Food Systems & Sustainable Agriculture

Agri-Food Systems: Understanding and Measuring Challenges in Agriculture and Food Systems

Agri-food systems face a range of challenges, from feeding a growing population to containing the environmental impact of food production. But because food systems are so complex, it’s hard to solve one problem without making another one worse. A policy that lowers food prices and makes staples more affordable, for example, could depress farmers’ incomes and cause hardship for smallholder farms.

Fortunately, holistic methods can empower researchers working to understand the food system as a complex whole. A new report from The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) outlines the limitations of conventional perspectives and introduces a macroscopic framework for analyzing agri-food systems.

Five Competing Perspectives

Over the years, people have tried different methods of addressing food-system challenges; however, each approach has fallen short in various ways. To see why existing frameworks have not successfully solved the most pressing problems facing agricultural systems, it’s helpful to consider the strengths and weaknesses of conventional perspectives on agriculture. The TEEB report identifies the following five key perspectives through which specialists have traditionally analyzed agricultural systems.

  1. The agronomist. This point of view emphasizes increasing crop yields to feed a growing population. Its main focus is on using technology to produce greater yields while holding down the amounts of resources required as inputs. This framework is credited with tripling worldwide agricultural output from 1961 to 2011 and reducing the share of the world’s population that is undernourished by more than half between 1990 and 2013. However, it’s likely not possible to continue with this strategy indefinitely as growth in grain yields is now lower than it was during most of the second half of the 20th century. And single-minded attention to intensifying yields can cause harmful environmental and social effects that aren’t necessarily taken into account by this perspective.
  2. The environmentalist.This perspective is concerned with preventing agricultural processes from depleting resources, interfering with ecosystems, and contributing to climate change. It has led to regulations restricting the use of certain environmentally harmful chemicals in agriculture and has won government protection for lands adding up to 14.8% of terrestrial land areas as of June 2017. But potential downsides of this approach are that it doesn’t always engage with local communities and that current technologies and infrastructure may not be sufficient to achieve its goals, such as closing the greenhouse-gas emissions gap.
  3. The sociologist. This approach attempts to promote higher incomes for poor households that are involved in farming. This perspective has succeeded in highlighting the problem of rural poverty and in championing rural development to boost farmers’ incomes. At the same time, this form of analysis has not always given sufficient weight to resource constraints, nor has it found a way to ensure that smallholder farmers aren’t left behind by globalization.
  4. The economist. The economist perspective aims to achieve stable, affordable prices for nutritious foods through competitive markets and the efficient allocation of resources. And the proportion of per capita disposable income spent on food in the US has fallen significantly since 1960, indicating that greater affordability is possible as a result of economic growth. Still, this perspective’s focus on prices facing consumers has obscured the difficulties of farmers whose livelihoods are affected by downward price pressure.
  5. The health specialist. This viewpoint emphasizes the interaction between access to nutrients and health and analyzes the effects of both undernutrition and obesity. There have been global gains in this area, as the share of children under age five who are underweight fell from 25% to 14% from 1990 to 2015. But this approach doesn’t always consider the environmental impacts of dietary changes, such as increased meat consumption, nor does it sufficiently examine whether there are adequate resources to implement dietary recommendations worldwide.

Although each of these perspectives offers important insights, none has been able to fully grapple with the challenges of 21st-century agri-food systems, and none has provided a path forward for sustainable reform. This is why, according to TEEB, a new paradigm is needed.

The TEEBAgriFood Framework

In order to move beyond the limitations of conventional approaches, the TEEBAgriFood Framework adopts a systems perspective on food and agriculture. It analyzes how human capital, social capital, produced capital, and natural capital interact with the agriculture and food value chain, starting with agricultural production and continuing through the point of household consumption. The end goal is to create policies that further inclusive and sustainable growth—without overlooking any side effects that might undermine essential values.

An advantage of the TEEBAgriFood Framework is that it can reveal risks and opportunities that weren’t apparent from more limited metrics used to study food systems. For example, researchers used the TEEBAgriFood Framework to compare conventional farming and organic farming in New Zealand. Analysis of the effects of the two farming methods found that organic farming led to greater biomass and biodiversity due to practices like composting, and that the economic value of positive effects on the ecosystem was greater for organic farming than for conventional farming. This systems perspective allows researchers to identify trade-offs between organic and conventional methods that aren’t obvious from narrow metrics like crop prices or yields per hectare.

The TEEBAgriFood Framework could potentially transform analysis of agriculture and food production as specialists from different domains use its methods to explore the complexities of food production. It’s now up to researchers to apply the framework to global agri-food systems.