process of creating a national food policy and as civil society groups, such as the Coalition, recognize that they want/need the supports of formal structures. Yet, many civil society groups through the governing mechanisms that they have created are coming to the table with experience and progress within their specific regions that needs to be recognized. Just as the Coalition is looking to do, many civil society groups want to find synergies with the different scales of formal structures to support the work they are already doing. As Amanda put it, civil society groups are trying to “reset the table” when working with formal governance structures, instead of simply finding openings of where their work can fit in.

Accountability: Who has a Voice

However, when discussing relationships between scales and the actors within them, there are always questions of who has a voice and when. The picture of endless opportunities and solutions through a collaborative process is marred by differing levels of feasibility, capacity and resources between actors. In particular, accountability and grievance measures that are typical of democratic processes may not be open to actors with less resources and capacity to enforce them. As an example, despite the City of Yellowknife endorsing the food charter, it was a city-leased restaurant that was exposed of selling imported flounder as Great Slave Lake pickerel. While, the Coalition saw this as a lost opportunity by the City to promote and further the charter’s goals, it did not have a formal way to air this grievance. As well, at a time when the Coalition is looking to find more ways to collaborate with the City, it did not want to fray the relationship it had established. The Coalition was debating how to have a voice in the relationship with an actor with differing resources and capacity.

One of the parallels that we established early in our conversation was that food governance is complex no matter what scale we were looking at. Each scale brings together diverse actors within the food system with differing levels of power and this leads to complexity. When working between scales this complexity increases. However, despite the challenges that complexity can create, we all recognized in our discussion that when civil society and formal governance structures embrace this complexity it can create innovative governance structures and integrated actions.