Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Conversations on Research

You may have not noticed but I have made some minor edits to the post on my "new research topic" These edits were the result of some feedback I got from a former professor and thesis advisor.

Here is the conversation, a response to my write-up:
My initial reaction is wow! I think the whole food issue is really important given all the underlying situations that affect it as you mention—environment, fuel costs, production, cultural barriers, conflict, etc. The food riots at the height of the oil price hike this year really went under reported masking a real problem…the failure of the Doha round also indicates large pressure on the area…my sense is that however important… in its present form in your paper, the topic is way too large for a dissertation…the choice of case countries also adds to the expanse.

I sense the choice of cases to be problematic as well…while I don’t know the terrain, the agricultural system in the US is patently different from that of India…so much so that perhaps it may render the comparative advantage moot. In looking at India on this issue, I would make sure you would have access to the data required prior to undertaking the research…I am sure you are also aware that Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have written extensively (1989, 1990) on Food Security through examinations of famine in India…as a matter of fact, Dreze has moved on to a right to work program during fallow and famine times as a means to insure livelihood…the policy is now an India wide program…

Not to discourage you Justin, but to gently push to a narrower focus, with smaller cases J. You have to finish….

Note: I love the last comment! Yes, I have to finish and sooner than later!

Ok, so here was my LONG response:
Thanks for the response!

Your comments point out to me that there is still a need to better articulate the project so that others understand the actual scope of what I'm trying to do. To clarify, the project is not looking to model national food systems but rather the community interface to the food system, represented as a sub-system. So the primary scale of analysis is the community, anything beyond that is really outside the boundaries. Yet, this is not to say that this project is not overly ambitious. The issue as you say though is getting the data. Building a computer model is not really the hard part, it is getting the data to run the simulation experiments. Some of this data can be acquired through the FAO, State and National govs, NGOs and climate labs around the world. The difficulty is in calculating the fractions of community level inputs, through-puts and outputs related to the larger data sets that are out there.

This is where the case studies come in, to help fill in these gaps and provide ground level information on patterns of consumption and access as well as production and distribution, and how communities adapt to time of uncertainty, etc. The cases also are meant to provide a way to trace food habits and types of foods people use to gain their nutritional requirements back through the production chain. Some of those foods come from personal or community scale food production and some can from more "conventional" or industrial types of food production. The goal is to know what is that ratio between the two at the community level. Along with the ratio is the need to identify origin. The origin will help in calculating the carbon footprint related to distribution and processing. However, if the products are made in say the US and shipped to India and to this particular community (say Ranchi and surrounding areas), the US production system exists outside the scope of the case boundaries. The models will only deal with materials moving into the system, materials used and produced within and for the system, and materials leaving the system. Now, the models will reference resources existing outside the model boundaries and be brought in to the system as fractions of these larger resource pools, energy is just one example, capital inputs might be another. Note: it is not my intent to replicate the World3 model used in Limits to Growth, I may be crazy, but not crazy AND stupid....hahaha!

The reason for the comparison is to better understand how these food system configurations are different. While the differences between say India and the US are obvious to us, there are still efforts to apply uniform frameworks for food production. This scares me and I think that efforts to rationalize production and industrialize these systems as promoted by the World Bank and corporate backers from companies like ADM and Monsanto are potentially problematic, not just on environmental sustainability but on food equity. The rationalization model seems to promote corporate farming and a restructuring of labor. Localists argue that this will actually lead to less security as small-scale farmers will relinquish personal ownership over both their labor and the assets associated with being able to be self-reliant in favor of other forms of work that might put these people in a serious disadvantage considering the potential for further crisis in food prices. So I feel like I need to bludgeon people over the heads and remind them. Of course, maybe such a system could be perfected, but I'm not convinced.

Now, in relation to Dreze's program I would argue that the policy misses the structural problems of the system, it doesn't do anything to really address self-reliant food systems, nor environmental sustainability nor resilience of the system itself in times of hardship. Rather the focus is to offset the problems. I'm not trying to be critical of the work in the sense that I think it is wrong, but from the data that I do have on production systems, environmental decay and the regional climate indicators associated with global warming suggests that such problems will only worsen. This would further suggest that we need to be thinking about additional solutions. Some of the problems might be unavoidable and in those situations mitigation and adaptation is the best we can do, but in other situations the system itself is only exacerbating the problems.

Thanks Bro. Ed! You always have a way of getting me all amped up, thinking more deeply and pointing out the things I miss.

Shanti to Bro. Ed

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Reminder to self...

Here is an interesting link related to a very interesting article by Fred Curtis an Ecological Economist (sounds like an oxymoron, but I assure you it is a real sub-discipline in economics).

The link:

The article: "Eco-localism and Sustainability"

Brainstorming Food-Systems

So as I said in the previous post that there are some basic assumptions regarding agri-food systems. Based on some of these assumptions I have constructed a visual stock and flow diagram of a generic production system. Now, I do not claim that this is correct or that the connections lead to validated behavior among food production systems, but it does help me in thinking about the variables that exist within just one part of the system that includes dimensions of production, processing, distribution and access or consumption.

