Tuesday, September 9, 2008

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: http://www.fao.org/docrep/009/a0750e/a0750e00.HTM

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 www.odi.org.uk/publications/nrp/109-climate-change-agricultural-policy-poverty-reduction.pdf

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