THE COMPLEXITY OF FOOD SYSTEMS
Food systems that ensure food security are complex. A drought or conflict in a major food-producing region in a distant continent may affect the products you can find on the shelves of your local supermarket. Understanding the complex relationships of all the people and businesses involved in getting food to reach your table requires expertise from different knowledge fields and geographic areas; a broader view of the food system helps to understand how some parts of the system affect the other parts.
A NEED FOR EXPERT COLLABORATION
To collect all these perspectives on food systems and their future challenges, a recent international multidisciplinary collaboration of 69 food system experts identified both the threats to food security and the research gaps. One of the experts that the lead author, Dr Zia Mehrabi, reached out to, is Dr Andy Nelson, the head of ITC’s Natural Resource department.
Dr Mehrabi asked each of the experts to answer two main questions: what do you think are the major threats to global food security, and what are the major research priorities? However, there were more layers to these research questions: the experts were asked to reflect on their level of expertise, the feasibility of the proposed solutions, and the time and effort it would take to implement them. “This paper serves to create sort of a road map”, states Andy, “a practical plan of how to tackle these issues in the future”.
This is the first time that such a number of experts have gathered for priority setting to address the threats to global food security from extreme events. According to the experts, the threats to global food security in the coming 20 years include climate change, geopolitical shocks, epidemics and pests and diseases. As Andy describes, “These are not stand-alone events, but combine and cascade in often unpredictable ways, as we are witnessing with droughts, floods, conflicts, trade barriers and pest outbreaks in key regions for food production. Our food systems are complex and interconnected, so these ‘compound events’ combine to affect the availability and accessibility of food globally, with impacts that can last many years, including social and political instability.”
Having such a diverse pool of experts was challenging, as all the knowledge collected in the paper needed to be brought to one strong message. By combining the expertise from diverse disciplines, backgrounds and geographical focus, the main priorities were grouped into three emerging themes: better maps and prediction “related to the generation and use of frequent high-quality data, and the development of new analytical tools to monitor”, farm-level interventions “such as resilience enhancing practices, diversification and insurance” and wider food system transformation “related to governance, the role of different actors in enabling change and ensuring that multiple actions lead to synergies” explains Andy.
ONE KEY MESSAGE
The results of this paper are key to understanding the role of different events that we see occurring around the world and that affect food systems. According to Andy, “flooding, drought, the effect of COVID-19, the conflicts in Ukraine and Ethiopia… they all affect food systems. This paper is important for these two reasons: the preparation for magnification of these disasters and to raise awareness of the importance of interdisciplinary and international collaboration to address the effect of these events”.
This study and its findings align closely with ITC’s research and education programmes to develop capacity in the use of spatial information for food security, the interdisciplinary DeSIRE programme for Designing Systems for Informed Resilience Engineering, and the 4TU Centre for Resilience Engineering.
Andy Nelson is professor in Spatial Agriculture and Food Security at ITC. ITC is the Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation of the University of Twente. Andy is the Head of the Natural Resources department (NRS). He is also an active member of the 4TU.Resilience Engineering centre and is involved in the 4TU.HTSF DeSIRE program of the four universities of technology in the Netherlands.