(Mis-)Framing for Impact

By Joern Fischer

In our recent review of papers on the intersection of food security and biodiversity conservation, we showed that there was a “biophysical-technical” branch of work. This branch talks about food security, when actually, it’s largely about food production. A recent paper in Nature Communications provides a perfect example of some of the most widespread (mis-)framings in a food security context currently prevalent among scientists (especially natural scientists).

The paper is by Sattari et al. It’s on global phosphorus budgets, and it’s an interesting read. I see nothing wrong with the research as such, but I found its Abstract irritating. I’ll copy parts of it here, with the “offending” bits highlighted:

“Grasslands provide grass and fodder to sustain the growing need for ruminant meat and milk. Soil nutrients in grasslands are removed through withdrawal in these livestock products and through animal manure that originates from grasslands and is spread in croplands. …  Combined with requirements for cropland, we estimate that mineral P fertilizer use must double by 2050 to sustain future crop and grassland production. Our findings point to the need to better understand the role of grasslands and their soil P status and their importance for global food security.”

Framing is all about the hook to sell your paper, and it’s typically evident in the first sentence, and the last big “so-what”. Here, the authors chose to frame their paper around “the need” for more meat and milk, and “global food security”. Both of these statements show utter disregard for what actually drives food security. What’s growing is the global demand for meat and milk, especially in China and India (respectively). What’s at stake by producing more milk and meat is meeting the wants of the increasingly wealthy, not anyone’s needs (and especially not the need to the most food insecure people). Similarly, global food security is not currently limited by a lack of milk and meat — rather, the nations with the highest levels of consumption of these goods are most plagued by obesity.

Petty, perhaps, but it’s what continues to be sold to us by journals that pride themselves of being the most authoritative sources of the best science. Reading simplistic statements on global food security again and again in these journals shows a fundamental lack of respect and understanding for the difference between what is (high demand for meat) and what ought to be (e.g. sustainability); and an implicit and uncritical subjugation to growth-mania (accepting that growth is the thing that ought to be). You can just about bet that anything with an impact factor higher than 10 will routinely publish things under the banner of “food security” that are actually primarily about “global commodity production”. It’s time to realise that these are two different things!

I’m sorry to single out Sattari et al., and I repeat that their study seems quite fine to me — just not the framing in the Abstract. By continuing to accept overly simplistic framings in the context of “global food security”, we risk to continuously miss the point in our science and policy advice.

So, to all editors and authors engaged with high-impact journals: please stop perpetuating this unhelpful trend!


8 thoughts on “(Mis-)Framing for Impact

  1. Well said Joern,

    I think this is a fundamental issue that normative science has failed to grasp, or perhaps that scientists fail to grasp how normative those kinds of framings are. As editors, reviewers and authors we really do need to take more care about such framings, firstly because as you point out it is pretty disrespectful not to. But perhaps more importantly, while as scientists we might focus much more on the methodological or empirical rigour of the research, while skimming the introduction as just the kind of big issue framing journals now often demand, I strongly suspect many policy makers are much more interested, or swayed by, the framing, rather than the details of the science. As such I suspect that it is the framing and not the findings that often drive the political discourses.

    • “I suspect that it is the framing and not the findings that often drive the political discourses.” — I agree, and this is a key point!

  2. Joern and all

    It is much easier to do research that nicely fits into a box (food security, ‘more food’ frame), than to set your framing early in the paper and question the dominant frames that influence how you conduct research and analyse results. I come across this again and again reading the most recent publications and projects/policies. A lot of it is quite conformist and non-questioning of framing.

    I thought I’d share 2 papers I read recently that I found interesting, one from Food Policy and one from Geography Compass.

    The Burchi and De Muro (2016) paper suggests three steps for assessing food security, suggesting that developmental factors (health, education, context) have implications for food security. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306919215000354

    The Cloke (2013) narrates how food security has become a prevalent meme in global, regional, and domestic discourses. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gec3.12068/abstract



  3. I think they don`t even realize what they do. That is, we frame it in that way because everybody do that and that should happen then. The worse case is when one use these mass delusions to build research identity and career and with this, force others to think like that (I want paper in nature too! So, lets see how the smart people do framing:D). Beautiful example of why science is a tool, and its usefullness is as good as their user is. Thanks for this post.

  4. Sometimes I think that the agribusiness is incorporating the “food security” and “sustainable rural development” discourse to attenuate its contradictions. So, in this text, the idea of “guarantee physical access to food” is confounded with “meet the demand for meat”. An interesting point is understand the “values shift” involved in this enhanced meat consumption. Food is a mark of social distinction. Specially meat, it is a kind of food that people want to eat when there is a raise of income. It is a food of the rich ones.

  5. Pingback: Revival of landscape-scale research? | Ideas for Sustainability

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