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David against Goliath: Diversity to foster resilient agri-food systems

Modern socio-economic systems are unsustainable. That is illustrated by climate change, biodiversity loss, plastic pollution, etc. Thus, a transition towards sustainable systems is urgently needed. Unsustainable technologies and practices need to be replaced by sustainable ones. Thus, transition scholars often discuss how new ideas can be upscaled and become mainstream. However, upscaling new ideas can have negative side effects. For example, if we focus on one new technology, systems can get locked in. This in turn will limit the system’s future adaptability. Reducing options can also influence power dynamics. In the market sphere limiting options can create market power with negative side effects (e.g. artificially high prices).


As a transition scholar, I studied different transition concepts. While they all might have their merit when applied to specific cases, I argue that the future should emphasize diversity rather than mainstreaming one solution. I would argue that to a certain extent, diversification is already underway. The energy transition is one example, where we are not focusing on one technology alone but a portfolio of technologies. Furthermore, the energy transition has the potential to give rise to a diversity of means to organize energy production and provision (e.g. energy communities, individual energy producers, private energy companies, etc.). Similar arguments can be applied to other sectors such as agriculture. That is even more so as with the growing importance of the circular-bioeoconomy, agriculture is also increasingly relevant to provide energy and raw materials.


Trends toward diversification are observable and the advantages of a diversified system are outlined by socio-ecology and resilience studies. However, it seems that within transition studies the relevance of diversity is understudied. It would be interesting to study cases that demonstrate the advantages of diversity and analyze the challenges these cases face. Apart from specific cases, scientists also need to engage in the theoretical discourse. As mentioned within transition studies the notion of upscaling is the prevalent concept. Though, I argue that we have to maintain the niche and find solutions that are regionally and locally anchored. Thus, there is no one-fits-all solution. The solution should not only depend on the biophysical circumstances within a region but also e.g. on the cultural circumstances. Options to organize resource provision (e.g. energy or food) might fit in one cultural context but not in another one. In line with socio-ecological thinking, I am not arguing that solutions should not be upscaled at all. Though, upscaling should not be predominantly driven by economics. Rather the optimal scale should be determined by socio-ecological factors (i.e. respecting biophysical and social carrying capacity). Accordingly, profits should not be the main factor driving or inhibiting transitions. Clearly such an idea contradicts the logic of the current socio-economic system. Thus, similar to post-growth scholars transition scholars need to think about how a transition towards a sustainable society can unfold, if this transition conflicts with the current system.


There are many questions that need to be posed and much more research is needed to provide tentative answers.


To engage with the research community, I hosted two sessions at the 22nd STS conference in Graz. The focus of the sessions was on agriculture, however, contributions were diverse.


Birgit Teufer talked about how sustainability is framed by members of an Austrian Food Coop. The results not only help people to understand the many ways in which food coops positively contribute to sustainability. She also showed that the fuzzy sustainability term requires active reflection to clarify what it means for people who are part of a coop. Vivien Marx together with Birgit Teufer presented another case about Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) in Austria. They investigated what kind of funding schemes non-CSA members would prefer. Providing funding schemes is relevant as CSA is often only accessible to people with a higher income. To also grant access to people with a lower income, financial support is vital. The results were intriguing as non-member preferences differ from member preferences. This helps to understand that to get non-members on board additional funding schemes might need to be adopted. Jamila Haider presented another Austrian case about small-scale dairy farming in Austria. I have to admit I have heard her talk about her case once before and was captured by her research. As for the other contributions, her research is interesting for many reasons. One aspect that got me thinking is that the small-scale of the farmer gave the farmer (Sepp) more freedom to react to challenges. Thus, the small-scale provided him with more adaptability. Accordingly, this case study supports my suggestion that maintaining the niche can help us to create systems that are more resilient (and more sustainable).


