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Facilitating Alternative Agro-Food Networks (AAFNs): Stakeholder Perspectives on Research Needs

Final Report Summary - FAAN (Facilitating Alternative Agro-Food Networks (AAFNs): stakeholder perspectives on research needs)

The FAAN project put into practice 'cooperative research' among five national teams, each comprising an academic institution and a Civil society organisation (CSO), in order to analyse how current policies and other factors facilitate, hinder or shape the development of alternative agro-food systems. We focused on a specific form - Local food systems (LFS) - in Austria, England, Hungary, France and Poland. Each national team carried out two case studies, results were brought together, and their implications for policy and practice at European Union (EU), national and regional levels were assessed.

As an alternative to the conventional food supply system, LFS offer various societal benefits, depending on the specific type of LFS and its underlying motives. As our case studies found, LFS can go well beyond the food supply itself, due to a commitment to social cooperation, local economic development, and close relations between producers and consumers. LFS depend upon practitioners cooperating to mobilise resources of various kinds - skills, knowledge, labour, etc. They may also depend upon favourable policies, especially funding criteria and regulations.

Although overall policy frameworks rarely recognise LFS, local authorities have some 'champions' who have found ways to develop LFS successfully. Our case studies have found that each policy framework may have various features that both hinder and facilitate LFS. They develop strategies for how to use, strengthen and / or link favourable policies, as well as for how to challenge, accommodate / or bypass unfavourable policies. LFS use support measures which integrate different policies from different sectors. At the same time, EU and national policies influence what can be achieved at a local level. LFS are shaped in ways which respond to all those factors.

The FAAN project provides evidence for recommendations about changes in European, national and local policies that would be necessary to strengthen LFS in the future. These changes include: support for setting up cooperative networks and infrastructure; knowledge exchange; more local sourcing in public procurement; more appropriate funding; and the more flexible adaptation of over-burdensome legal regulations (e.g. distinguishing rules for products for different markets); and ensuring that Leader maintains its bottom-up character, along with a territorial approach linking urban consumers with rural producers. By recognising and valuing LFS for their societal opportunities and benefits, authorities could take responsibility for improving and linking relevant policies.

FAAN served as a 'social experiment' aimed at designing, testing and evaluating a European-level 'Cooperative research' (CR) process in practice to reveal potential benefits and limits of this process. CR refers to co-production of knowledge by different actors, implying a different 'framing' of the research by broadening the perspective on the issue through upstream engagement in designing the research. We did so in line with the concept of transdisciplinarity, involving close cooperation between academics and CSOs during the entire project; and also in line with participatory research through the involvement of other relevant stakeholders at certain stages of the project. Based on our experiences, we conclude the CR process needs to establish mutual understanding as a basis for integrated knowledge production.

CR also means engagement with the policy making process, its implicit assumptions, gaps or blind-spots. In the FAAN project, CR has been a useful approach for designing research in ways more relevant to practitioners and policy issues. CSO partners promote the uptake of research findings through their stakeholder networks and so better reach policy circles.

The project results are available in a booklet which targets people who are already involved in LFS, policy makers, public institutions, and also others who wish to learn more about the development of LFS in Europe.