What does a food systems perspective tell us about the food-biodiversity nexus?

By Joern Fischer

This morning, John Ingram gave an interesting presentation on food systems, food security and biodiversity. To start with, he highlighted that – perhaps surprisingly – the common definition of food security did not include anything about agriculture, nor about production. What many people thus automatically think of when thinking about food security, is not necessarily always central to it.

That said, John explained, agriculture very much sits at the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation. It is, after all, the single most important driver of terrestrial biodiversity decline. Other human activities related to food also are to the detriment of biodiversity, including bushmeat hunting and fisheries.

An alternative approach to jumping straight to agriculture, however, was to think about food systems as a whole. Looking at that suggests that other parts of the food system (not just agriculture) also affect biodiveristy. For example, food processing and packaging can cause problems to biodiversity through their use of raw materials and generation of waste and effluents. John showed images, for example, of how the world’s oceans are filling up with more and more plastic. The transportation of food, too, has a wide range of negative effects on biodiversity – amongst the less recognised ones, perhaps, is the fact that ballast water from the shipping industry massively contributes to the spread of invasive species. Moreover, different types of food system also generate impacts on biodiveristy through their emissions of greenhouse gas emissions. Finally –last but not least? – the consumption side of food systems is a major driver of un-sustainability.

Moving on more specifically to food security, John highlighted the importance, first of all, of food affordability. This measure accounts for the amount of exposable income that people have, which very much differs between countries. As a result, price spikes make a much bigger difference to poor people than to wealthy ones. Moreover, poor communities are typically more directly affected by problems related to food storage and food distribution – but also to food safety related aspects that result from an interaction of biodiversity changes and other global changes (such as climate change).

John then posed the question “So why do we need to change things”? Clearly, planetary boundaries are a problem, but at the same time about a billion people are chronically malnourished, two billion have micronutrient deficiencies, and over two billin are overweight. It would seem, therefore, that actually a minority of people are served well by the current global food system.

Sustainable food security, then, can be conceptualised as the result of constraints on consumers, ‘post-farm gate’ food system activities, and activities directly related to production. Retaining productive and biodiverse production systems thus was the foundation of all other variables influencing food security – but improvements are necessary and possible in all areas of the food system, including production, but also storage, transport, consumption, processing, and distribution.

To conclude, John emphasised the problem of over-consumption. While this was “uncomfortable territory”, John highlighted that we still needed to address this issue. He showed a very telling graph, drawing on data from the past, which suggested that producing more and more may well lead to increased over-consumption in the future, but to a lesser extent to alleviating the food shortages faced by the world’s poor. Simply meeting demand therefore will have major negative ramifications for biodiversity; will have massive health costs related to increasing obesity; and would have major economic costs related to obesity-related illnesses.

A big thumbs up from me for this excellent contribution by John!

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Towards synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation: the opening session

By Joern Fischer

Yesterday, I briefly reported that today would be the opening of the conference “Biodiversity and Food Security – From Trade-offs to Synergies”. Here is how it went! Wolfgang Cramer gave a short introduction to the conference. Among other things, he highlighted that several of the new sustainable development goals are quite directly linked to food security or biodiversity conservation. However, he also noted the linkages between food security and biodiveristy conservation had not been explicitly addressed in these goals. Bringing these two areas together, in turn, was one of the central goals of this conference. Wolfgang’s personal wishes for the conference are worth repeating: that we become even more solution-oriented in our research, and that we communicate our findings even more clearly, to a broader set of audiences. Following two further short introductions to the conference, the audience was ready to get stuck into the topic.

First, Heribert Hofer talked about “Biodiversity, the Millennium Development Goals, Health, Water and Biodiversity”. A main goal of Heribert’s talk was to summarise the previous two conferences in the series, of which this one is the third. The first was in 2010, and it provided an overview of a large range of the (then) UN Millennium goals and how they related to biodiversity. Four conclusions from the first conference were:

  1. The relevance of biodiversity to human well-being was underestimated.
  2. Fundamental knowledge gaps existed, specifically regarding marine and soil biodiversity.
  3. There were many under-appreciated synergies between human well-being and biodiversity.
  4. Science was lagging behind societal needs.

Many of these key outcomes, Heribert argued, were still relevant today (and they are summarised in the Frankfurt declaration). The second conference, in 2013, focused specifically on the intersection of biodiversity and (both ecosystem and human) health. Its findings are available here and revolve around themes like infectious diseases, bushmeat consumption and the particular dangers of infections from remote locations; all of which are topics that are also relevant today, particularly in the context of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Josef Settele then presented on “Climate, biodiversity and food security”. Sepp (Josef) is active in the IPCC, and  in his presentation, he synthesised some key effects of climate change as identified in the most recent report – both on biodiversity as well as on food security. On the food side, the IPCC predicted that most poor countries would be heavily affected by reduced food production in the following decades. Potential solutions highlighted by the IPCC to adapt to climate change include adapting planting times, as well as planting different cultivars. On the biodiversity side, existing data showed that range shifts were now quite common. However, many less mobile species in particular were predicted to be unable to adapt to climate change. Sepp also summarised other changes resulting from climate change, including an assessment of the confidence we have about these changes actually taking place, and how confidently we can attribute them to climate change as the cause.

