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Transition of food systems
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July 17th 2020

Can prospective approaches ignite debate on the future of the agriculture and livestock sector?

How do actors relate to prospective approaches? In this article, we analyze the responses of farmers' unions to the release of scenarios about the future of the livestock sector in Belgium.

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Livestock systems are challenged because of their environmental impacts and in terms of animal welfare. A now classic vision of the transition of the agricultural sector is the substitution of conventional industrial systems by ecological or organic production systems. However, the benefits, difficulties and risks of such a massive substitution are not always evaluated and rationally discussed among actors.

We developed scenarios towards 2050 for the livestock sector in Belgium. The objective was to provide actors with a shared framework for discussing transition horizons and conditions and challenges for entering transition pathways. The study provided an analysis of the current diversity of production systems in each livestock sector. Three scenarios were then described: a. a business-as-usual scenario; b. a scenario based on extensive systems and relying on national cereals production for livestock feeding; and c. a scenario exclusively based on organic systems and feed from byproducts. This research was funded by an environmental NGO. While the most alternative scenario (c) was chosen in compliance with the NGO’s guidelines, the study also offered a reference scenario (a) and an intermediary scenario (b).  The consequences of each scenario were assessed in terms of environmental aspects, production, export capacities and required changes in food habits. The study was rolled out with a participatory process: actors contributed to the data collection and then had the opportunity to collectively discuss the scenarios and their consequences. A peer-review was implemented in order to strengthen the reliability of the results. Finally, a public presentation of the study was organized and gathered about sixty participants.

The responses of farmers’ unions to the release of this study can be analyzed and provide insights on the understanding of such prospective approaches by actors. Several aspects were identified as critical for ensuring acceptance of the study as a relevant framework: 1. proactively offering transparency on the data and the process; 2. maintaining a clear separation between the NGO’s position and the research work; 3. participatory and iterative data collection ensuring a fine-tuned consistency with local context, and 4. having several scenarios presented (not a normative approach based on a single proposition).  In spite of those aspects, farmers’ unions reactions to the scenarios publication were mostly defensive and focused on supporting the current situation. This questions the possibility of building-up long-term environmental objectives and related policies and operational strategies. In addition, feedbacks were different in the two regions of Belgium, corresponding to two visions of the livestock sector challenging the development of a shared vision at the national level.

Keywords: livestock, planet boundaries, climate change, biodiversity, prospective scenarios, participatory approach, farmers’ union.

This working paper is intended for publication in a conference in 2021.

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