Taking stock of our Conscious Food Systems Alliance journey:

Three years of learnings, challenges, achievements and new horizons

January 25, 2024

“Creating regenerative systems is not simply a technical, economic, ecological or social shift: it has to go hand-in-hand with an underlying shift in the way we think about ourselves, our relationships with each other and with life as a whole” 

Daniel Christian Wahl, Author of Designing Regenerative Cultures (2016)

If we are to build regenerative food systems we need to bring the power of our inner capacities to food systems transformation. Over the past 3 years the Conscious Food Systems Alliance (CoFSA) has worked to define and position the field, build a community, and launch its first funded projects. Now is the time to share the learning and reflections from this unique experience.

The UNDP-convened Conscious Food Systems Alliance (CoFSA) was publicly launched a year ago after two years of cocreation with partners, and now we take stock of this unique journey and open a collective discussion on the next stage of our development. 

What started as a simple, intuitive idea on the importance of consciousness for food systems transformation has now turned into a functional platform of work to bring this agenda to life. With the support of leading scientific partners, such as the LUCSUS Center for Sustainability Studies at Lund University or the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR) at Coventry University, we have built a strong rationale for integrating the cultivation of inner capacities – our individual and collective awareness, mindsets, values, worldviews and associated transformative qualities and skills – as a complementary approach in our efforts to build regenerative food systems. We have identified an agenda for action with clear entry points for the role of inner development in food systems transformation, uncovering major blind spots such as farmers well-being and psychological resilience, or how to strengthen traditional food cultures in particular in the Global South where they are so often under-appreciated. We now serve a vibrant community of close to 300 members and more than 2000 followers. In 2023, we ran more than 15 online events with our Community of Practice and Learning, selected and funded 4 prototype interventions through a global call for proposals, and developed and tested a Conscious Food Systems Leadership Program with our partner, Inner Green Deal

As we reflect on our journey two major aspects stand out as critical to our progress so far.

1 - Building community

The first is the importance of building a community based on authentic and close human bonds, something particularly important during COVID times. Our co-creation journey with some 25 partners – the “breathing room” – was designed to allow for such bonding through non-transactional “connecting sessions”, showing up as authentic and whole human beings alongside our professional identities. We started by gathering people that are intrinsically prone to support this agenda. Our members often felt isolated in their own organizations and seized the opportunity to connect with like-minded professionals, find peer support and partners. They also simply needed to feel inspired and confident to step in into this work, and we have been surprised to find how many people are receptive to these ideas and ready to do so once they realize it is possible and ‘permitted’. What were often seen as personal views and practices to keep under wraps in their professional lives suddenly appeared in public as relevant and even critical for their works. This has been for many of us a liberating experience. As a convener of this community, UNDP has been widely perceived as a strong source of legitimacy for this, providing our members with the arguments, language, references and tools they need. In general, these built on the unique knowledge and experience of our members, some of them having been blazing this trail for many years and are still pioneering these approaches alongside CoFSA . We were also happy to find strong resonance in the regenerative agriculture movement and different partner initiatives such as the Inner Development Goals. Communities also come alive as they meet in person, and we realized the importance of this during our strategic retreatat  Schumacher College in England. Some of the 40 participants found this 3-day gathering “life-changing” or to have “completely changed her perspective and approach to food systems”; It appeared almost impossible not to collaborate together after such a shared experience, where personal friendships were woven and the transformative potential was directly experienced. 

2 - Embracing complexity and emergence

The second critical factor was the ability to work with complexity and emergence. We have been dealing with a triple source of complexity: (i) a new and complex theme, (ii) approaching this work as a collective endeavor in which we listened to many different voices, (iii) limited and short-term funding making the development of our work very uncertain. This was uncomfortable, but we had to consciously embrace complexity and accept not knowing. Opening up to complexity runs the risk of getting drowned in it and, during our co-creation process, we felt sometimes lost, questioning our ability to land this vision as a practical initiative. Some of us also felt the need to more precisely define “consciousness” and similar concepts, while others think it was better to keep this discussion open. We needed to be ready to change our minds and find common ground between many different perspectives and recognize the need for both a simple common message and the importance of the wide variety of contexts in which this agenda is implemented.

We were also challenged to make more room for different framings such as decoloniality, and realized we could not fully satisfy everyone and needed to provide clear leadership as vision-holders. Inclusivity and diversity have been a challenge, especially during our co-creation process, with important barriers to participation from representatives of the global south we are still grappling with. As we felt the need to ground ourselves deeper, over the last year, we started collective inquiries focused on local level issues such as farmers well-being and psychological resilienceConscious local communities and cultures for regeneration, as well as the role of traditional wisdom for conscious food systems, which was based on a specific consultation process of indigenous peoples and local communities. Trusting in this emergent process, we have realized that the right way to do things requires patience and our work could be seen by some as slow to take off with 2 years of co-creation. Rather we feel that there is a ripening process which allows ideas to develop into practical actions at their own pace, when the conditions are in place. 

