Towards Food Sustainability: Reshaping the Coexistence of Different Food Systems in South America and Africa (FoodSAF)

Plataforma Agroecologica Bolivia

This project focuses on empirical research into the factors that influence food sustainability within and between different food systems coexisting in selected regions of Bolivia and Kenya. The general objective is to provide evidence-based scientific knowledge for the formulation and promotion of innovative strategies and policy options that improve individual and aggregate levels of food systems’ sustainability.

​About the project

  • Background

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    There is growing consensus among scientists, experts, policymakers, and civil society groups that increasing agricultural productivity will not suffice to resolve the global food crisis. Reducing hunger and malnutrition and feeding 9 billion people by 2050 requires a reorientation of global and national food policies. Food systems must be moved beyond maximizing global food productivity: rather, the aim must be to optimize the complex interactions between food production, distribution, and consumption; environmental impacts; and social justice outcomes. Research can play an important role, but only if it is based on inter- and transdisciplinary approaches. This means integrating social and natural sciences in view of the emerging concept of food sustainability. It also entails linking research on food security with the dimensions of right to food, environmental performance, reduction of poverty and inequality, and resilience.

  • Objectives

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    The main objective of the project is to provide evidence-based scientific knowledge for the formulation and promotion of innovation strategies and policy options that improve the sustainability of food systems at individual and aggregate levels. The emphasis is on making the concept of “food sustainability” operational and applicable, and on finding ways of making the collaboration within and between coexisting food systems more equitable. Based on this research, the project aims at developing a hands-on Food Sustainability Assessment Framework (FoodSAF), allowing non-academic actors to identify pathways for making food systems more sustainable.

  • Relevance

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    Food sustainability must be understood as an outcome of multiple factors that operate at local to global scales, are of short-term to long-term nature, and involve cross-sectoral trade-offs that link food security with issues such as the right to food; environmental performance; reduction of poverty and inequality; and resilience. This project addresses a major research gap by demonstrating how the predominantly conceptual debates about food sustainability can be made operational for empirical research. It also identifies conditions and factors that make the coexistence of different, often conflicting, food systems more sustainable.

  • Highlights and most important results

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    First insights from ongoing research from Kenya, Bolivia, and Switzerland allowed to determine the following key features related to the five dimensions of food sustainability:

    The analysis of trade, agricultural and food policies showed that in both countries existing legislative frameworks – if implemented more effectively – could help to better balance the considerable asymmetries between the favored agroindustrial and other food systems, e.g. domestic, smallholder’s local or the rapidly growing quality differentiated or “alternative” food systems. Effective implementation of existing policies and rights are often undermined by continued unequal access of key actors of the agroindustrial and the other food systems to land, labor, capital, technology, markets, political influence, knowledge and information.

    Anthropological research showed that key actors of local food systems growingly depend on interaction with the more dominant agroindustrial and domestic food systems. This confronts them with multiple institutions from international to state and local level. A high number of regulations, laws, rules, and norms cause constraints but also opportunities for actors to do “institution shopping”. By engaging in the production of actor-specific ideologies, discourses, and narratives; they aim at increasing their bargaining power within the food systems. While economic powerful actors of the agroindustrial system use corporate social responsibility and economic growth, smallholders forming part of the same food system, refer to socio-cultural institutions, such as the need to respect Mother Earth and Vivir Bien.

    Smallholders in Kenya and Bolivia move between temptations of the free market and discourses of development with several models of participation, self-help groups, and levels of shifting identity to underline claims for land and resources that are linked with identities (indigenous and local in Bolivia, or clan- and group-oriented in Kenya).

    Research on poverty and inequality shows that differences in access of land, water, capital, technology, political influence etc. cause huge disparities in the distribution of value added in and between the dominant value chains of different food systems. We observed such disparities particularly at the production level, which is often taken as homogenous in value chain studies. In both countries there is intense interaction of local, indigenous and domestic with the agroindustrial food systems. In Bolivia, the local food system has been completely absorbed by the agroindustrial food system, allowing smallholders to improve the economic situation, the share of smallholders in Kenya which are able to benefit from it is very low (about 6%). This could be explained by the high level of organization of farmers in Bolivia that enables them to secure land tenure rights, and mobilizing consider- able levels of support from government, NGOs and private agribusiness.

    Environmental performance was lowest in both agroindustrial food systems in Kenya and Bolivia, and highest in agro-ecological (Bolivia) and local food systems (Kenya). The agro-ecological food system had a high environmental performance, but could be even higher if the considerable transport emissions could be reduced. Pesticide use was brought up by different actors at all food system stages. We found a range of hazardous agrochemicals in the shops and on the fields. In Bolivia, in the last 16 years, import of agrochemicals has risen considerably, and pesticide use per ha has more than doubled, with no overall increases in productivity (e.g. soybean or vegetables).

    A first assessment of social-ecological resilience points to strong variability among the three resilience dimensions. For example, shared visions in the agroindustrial food systems were strong, whereas their dependence on external inputs and international market prices lowered their resilience score. The most vulnerable – the indigenous food system in Bolivia – scored with production of own food, spatial heterogeneity, trust, and independence. However, these factors did not compensate for low livelihood assets and a weak self-organization in terms of food-related issues.

  • Geographic scope

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    • Kenya
    • Bolivia
    • Second phase: Activities will be expanded to food systems in Brazil, Peru, Zambia, and Ghana.
  • Project websites and links to P3

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