Finally, José Sarukhán gave a talk entitled “Biodiversity and the Future of Food Security”. On his first slide already, Jose highlighted that he would largely be focusing on food sovereignty in his talk – including an emphasis on local rights as well as on ecological sustainability. Jose structured his talk into five simple but interesting postulates, which are well worth repeating here:

  1. How the population of the mid-21st century will be fed, will define the degree of conservation of the remaining natural ecosytems on the planet.
  2. High-tech agriculture, as it is applied today, is ecologically and economically unsustainable. Its social, economic and environmental externalities are unacceptable.
  3. Given the ecological diversity of megadiverse countries (often with large ethnic/cultural diversity), no single agricultural system will solve the problems of food security.
  4. A broad range of technologies suited to the environmental characteristics of each region are needed. It is necesssary to know, understand and help improve, when necessary, the traditional technologies with full participation of the farmers. (For better or worse, “sustainable intensification” was highlighted as particularly important.)
  5. The genetic diversity of native cultivars results from thousands of years of selection under domestication. The diversity of their wild relatives represents millions of years of natural selection: together, they are the most valuable and irreplaceable source of responses for food production under climatic changes.

While nice points were raised in this session (especially towards the end), overall, it left me feeling that much more could have been said to push intellectual, practical, and ethical boundaries, especially on the intersection of food security and biodiversity. I’ll be interested to see what tomorrow brings … including the session I will be co-chairing. I’ll be encouraging our speakers to be bold!

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Reconciling food security and biodiversity conservation: a conference

By Joern Fischer

There has been a lot of talk about the trade-offs between food production and biodiversity conservation. Without doubt, some trade-offs are inevitable, and where they are, it’s important we find ways that somehow minimise the harm; or perhaps maximise the “efficiency” of meeting multiple goals at the same time. But even though win-win scenarios don’t always exist, there may still be a lot of unexplored “spaces” in which synergies are possible. I very much believe this is true – in general terms – for the simultaneous attainment of high levels of human well-being and ecological intactness. It’s obvious that when we try to generate well-being simply in conventional ways (= own ever more stuff), this isn’t so very good for things like biodiversity conservation. But it’s quite possible that there are undiscovered synergies if it’s different kinds of activities through which we try to generate human well-being.

Given my belief that there is still room for more synergies, I am very happy to co-lead one of the sessions at the upcoming conference “Biodiversity and Food Security – From Trade-Offs to Synergies” (Oct 29-31, Aix-en-Provence, France). It promises to be a nice conference, covering many interesting themes – an overview of the conference programme is available here.

The session I’m involved in has been organised together with Muriel Tichit (Director of Research, INRA). We’re trying to get at some of the deeper issues in the debate around food security and biodiversity that have perhaps not been touched on enough in the past. Our session is entitled “Conceptual Pitfalls in the Food-Biodiversity Nexus”. This is meant to indicate that there are many issues we can trip over, or which may cause problems or undue disagreements – simply because of a lack of conceptual clarity. Some of the questions touched on in our session will include the following.

  • Optimisation has been a major method to integrate economic and ecological considerations, but are there other ways of approaching multiple objectives? E.g. what about if we assumed a need for multiple safe minimum standards?
  • What does multi-level governance have to say on the issue of food sovereignty, which has very much highlighted the value of “local” wisdom?
  • How sustainable is “sustainable intensification”?
  • With a lot of talk about ecosystem services, is it not disservices that are much more on the minds of the poor?
  • We assume that the conservation of ecosystem services will somehow benefit biodiversity – but most rare species are neither very useful, nor very harmful. Do they even have meaningful (positive or negative) value for human communities?

That, of course, is just a glimpse of what the speakers in our session will cover, and there are many more sessions, which I’m sure will be just as interesting! I’m hoping to blog more about this conference as the week goes on. Stay tuned!

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Paper recommendation: Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services

By Joern Fischer

I recommend the following paper: Social equity matters in payments for ecosystem services. Pascual U, Phelps J, Garmendia E, Brown K, Corbera E, Martin A, Gomez-Baggethun E, Muradian RBioscience 2014 Oct 1, DOI: 10.1093/biosci/biu146 (available via the journal homepage)

Equity considerations are increasingly seen as an important challenge in sustainability science. This paper by Pascual and colleagues highlights the importance of equity considerations in an ecosystem services context. The most prominent tool used to enhance the provision of ecosystem services is that of payments. This focus on payments, in turn, is heavily influenced by efficiency considerations derived from economic theory.