The Austrian dairy case builds a perfect bridge to the research from Anita Pinheiro who talked about the proteine transition in India. Another very interesting case as it also illustrates how the discussion is dominated by the Western narrative. Anita’s, case argues that changing to higher-processed (plant-based) protein alternatives might not be the best solution for India. High-processed products require more capital, which means that the poor and low-income population is excluded. The same is true for the consumption of highly-processed proteins as these cost more. Rightfully so, Anita asks for whom is this protein transition? Playing devil’s advocate I asked, whether we may not still have to abandon animal husbandry for e.g. its ethical implications. It is a tricky question to answer and it reminded me of my PhD research on sugar beet. Sugar has a high cultural value in Austria (because we have Mehlspeisen, [sweet dishes]). Yet the environmental implications of sugar production might call for substantially reducing sugar production or even abandoning it altogether. Though, abandoning sugar would mean the end of an important part of Austrian culture (e.g. Sachertorte, Mozartkugeln, Punschkrapferln, Kaiserschmarren, etc). The same is true for animal husbandry. Many of us appreciate the beautiful Austrian Alpine meadows, seeing cute cows grazing on these meadows and eating artisanal cheese produced in small cheese factories up in the mountains.


Thus we need to ask which niches we want to maintain and who decides this. I think in many cases niches, more so than large-scale production, respect the local conditions. Niches may make it easier to respect social and environmental conditions while providing a living for the local population (rather than a big corporation). This leads me to the case presented by Abhilasha Singh. He talked about the negative effects of the Green Revolution in India. The Green Revolution led to the large-scale introduction of wheat, crowding out other plants such as sorghum (of which many different varieties were present). This led farmers to be increasingly dependent on industrial farming systems. Abhilasha highlighted the benefits of sorghum compared to wheat. Amongst others, some sorghum varieties are more resistant to adverse climatic conditions caused by climate change. Thus, these varieties allow farmers to generate income despite unfavorable climatic conditions. He also explained that sorghum seeds are reproduced by farmers, which makes them less dependent on farm input companies. However, the reintroduction would require government support to shift demand from wheat to sorghum. On the one hand, this case is one of many examples indicating how the diversity on the fields could increase the resilience of the food system. On the other, this case shows how centralized powers (such as the state) might also be needed in a scenario that favors diversity. With this, it ties back to the CSA case. For non-CSA members, the preferred funding scheme would be governmental support.


With these conference sessions, only some aspects of the advantages and challenges of diversification could be discussed. I hope that future reseach will focus more on the power of diversification and the concept of maintaining the niche, rather than on upscaling some innovation. I truly believe that there is much power in a more organic understanding of systems. As Gunderson and Holling (2002, p. 27f.) described we need to focus more on resilience that is less centered on a steady state (engineering resilience) and more focused on persistence, adaptiveness, variability, and unpredictability (ecosystem resilience). This will require maintaining the niche.

Session call

F.1. David against Goliath: Diversity to foster resilient agri-food systems

Katharina Biely Wageningen University and Research, The Netherlands

Agri-food systems are coined by market concentration [1]. However, this concentration creates lock-ins and dependencies. The Ukraine war illustrated, amongst others, the risk of dependencies within the agri-food system [2]. Furthermore, the reduction of diversity on the fields makes crops more prone to the development and spread of pathogens. Examples are the Panama disease on banana plantations or the bird flu for poultry farming. These pathogens can also pose a risk to human health (e.g., through new pandemics).

Thus, the reduction of diversity on the field as well as the concentration along the value chain reduces the resilience of the agri-food system. Therefore, sustainable agri-food systems need to embrace diversity on the field and along the value chain. There are initiatives and trends to increase diversity such as alternative farm practices (e.g., organic farming, agroecology, and integrated farming) and alternative marketing channels (e.g., community-supported agriculture, vegetable boxes, direct marketing, food cooperatives). However, these initiatives remain negligible. The current agri-food system supports efficiency and profit maximization, which might not provide vital ground for diversity to flourish.

In this session, we want to explore initiatives that foster diversity on the field and along the supply chain to increase the sustainability and resilience of agri-food systems. We welcome contributions along this main theme as well as on the following lines:

  • Diversity and resilience: Studies that shed light on the connection between diversity within agri-food systems and resilience.

  • Barriers and success strategies: Studies that explore how initiatives develop and survive in an environment that might not support diversity.

  • Agri-food transformation: Studies that investigate how diversification could become mainstream.

 

References:
1. Shand, H., K.J. Wetter, and K. Chowdhry, Food Barons 2022: Crisis Profiteering, Digitalization and Shifting Power. 2022, ETC Group.
2. Liu, L., et al., The cascade influence of grain trade shocks on countries in the context of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 2023. 10(1): p. 449.

 

Reference:

Gunderson, L. H., & Holling, C. S. (2002). Panarchy: Understanding transformations in human and natural systems. Washington, Covelo, London: Island Press.

 


Foto: Grazer Uhrturm (Clock Tower of Graz)

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