A social-ecological perspective on food security and biodiversity conservation

By Joern Fischer

At last, a paper we started to think about at a SESYNC workshop in Maryland finally got published in Regional Environmental Change. The paper lays out a conceptual foundation for how to think about food security and biodiversity conservation from a social-ecological perspective. In this blog post, I’d like to highlight two key features of the paper: (1) the conceptual framework as such, and (2) its empirical basis.


First, the conceptual model recognises that both biodiversity and food security outcomes are influenced by phenomena at different scales. For convenience, we propose to consider local, landscape, regional and global scales — but depending on the example, this might be adjusted. We argue that one particularly useful scale for analysis is the “landscape” scale. Here, the biophysical landscape is composed of patches, whereas the social landscape is analogous to a community of people, composed of a series of households. Both food security and biodiversity conservation, in turn, are multi-facetted phenomena. Biodiversity encompasses wild as well as cultivated diversity; it encompasses functional diversity as well as genetic diversity. Similarly, food security encompasses availability, access, utilisation and vulnerability. Notably, for both phenomena, we also argue that considering stability is critical — it’s problematic to have outstanding biodiversity or food security right now if this is based on practices that are inherently unsustainable.

Second, I’d like to draw special attention to the empirical basis of this seemingly simple conceptual model. I reproduce here the appendix of the paper — the supplementary material — which I know many people won’t look at unless I highlight it specifically here! The supplementary material lays out in detail the basis for why we believe the variables shown in the above conceptual model deserve consideration. Or, in other words, there is ample evidence that we must look beyond production — for both food security and biodiversity conservation. The table shown below provides empirical evidence for any skeptics out there, as to why a more holistic perspective is not just a vague ambition but necessary, given available evidence.

The full paper is also available as an open access article via the journal website.

Properties Outcome affected Mechanism/Relationship Example Sources
Bio-physical properties
Global climate change; environmental change Food security Challenges to farmer livelihoods; effects on yield; uncertainty and instability in production, food supply, and food prices. Calzadilla et al. 2013; Porter et al. 2014; World Bank 2007; Ringler et al. 2010


Multiple direct and indirect effects on species habitats, ranges, stressors, and extinction risks. Staudt 2013; Fordham et al. 2011; Klausmeyer et al. 2011; Huston 2005
Soil types and fertility, soil erosion, topography Food security


Direct effect on productivity, indirect effects on production costs and market prices; soil degradation, particularly reduced soil organic matter, affects quantity and quality of food production (e.g., increases susceptibility to drought stress and nutrient deficiencies, and increases susceptibility to pest and disease outbreaks). Soil contamination directly affects food quality (e.g. arsenic in rice) and human health. Lal 2009; Khan et al. 2010; Scherr 1999
Biodiversity Biodiversity influenced directly via soil quality feedbacks on belowground biodiversity and the soil microbiome, and indirectly through soil fertility effects on net primary productivity, and/or increased fertilizer use to maintain yields on degraded soils. Postma-Blaauw 2010; McDaniel et al. 2014; Tilman et al. 1996; Mozumder and Berrens 2007
Water availability (and safety) Food security Strong contributor to malnutrition reduction (as indicator of overall health environment); importance in agricultural production. Hanjra and Qureshi 2010; Smith and Haddad 2015; Armah et al. 2011; Turral et al. 2011; Khan et al. 2010
Biodiversity Agricultural impacts on hydrologic cycles and water quality can directly threaten biodiversity. Zedler 2003; Geng et al. 2015; Gleick 1998
Amount and diversity of natural vegetation Food security Connected to dietary diversity and wild collection; provides ecosystem services to agriculture (e.g., pollination, pest control). Belanger and Johns 2008; Chappell et al. 2013; Lira et al. 2009; Power 2010


Forest degradation and fragmentation leads to loss of wild biodiversity. Godar et al. 2015; Savilaasko et al. 2013; Melo et al. 2013;

Grau et al. 2013; Fearnside 2005

Agrobiodiversity Food security Dietary diversity tied very strongly to food security directly, and to nutritional quality of diets such as reductions in hidden hunger/micronutrient deficiencies, as well as to decreased risk of crop failure and increased ecosystem services (see also references for diversity in natural vegetation).


Crop diversity can increase the stability and reduce vulnerability of both agricultural yields and farm incomes in the face of both market and biophysical perturbations to farming systems. The stabilizing/risk reducing outcome of increased agrobiodiversity (from within-crop genetic diversity, to diversified cropping patterns), is likely to be of increasing importance with increasing climate and market instability.