Pascual et al. make three important points. First, economic-theory driven, efficiency-focused schemes for payments for ecosystem services may bear little resemblance to the (messy) real world of policy implementation.

Second, the lack of consideration of equity (in terms of distribution, procedures, and context) can have negative repercussions for the effectiveness of payments for ecosystem service schemes.

Third, by considering equity, the effectiveness of such schemes can be improved. This suggests that equity considerations are not only of moral value in their own right; but also have instrumental value in that they may help improve ecological outcomes.

This paper is a must-read for all ecologists working on ecosystem services, because it makes the important (but under-recognised) point that successful governance of ecosystem services is much more than simply combining ecological data with economic theory.


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Communicating beyond the ivory tower (or why comics matter)

Foodcrisis Chapter 2 Cover

I am a somewhat cynical person (note the English understatement) and my philosophy is more “do no harm” than “save the world”. In a sense then I am quite comfortable in my (tiny) ivory tower, labouring away to add a few new levels to the tower every year. Why do I want a taller ivory tower? Well in part so that others can marvel at my achievements (“look on my works ye mighty, and despair!”) and in part because a taller tower gives me a better angle for firing shots at other ivory towers that displease me.

In this way Academia pootles along, like a huge ‘care in the community’ scheme where the somewhat bewildered hordes of academe build and knock down their towers while being more or less quietly ignored by the wider world (like a global community of Don Quixotes… ”Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, [their] brain[s] dried up and [they] went completely out of [their] mind[s]”). Of course we hope that while firing at other ivory towers some of our lofty ideas will fall to the ground where a grateful public are waiting eagerly to receive them.

Clearly, the notion of ivory tower academics is a caricature and peer-reviewed science can and does have a fundamental impact on policy and governance. The ‘tragedy of the commons’ and more recently the ‘ecosystem services’ and ‘sustainable agricultural intensification’ concepts are ideas that arose from science and have/are having significant effects on how policy makers andthe wider public see the world. Somewhat sadly all three of these notions are interpreted in ways that are often at odds with the subtleties and nuance of the scientific debates. My own experience of working on the UK national Ecosystem Assessment and the subsequent interpretation of this report by the UK government makes me wary of the “fire and forget” (publish and pay no attention to?) strategy of scientific communication with non-scientists. Similarly I despair when I read about science in the media as the reporting of science is so poor, admittedly I read the Guardian, which probably does not help.

So what is the alternative? Well at some point if we wish to engage the public (on our own unfiltered terms) we need to clamber down from our ivory towers. I have had the privilege to work with a number of academics who actively seek to engage with non-scientists. This year Joern Fischer (owner of this blog and my boss) and his team undertook a scientific roadshow to discuss their research with the people in their study region. Jahi Chapell (another contributor to this blog) actively engages with policy-makers to change dominant narratives regarding the management of food systems). Tibor Hartel (yet another contributor to this blog) is actively engaging local and national politicians regarding the preservation of the beautiful wood pastures of Romania. Dan O’Neill is a tireless and effective communicator of the need for Steady State Economics.

I find all of these people and their approaches to communicating beyond the ivory tower inspiring, and here would like to add one more to the list. Evan Fraser, (a former PhD supervisor of mine) along with his team at Guelph University work on food security issues and has created a marvellous resource in https://feedingninebillion.com/ using different forms of media to engage the public in the food security discourse. His latest effort is a graphic novel about global food security (the first two issues are available here). Despite my innate cynicism I think these different approaches to engaging the public are hugely important. My long journey to becoming a sustainability scientist with an interest in food systems was initially motivated by a comic book story about poverty, food security and power that I read as a teenager (the excellent Third World War published in Crisis comics) and gavanized by a wandering Sadu in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh (a story for another post). If even a cynical old curmudgeon like me can be motivated a graphic novel there is hope!


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Four new PhD positions on the intersection of food security and biodiversity

By Joern Fischer

Finally, I have advertised the four new PhD positions announced on this blog some time ago. They will contribute to our new interdiscipinary project entitled “Identifying social-ecological system properties benefiting biodiversity and food security”.

Ensuring food security and halting biodiversity decline are two of the most urgent (and interconnected) challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. Taking a social-ecological systems perspective, this new project seeks to identify synergies between food security and biodiversity conservation. The PhD positions are associated with an in-depth empirical case study on food security and biodiversity in Ethiopia. Further background on the project in general is available at:



The PhD positions are summarised in the following, with links to each of the four full advertisements.

They will be based at Leuphana (in Germany), with fieldwork in Ethiopia.