As our work is now up and running, it is time for us to address critical issues to enable the realization of COFSA’s full potential. The first challenge and opportunity is to be able to truly work as an alliance

How can we enable our members – some of whom have been blazing this trail for many years like SEKEM or the Songhaï center – to lead the development of CoFSA in their own contexts? This entails a subtle balance between making space for our members to step in and enabling them to do so in the most effective and richest manner. We realized the importance of equipping our members with a common knowledge, understanding and set of skills, especially through our Conscious Food Systems Leadership Program, that we hope to offer to many of our members in the years to come. We are also establishing the IT tools and systems that enable this bottom-up approach to COFSA development including a CoFSA toolkit, a digital library and a membership database. The other aspect we are reflecting on is how to find an effective governance structure to steer the alliance, something we have been discussing with our interim Inner Council. CoFSA membership has been open to individuals, who have sometimes found it difficult to bring their organizations into the alliance. UNDP commitment to the alliance is still ahead of other organizations and we have realized the need to find strong strategic partners who can lead different aspects of this work. These organizations would be natural core COFSA partners ensuring oversight and strategic direction, while letting the COFSA secretariat seize and respond with agility to emerging opportunities. The development of such strategic partnership and governance mechanisms is now a priority for us. 

The second question relates to how we can effectively implement and scale up this work.

Integrating consciousness in existing food systems transformation efforts

An important aspect of our work on consciousness as a complementary approach to food systems transformation is the adaptation and integration in existing transformation efforts. 70% of the respondents to our survey said that they have already been able to integrate CoFSA practices and agendas into their work (85% of them found CoFSA to be instrumental in this process). Billions of dollars are being spent in food systems transformation programs that would benefit from including the consideration and cultivation of inner capacities as a complementary approach. Within UNDP, our recently released nature pledge and its first pillar “shift in values” represents a huge opportunity to do so, together with the focus of our UNDP Food and Agricultural Commodity Systems on more collaborative, systemic and adaptive ways of working

The potential is huge. We received, for example, more than 170 proposals in our first call for proposals this year, from which we could only fund 4. Some of the issues we have been highlighting such as farmers' wellbeing deserve significant investments.  So how do we get there? First, more testing and evidence are required. Second, specific products, tools and methodologies need to be developed; this we have started to do. Third, we must adapt our language and approaches to different target groups (e.g. farmers, communities, policy-makers, consumers, etc.); again, something we are already working on through the development of our different workstreams and partnerships. Some members of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel of the Global Environment Facility consider our work as crucial to support behavior change as a lever of transformation, while for some indigenous people the CoFSA agenda is seen as an integral part of food sovereignty. 

Engaging donors in this new field

Last but not least, our work and more generally this field, which seems new and still too-cutting edge for most donors, requires much more funding. In addition to seed funding from UNDP and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), we have been able to secure a first grant from the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation Global for 2023 that we hope to renew. We are just getting new funds from the Rockefeller Foundation as part of their support to the Regen10 initiative and from Tianren Culture. This covers only a small part of our secretariat’s and members’ funding needs.  On the one hand, donors need to understand better the business case through more scientific evidence, as part of a growing narrative on food systems transformation, highlighting the inner dimension of the required change. On the other hand, they need to develop a better experiential understanding of this potential.  To build the case for effective investment in this field, we are offering to interested donors a joint inquiry on this issue, in which we hope to develop a shared vision for the role of inner change for regeneration, identify barriers and enabling conditions, as well exploring pathways for donors’ collaboration and engagement. A first step for this is a donors roundtable in France in April 2023.

Concluding thoughts

During the last 3 years that we have pioneered this agenda, we have seen the recognition of the importance of inner transformation for sustainability and regeneration growing quickly and confirmed the interests of food systems stakeholders to embark with us on this journey.

CoFSA’s success is essentially due to the engagement of our members, the rich experience, expertise and inspiration they are bringing to our work and the quality of relationships we have been able to nurture. As we are welcoming more members, strategic partners and donors into our work, we are committed to maintain the cultivation of deep human relationships within our community as a fundamental basis for our work. As we scale it out, we are aware that we should also scale it deep and keep embodying our different way(s) of being and working together, trusting in its resonance across a wider emerging movement. In 3 years from now, we hope not only to demonstrate the effectiveness of inner change as a fundamental lever of food systems transformation, but also to be a source of inspiration and learning for many similar initiatives.