Abson et al. 2013; Belanger and Johns 2008;

Burlingame and Dernini 2012; Di Falco and Perrings 2003; Di Falco and Chavas 2006; Di Falco and Chavas 2009; Di Falco et al. 2010; Ericksen 2008; Fraser 2003; Frison et al. 2011; Johns and Eyzaguirre 2006; Liebman and Schulte 2015; Smith and Haddad 2015; Zimmerer 1998

Biodiversity A positive association between planned (agrobiodiversity) and associated (“wild”) biodiversity has been, according to

Vandermeer et al. (2002), established “beyond credible doubt” for vertebrates, arthropods, and non-crop plants.

Liebman and Schulte 2015; Vandermeer et al. 2002
Pests and diseases Food Security Increased pest and disease pressure directly reduces crop yields. Verberg et al. 2013;

Matson et al. 1997



Wild biodiversity and agrobiodiversity reduce pest and disease pressure (e.g., by providing habitat for natural enemies, or by serving as “trap crops” for pests). Soil microbial diversity can suppress diseases. Barthel et al. 2013; Bommarco et al. 2013; Matson et al. 1997; Garbeva et al. 2004
Social properties
Trade agreements Food security Highly contingent; often thought to be mediated via economic growth and access to cheaper food; however, connections between food prices and food security are contested
Inequity and lack of appropriate redistribution within national contexts can hinder or eliminate theorized food security gains from international agricultural trade practices.
Brown et al. 2014; FAO 2012; Wise 2009; Weis 2007; Tansey and Rajotte 2008;

Haddad 2015; Otero et al. 2013; Heady 2010

Biodiversity Complex; land-displacement literature growing; international trade is increasing invasive species. Lenzen et al. 2012; Meyfroidt et al. 2013; Bax et al. 2003
Environmental agreements Food security The focus of REDD+, CBD, and Kyoto on increasing forest cover may reduce agricultural area and productivity; inclusion of agricultural soil carbon sequestration contracts can raise income and improve food security. FAO 2013a; Antle et al. 2009; Corson and Macdonald 2012
Biodiversity Increase in conservation area may improve preservation of wild biodiversity; appropriate scale and community engagement needed for effective governance. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ewers et al. 2009; Brannstrom 2001; McAfee and Shapiro 2010
Certification systems Food security & biodiversity Fair trade: documented multiple effects on farming systems, biodiversity, livelihoods, and food security; effects vary with the social and political institutions regulating fair trade schemes. Bacon et al. 2008; Jaffee 2007; Jaffee and Howard 2009; Raynolds 2000
Financial regimes and multinational corporations Food security Investment and speculation can affect food prices and livelihoods. Davis 2001; De Schutter 2010; IATP 2008
Biodiversity Largely speculative as a “financialization of biodiversity” is still in developmental and uncertain stage; could be mediated through investments in offsets and finances of conservation. Doswald et al. 2012; Phelps et al. 2011; McAfee 1999
Research system Food security Privatization of agricultural research reduced support for research on low-input agricultural practices and subsistence models IAASTD 2009; Sumberg et al. 2012a, b; Levidow et al. 2014
Biodiversity Determinants of innovation within agricultural research systems have led to technological systems favoring specialized, low-diversity agroecosystems. Vanloqueren and Baret, 2009
Government policy


Food security Many possible avenues of effect through effects on entitlements and underlying determinant variables. da Silva et al. 2011; Lappé et al. 2013; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015; Rocha 2009; Wise 2004
Biodiversity Affected directly by conservation policies and indirectly by many other policies (including agricultural policies).


Ceddia et al. 2013; Chopra et al. 2005; Soares-Filho et al. 2014
NGO programs social movements and civic engagement Food security Multi-faceted and variable ways in which civic engagement and civil society organizations can influence food security both positively and negatively. Can play a crucial role in mobilizing underprivileged groups to advocate for greater rights and increased access. Abebaw et al. 2010; Seed et al. 2013; Wittman and Blesh, 2015.
Biodiversity Social movements can play a crucial role in promoting biodiversity in regions of high inequality. Perfecto and Vandermeer 2008; Wittman 2010
Equity and justice Food security Affects distribution, political effectiveness, access rights, and multiple other factors. Haddad 2015; Friel and Baker 2009; Sen 1981; Sievers-Glotzbach 2014
Biodiversity Driving mechanisms/ underlying correlates unclear. Holland et al. 2009; Mikkelson et al. 2007
Political stability Food security Instability and conflict affects many elements of food security, from food supply to entitlements and rights. FAO 2000; Ó Gráda 2009
Biodiversity Possible links little-explored; legacy of conflicts may have profound indirect effects. Russell 2001; Smith et al. 2003; Hamilton et al. 2000
Migration and Demographics Food security Rural out-migration increases dependency on imported food subject to global price shocks; urbanization and changing food preferences affect global demand and supply. Otero 2011; de Janvry and Sadoulet 2010; Regmi and Meade 2013
Biodiversity Habits of urban dwellers will highly influence biodiversity outcomes. CBD 2012; McSweeney 2005
Food storage and distribution systems (imports/exports) Food security


