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Food Security, Equity, & Ecological Sustainability: A Multi-indicator, Process-oriented Framework for Food Systems Research

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Principal Investigator: 
M. Jahi Chappell, Coventry University
Hannah Wittman, University of British Columbia
Joern Fischer, Leuphana University
Associated Program: 

Our goal is to assess current data and knowledge and synthesize it to build a global theory that explains which properties and practices within social-ecological systems benefit both biodiversity conservation and food security. This holistic, systems-oriented approach to understanding and maximizing multifunctionality in socio-ecological systems radically differs from existing work on food security and biodiversity conservation. Existing approaches, summarized in the land-sparing/land-sharing debate, focus on the question of how to increase agricultural yields without compromising biodiversity, suggesting an artificial trade-off between two desired outcomes (e.g. Balmford, Green, and Scharlemann 2005; Phalan et al. 2011). The most recent FAO State of Food Insecurity report, in another example, proposes a more nuanced analysis of outcome measures and experience-based indicators of food security (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations FAO, WFP, IFAD 2012). But this initiative also does not sufficiently consider critical ecological or social drivers of underlying processes that induce hunger, or the systems of food production that have the most impact on the environment. We propose instead that, as food systems are complex systems, it is not meaningful to optimize sub-systems in isolation of one another (Chappell and LaValle 2011; Chappell, Wittman, and Perfecto n.d.; Fischer et al. 2008; Perfecto and Vandermeer 2008; 2010; Perfecto, Vandermeer, and Wright 2009). Our approach does not deny the importance of (sustainable) intensification in some settings (e.g., Tilman et al. 2011), but is holistic rather than implicitly elevating the importance of yield above that of other variables, or artificially separating its effect from that of other variables. We also highlight the importance of scaling up consideration of processes and variables that are often ignored in large scale studies of biodiversity conservation in particular, including gender equity, women’s education, and levels of participatory democracy, but which have been shown to be significant in achieving higher levels of food security and child nutrition (e.g. Smith and Haddad 2000).

This project follows the call by Elinor Ostrom (2009) to develop a framework for analyzing the sustainability of socio-ecological systems. We focus on the need to develop models of integrated ecological and social science for food systems research that avoid “one –size-fits-all recommendations ... that frequently fail” (419) (Ostrom 2009; Poteete, Janssen, and Ostrom 2010). We propose to take a systems-oriented approach that recognizes food production (yield) as just one variable alongside others that also influence biodiversity and food security, including gender equity, participatory democracy, and economic inequality.

David Abson, Leuphana University
Rachel Bezner Kerr, Cornell University
Jennifer Blesh, Cornell University
M. Jahi Chappell, Washington State University - Vancouver
Joern Fischer, Leuphana University
Toby Gardner, University of Cambridge
Jan Hanspach, Leuphana University
Ivette Perfecto, University of Michigan
Navin Ramankutty, McGill University
Cecilia Rocha, Ryerson University
Hannah Wittman, University of British Columbia


Resource Title Brief Summary
A socio-ecological perspective on harmonizing food security and biodiversity conservation Sep 26, 2016

Article published in Regional Environmental Change.

Ecosystem services as a boundary object for sustainability May 08, 2014

Article published in the journal Ecological Economics.

Land sparing versus land sharing: Moving forward Jan 17, 2014

Article published in the journal Conservation Letters.