PhD Eco1: Distribution and conservation of biodiversity in Ethiopian farmland (including birds)

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Land cover mapping and yield gap analysis; (2) Field surveys of birds; (3) Analyses of distribution and composition of birds; and (4) Other biodiversity analyses (including other animal taxa) as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDeco1_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

PhD Eco2: Distribution and conservation of biodiversity in Ethiopian farmland (including woody vegetation)

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Land cover mapping and yield gap analysis; (2) Field surveys of woody vegetation; (3) Analyses of distribution and composition of woody vegetation; and (4) Other biodiversity analyses as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDeco2_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

PhD Soc1: Governance of food security and biodiversity in Ethiopian farmland

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Actor analysis in the contexts of food security and biodiversity conservation; (2) Social network analysis in the contexts of food security and biodiversity conservation; (3) Analysis of formal institutions and regulations in the contexts of food security and biodiversity conservation; and (4) Other governance analyses as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDsoc1_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

 PhD Soc2: Livelihood strategies and food security of households in Ethiopian farmland

Tasks and responsibilities for this PhD position will include: (1) Household surveys of livelihood strategies; (2) Household surveys of food security; (3) Analysis of food flows and bundles of food; and (4) Other analyses of food security as appropriate.

Full details and instructions for how to apply are available here: PHDsoc2_advertisement_ERC_J_Fischer

Deadline: 1 December 2014

 For questions, please contact Prof. Joern Fischer (joern.fischer@uni.leuphana.de).


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Four new faculty positions in sustainability at Leuphana University

By Joern Fischer

Leuphana University Lueneburg is unique in Germany, in that it has a substantial proportion of the university dedicated to sustainability. The “Faculty of Sustainability” hosts about 25 professors from the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities, and has a strong emphasis on inter- and transdisciplinarity. We have just advertised four new faculty positions. They are listed below. Because the deadline is very soon (26 Oct 2014!!), please help distribute these advertisements as widely as possible. We’re keen on recruiting a diversity of sustainability scholars from around the world — if you have a strong track record, think about applying!

1. Junior Professorship Sustainability Science (W1)

Applicants should have a university degree in a relevant field for sustainability science and in depth understanding of sustainability science. A further requirement is a track record in engaging with sustainability problems and solutions at systemic but especially at normative and transformative levels. Proven interest and expertise in collaboration with colleagues from other disciplines as well as actors outside academia is a requirement. Besides a strong publication record relative to opportunity, tangible experience with outreach is expected. Expertise in one or more of the core research areas of the Faculty of Sustainability would be beneficial (i.e. ecosystem services, energy transition, social challenges related to sustainability, physical resources). Full details are available here.

2. Sustainability Economics (W3)

We invite applications from candidates with distinguished research portfolios and teaching experience in the field of “sustainable economics”. Applicants should be working on concepts of sustainability, the analysis of phenomena outside sustainable development, as well as regulatory and other economic and social political approaches to these phenomena. Candidates should possess skills related to specific analytical approaches and solutions, as well as experience with sustainable transformations in concrete fields of application such as, for example, energy, biodiversity, climate, mobility, consumption, organization, trade in international context or modern approaches to a post-growth economy. One area of concentration could also include behavioral sustainability economics. Full details are available here.

3. Human Behavior and Sustainable Development (W3)

Leuphana University of Lüneburg invites applications from candidates with distinguished experience in the field of “sustainability and behavior/action.” Candidates should be engaged in the areas of human-environment interaction with investigations into cooperation and altruism, information processing and communication, complexity and decision-making, emotions and actions or values and societal transformation processes on the basis of their expertise in anthropology, social psychology, behavioral studies, communications sciences or environmental and sustainability studies. They should have experience in fields related to concrete applications, such as consumption, lifestyles, perception of nature, mobility and energy behavior, or cultural comparisons. The integration of ethical considerations, fundamental ideas for transformative research, as well as the integration of gender mainstreaming aspects are desirable. Full details are available here.

4. Junior Professorship in the Didactics of the Natural Sciences (W1)

Candidates must have demonstrated academic and instructional excellence in the core disciplines of biology and/or chemistry. Instruction in both disciplines will be covered by this appointment. Candidates must be willing to develop close institutional cooperation within these academic disciplines in order to ensure the inclusion of a didactic perspective by all partners within these academic subjects. Candidates must represent the didactics of the natural sciences with sufficient breadth both within the field of didactics and their particular scientific discipline. They should represent their academic subfield in their teaching and research through an interdisciplinary didactics of the natural sciences that gives special attention to sustainability studies. They must have appropriate international publications and, ideally, relevant foreign experience. Additionally, they can participate in developing plans for education about sustainable development and include the didactics of natural sciences in these plans. Full details are available here.

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