But this image of the production system is just on part of a larger system. From the highest level view, the overall agri-food system would be generalized by this simple diagram.

The most basic question may be, "why does there appear to be a closed loop between production and consumption?" The reason for this is that in communities where subsistence based food production is central, there is often no distribution and limited processes except in instances where food preservation is central. Yet, this processing is not the same as what one finds in conventional food systems where the emphasis is on processing to create value-added products through raw food materials, i.e. Doritos corn chips processed in Houston, TX from corn grown in Iowa.

Now, consumption feeds back into production because the food people eat is one of the primary means through which they reproduce their productive capacity, which is their labor power. The other primary means would be ingesting water and sex for child bearing (the means of re-producing labor power over a longer time horizon).

Formally Announcing New Research Path - Food Security and Climate Change

It has been a while since I posted a blog entry, but I have a good reason. I have been off the Internet for a bit so that I could focus my attention on re-drafting my dissertation topic. I have hinted at this shift in some previous posts, but it is official. So Monday of next week I get the opportunity to defend the proposal, which I already suspect will get overwhelming approval.

I have decided to post a quasi-lengthy abstract about the proposal. Note: some of the specifics are likely to be amended based upon the feedback I get from this meeting, but the general focus will remain.

Achieving Community Level Food Security:
Constructing Equitable, Sustainable and Resilient Food-Systems in the Face of Global Climate Change
Revised Abstract 9/9/2008
Justin Smith


With continued uncertainty over the impacts of climate change, rising fuel prices and degradation of the natural resource base necessary for agricultural production, there is a remerging Malthusian fear regarding the world's ability to feed itself in the coming decades (Evans, 1998; Meadows, Randers & Meadows, 2004; FAO, 2006; Slater, Peskett, Lundi & Brown, 2006). The concerns are perhaps more relevant than ever before when one considers the continued inability of governments, international institutions, NGOs and private firms to adequately address the persistence of food insecurity in selected populations throughout the world. In fact, depending upon the source it is estimated that between 750 and 900 million are currently undernourished and when factoring the impacts of resource loss, climate change and population increases the numbers are expected to nearly double to 1,300 million by 2080 (Slater, Peskett, Lundi & Brown, 2006).

In response, a number of idealized solutions have emerged, sparking debate on how best to ensure the long-term sustainability of agricultural production systems while simultaneously reducing food insecurity among vulnerable populations. At one end of this debate are those who believe that the answer lies in “perfecting” the prevailing model of agricultural modernization that has been developed over the past 60 years. This conception of a modern agricultural system emphasizes industrialization and mass production of food commodities linked to global trading systems (Lyson, 2004, Pollan, 2006). At the other end is an alternative model of local food systems that emphasizes local production, distribution and consumption of foods produced in more sustainable production systems and that are integrated with an ideal of self-reliance (Curtis, 2003; Lyson, 2004; Morgan, Marsden & Murdoch, 2006; Connell, 2008). Within the context of these two idealized types lies a variety of strategies that represent a complex hybridization of these two competing conceptions. Many of the hybrid strategies have been proposed by international institutions such as the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. These strategies aim to support both trade and industrialization policies, yet with a principle focus on communities and self-reliance (FAO, 2006).

However, with the complexity of issues surrounding food security, such as increasing populations and the end of cheap oil, as well as the wide regional variations in climate, resource base and socio-political environments, it is unclear which configuration(s) will produce the kinds of stability and access needed by those most vulnerable to food insecurity. For example, can industrial based agri-food production systems eventually provide the means to achieve food security? What are the impacts of such systems on the environment and how do they feedback to either increase or decrease food production? Similarly, do local agri-food systems provide more sustainable means through which to achieve food security? Again, what are the environmental impacts and do such systems actually enable distribution of food to the most vulnerable? And finally, are hybrid systems better suited than either of the other food-system configurations to address the problems of environmental impact and food access in a world confronted by climate change? In an effort to fill in the gaps missed by past research, this investigation seeks to assess the capacity of different agricultural production strategies in meeting a basic (yet critical) three part criteria: 1.) Social equity by ensuring food-security for "ALL" segments of a population, 2.) Environmental sustainability by successfully reducing (if not eliminating) negative environmental impacts, and 3.) Resilience by successfully mitigating/adapting to environmental shocks associated with global climate change.