Grain reserves aim to address food price volatility associated with food imports and exports. Murphy 2009; Gilbert 2011; Wright 2009; Brigham 2011; Headey 2010


Increased reliance on food imports may reduce pressure to expand agricultural land base, but increase deforestation in other regions.


Walker 2014; Melo et al. 2013; DeFries et al. 2010
Land tenure system and land availability Food security Food security depends on adequate land access for smallholder and domestic food supply systems. HLPE 2013; Borras 2003; 2010; 2012; White et al. 2012; FAO 2013b; Young 1999; Assies 2009
Biodiversity Property rights regimes provide both structure and incentives for natural resource use and conservation. Hodge and Adams 2014; Ostrom et al. 1999; McKean 2000; Merenlander et al. 2004; Brannstrom 2001; Wittman 2009, 2010.
Access to infrastructure and agricultural inputs Food security Market and distribution infrastructure and access to agricultural inputs shape production systems, food system resilience, and food accessibility. World Bank 2007; Sumberg et al. 2012b; IAASTD 2009;   Patel et al. 2014; Bezner Kerr 2012; 2005
Biodiversity High input agricultural systems, especially at the agricultural frontier involving land clearing, impact biodiversity and landscape degradation; road infrastructure can shape advancement of the agricultural frontier. Baletti 2012; Fearnside 2001; Matson et al. 1997; Barona et al. 2010
Political agency and rights Food security Citizen role in setting food policy affects food availability and distribution systems. Edelman and Carwil 2011; Edelman 2008; Borras et al. 2008; Wittman et al. 2009; Wittman 2011
Biodiversity Political and social entitlements shape access and use of environmental resources and services. Leach et al. 1999; Wittman et al 2010; Wittman and Blesh 2015
Education, Knowledge and Social Networks Food security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, agrobiodiversity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge. Smith and Haddad 2015; Alderman and Headey 2014; Nuñez-Espinoza et al. 2014; Wittman and Blesh, 2015


Biodiversity Alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation; may increase agrobiodiversity and agroecological management practices. Van Weelie and Wals 2002;

García-Barrios et al. 2008; McAfee and Shapiro 2010; Wittman et al 2010


Gender equity/women’s status Food Security Multiple benefits, including possible increases in agricultural productivity, entitlements, maternal, and postpartum care, agency, nutritional knowledge; increased say in household spending; increased productivity from equal access to resources Alderman and Headey 2014; Agarwal 2015; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015
Biodiversity Greater gender equality can play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity in forest ecosystems; alters the normative underpinnings for biodiversity conservation. Van Weelie and Wals 2002; García-Barrios et al. 2008; Agarwal 2009; 1997; 1988; McSweeney 2005; Zimmerer et al. 2015
Affluence and capital assets Food security Income has multiple indirect effects on food security, as well as serving as a form of food entitlement. Sen 1981; Smith and Haddad 2000; 2015


Affluence drives biodiversity-harming consumption through a variety of mechanisms.


Bradshaw et al. 2010; Holland et al. 2009; Weinzettel et al. 2013


Farm practices


Food security Crop choice, diversification and farming type (for subsistence, local markets, and export) affect household and community food availability and price. Seufert et al. 2012; Badgley et al. 2007; Connor, 2007; Dahal et al. 2009; Kasem and Thapa, 2011; Jones 2015; Jones et al 2014; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


Land management decisions, including deforestation at the agricultural frontier, affect both wild and on-farm biodiversity, particularly with negative effects of high input agricultural practices; crop rotation selection, use of organic nutrient amendments, reduced chemical inputs, and building soil organic matter reserves all impact planned and associated biodiversity. Chappell et al. 2013; Frishkoff et al. 2014; IAASTD 2009; Power 2010; Norton et al. 2013; Phelps et al. 2013; Barona et al. 2010; Jarvis 2008; Blesh and Wittman, 2015


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3 thoughts on “A social-ecological perspective on food security and biodiversity conservation

  1. Pingback: Our food and biodiversity research: an update | Ideas for Sustainability

  2. Pingback: New paper: A fresh perspective on food and biodiversity | Ideas for Sustainability

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