I thought it would be easier to do it. But it proved to be very difficult, because of trust issues. The climate and agriculture issue is high on the public agenda… and it's very complex.
Thibault, Dialogue Facilitator and Coordinator
The dialogue in Belgium was initiated by Thibault as part of his work for Rikolto. They decided to run a Fork to Farm dialogue because it is relevant to Rikolto’s Food Smart Cities programme.
“Bringing people together at the table, using participatory methods and making conversation and collaboration possible in light of social and ecological and economical change, and make food systems more future proof”. It was also an interesting opportunity to put their work into the international context of COP26.
Prior to the Fork to Farm project, Rikolto had been facilitating the development of food strategies in cities throughout Flanders. The Fork to Farm dialogues approach was a compelling way to enrich their discussions because “it would be the farmers talking directly to the policymakers. And that is something that is difficult in every food strategy: to have the involvement of not one, but multiple types of farmers, talking from their own experience and their context.”
To contact local authorities, the Rikolto team reached out to their contacts from local government and the Food and Agriculture Advisory Board. “We have been working quite extensively with the local government in Leuven, we are very familiar with each other… it was not difficult to get them on board. The local government is open to innovative ideas, and there's a good amount of trust between us.”
Prior to the Fork to Farm project, Rikolto had not worked much with farmers directly on the climate issue in Belgium, so new connections had to be established. To do this, Rikolto contacted the biggest farmers unions hoping to get representation from many different farming systems. A survey was sent out to the union’s members to introduce farmers to the dialogue concept; ask what their areas of interest were, and how they saw the role of government in terms of possibilities for collaboration on food and climate change. Fifty farmers responded which was considered a reasonable number. However, as the day of the first session drew closer tensions ran high and “farmers didn't trust that it was going to be a two-way conversation.” It was decided that the session should be canceled. “We needed to take a step back and work on trust between the actors first.”
Thibault thinks that political context plays a significant role here. Historically, the minister for agriculture would have also been responsible for the environment. Now, these two responsibilities are the remit of two separate ministers. This separation exposed the disconnect in both policy and practice between agriculture and environment. The minister for the environment is calling for a reduction in pollution, particularly nitrates in the ecosystem following EU regulations, and for limits on the growth of farming enterprises. On the other hand, during past decades, farmers were told to consolidate their businesses and grow bigger, leading to an inevitable increase in emissions.
“Although farmers have invested a lot in climate technologies, the problem seems to be bigger than foreseen. This situation puts them in a very unstable context to work, because of changes in regulations, and it makes them very wary when you mention climate nowadays. You have to take into account the complex connotation of the debate… There's a huge disconnect now, we need to make climate the connecting factor again.”
When Thibault and his team approached the local authorities and the farmers they had the broader context in mind. They framed the project as an opportunity to work on existing, mutual dependencies between cities and farmers as “both have to tackle climate issues and become more resilient... both have not been talking too much and now we see some people from both sides wanting to reach out to see how to collectively tackle these issues … We tried to play it that way. But it seemed the gap was too big and more steps are needed.”
Consequently, the Rikolto team began to take a different approach. They started having conversations with small groups of farmers to chat about how the farmers felt a dialogue should be approached. Rather than going through the farmers union the team is now contacting farmers directly. They are also shifting their approach to inviting people. “We try to focus on pioneers, farmers that do things differently. Farmers that show us possibilities and tell a positive story of change, instead of starting from problems. Their voices are important to accelerate this transition.”
One piece of advice:
“Start talking with farmers as soon as possible, and then take it slow… it’s one of the things I've learned from our process, you cannot innovate for farmers, I think you rather have to innovate with farmers. And that is only possible when they're next to you or in front of you. It’s important they have a seat at the table and have ownership.”