Linked to the questions put forth above, the research is guided by a set of assumptions that among all agri-food systems land, labor, water, energy (solar, biofuel, petrol, etc.) and capital are present. It is also assumed that the ways in which these assets are managed and interact other elements within the system (and elements outside the system) will produce varying patterns of dynamic behavior in relation to peoples access to nutritional requirements for healthy livelihoods, environmental sustainability, and resilience, or the time delays in food output associated with environmental shocks. Both the questions and assumptions will be assessed by examining two case studies scaled to focused on two individual communities, one in the US and the other in India (this is open based upon request from funders seeking to address similar questions). The case studies will allow for a comparative analysis into the capacity for shifts in food system configurations commensurate with the three overarching themes of the research. This comparative analysis is also meant to open up windows into the potential for differing policies contingent upon resources, climate, and social context. Differing configurations and impacts on both environment and food security might indicate a further need for locally based analysis regarding policies linked to food security rather than a reliance on broad frameworks meant to be applied uniformly across diverse regions and populations. An additional rationale for this approach is based upon a need to provide an empirically based conceptualization of different food-system configurations and the degree to which they address food security, as well as allowing for the identification of diversified and alternative solutions in achieving environmentally sustainable and resilient food systems specifically relevant to the communities of interest.

The inherent complexity in apprehending the role that agricultural production systems play in impacting the environment and in supporting food access among all sectors of a population suggests the need for a systems based approach, rather than breaking all of the pieces into discrete parts for separate analysis. To accomplish this task the empirical studies will serve as the basis for constructing a portfolio of interconnected system dynamics models that will focus upon the stocks and flows of production, distribution and consumption with a special emphasis upon the system feedbacks that exist between communities, the environment and food stocks.

System dynamics, as a methodology, is one approach to help in understanding the dynamic character of complex non-linear systems by emphasizing the feedbacks that lead to dynamic behavior (Coyle, 1977; Ford, 1999). The main components that make up these models are described as stocks and flows, where the stocks represent points of accumulation within the system, whereas the flows describe the movement of materials such as food, water, energy, CO2 and capital throughout the system. By breaking down the components of local food systems into these explicit parts it is possible to simulate the movement of resources into the system, track the flow of greenhouse gas emissions associated with agricultural production, as well as other negative environmental inputs. The methodology also enables a way to understand the effects of shocks on food production and consumption that are critical to evaluating the stability and resilience of the system (Ford, 1999). Based upon this conception the use of system dynamics provides several opportunities that are critical to identifying the types of policies and practices leading to more sustainable and equitable food systems.

The identification of appropriate place-based policies through system dynamics is further supported by the ability to experiment with our assumptions by iterating through various simulations that can help track the effects of these policies on the system. For example, by reducing the flow of greenhouse gas emissions in the model in order to reach some environmentally sustainable standard, it is possible to simulate the effects of such a policy on food productivity and distribution. Such a cap on emissions might reduce food availability and increase costs for consumers (as well as producers). Such a consequence might adversely affect all income levels or only those with the least spending (or productive) power. The model could be further adapted to reflect increases in land use for food production to offset emissions caps and maintain similar food outputs. But would this reduce prices? What would the effects be on the environment if such a policy were implemented? Perhaps, a policy is to increase small-scale part time farming among the poorest. We can simulate to see if such a policy helps in offsetting potential external factors that might affect food consumption. This sort of iterative approach enables deeper understanding of the types of impacts that policies can have on the effectiveness of a system, and thereby in identifying the sort of food system configurations that best meet these criteria, as well as which configuration poses the weakest potential for success based upon the community context.

While computer simulation is one piece of the research it is important to note that there are limits to the quantification of certain aspects of social systems. Together, with the case studies and the computer models it is possible to strike a balance between the quantitative and qualitative dimensions of food security in relation to food production systems. By integrating these two approaches into a coherent ‘whole it is hoped that this research will provide a guide to help managers, governments and NGOs to use this research as a stepping off point for conducting similar place-based analysis for understanding the impacts (intended as well as unintended) of following specific policies related to food security in a world facing potentially dramatic environmental shifts.

Connell, D., Smithers, J., & Joseph, A. (2008). ‘Farmers’ markets and the ‘good food’ value chain: a preliminary study, Local Environment, 13:3 169-185.

Curtis, F. (2003). Eco-localism and sustainability. Ecological Economics, Vol. 46, pp. 83-102.

Evans, L.T. (1998). Feeding the Ten Billion: Plants and Population Growth. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

FAO. (2006). The State of Food Insecurity in the World: Eradicating world hunger – taking stock ten years after the World Food Summit. Accessed on 6/20/2008 at:

Ford, A. (1999). Modeling the Environment: An Introduction to System Dynamics Modeling of Environmental Systems. Island Press; Washington, DC.

Lyson, T. (2004). Civic Agriculture: Reconnecting Farm, Food, and Community. Tufts University Press, Medford, MA.

Meadows, D., Randers, J., & Meadows, D. (2004). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Junction, VT.

Morgan, K., Marsden, T., & Murdoch, J. (2006). Worlds of Food: Place, Power and Provenance in the Food Chain. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Pollan, M. (2006). The Omnivore’s Dilemma: a natural history of four meals. Penguin Press, New York, NY.

Slater, R., Peskett, L., Ludi, E., & Brown, D. (2006). Climate change, agricultural policy and poverty – how much do we know? Overseas Development Institute. Accessed on 6/25/2008 at