Update: Synthesizing diverse food system futures and their pathways of change

Our food systems are not sustainable. How can we address that? The just-released ‘Food and Agriculture Systems Foresight Study’ compares 11 existing research pieces on food system futures and their differing pathways of change. This forward-looking comparison is a much-needed tool to combat the dreaded sustainability ‘trade-offs’.
2021 update
This report has also been published in revised form as an article in Q Open. >>> Click here to download <<<
Working with what came before
There are plenty of ideas on how to move towards sustainable food system futures. This report, commissioned by the Independent Science for Development Council (ISDC) of CGIAR, builds on variety of earlier work to identify key future challenges and implications for climate change and the environment. Reflecting on what came before is essential, as each previous report adds to understanding sustainable food systems and how to affect change within them.
The fight against trade-offs
Today’s food systems are not delivering the outcomes we want: food security, environmental stability, and economic and social well-being. And because they are connected to many other systems, they are riddled with trade-offs, making it difficult to transition to more sustainable systems.
A key trade-off that stands out in previous reports lies in the reciprocal relationship between the environment and food systems: Food systems rely on the environment for inputs such as land, water, and genetic materials. But food systems are biting the hand that feeds: poor management of agricultural land, freshwater, and marine resources and the continuing expansion of agricultural land are the biggest threats to environmental health, think global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. So how do we feed the world without risking the environment?
Our synthesis of previous reports shows that win-win situations regarding this trade-off are almost impossible. Our research shows that it is highly unlikely that all goals for sustainable food systems will be met. Instead, globally coordinated action in combination with accessible, targeted innovation for yield increase and reduction of food waste and losses could lead to a scenario where this trade-off is overcome.
A future food systems approach
Changes in food systems do not take place in isolation but are inseparable from other key factors such as technological change (such as technology adoption), societal changes (such as dietary change), market dynamics, and governance. To reflect on previous reports, we took a future food systems approach and assessed their key drivers of change, their proposed pathways of change, and their future food systems outcomes.
Click here to read the full report, by DRIFT-researcher Aniek Hebinck, and co-authors: Monika Zurek from the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, and Odirilwe Selomane, from the Centre for Complex systems in Transitions with Stellenbosch University.
summary image of the report
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What’s next?
The synthesis also showed gaps in these reports, specifically when it comes to equity considerations within the pathways of change: how can we avoid that proposed innovation pathways make existing inequities worse? If this is not addressed future food systems will not be sustainable for all.
Within the SIRIUS project we continue to explore different ‘food system directionalities’ and how these impact on pathways of change.
Report: Zurek, M., Hebinck, A., Selomane, O. (2020). Food and Agriculture Systems Foresight Study – Implications for climate change and the environment. Independent Science for Development Council (ISDC)
Article: Zurek, M., Hebinck, A., Selomane, O. (2021). Looking across diverse food system futures: Implications for climate change and the environment, Q Open 1.1

June 18, 2020

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