The following is the established format for referencing this article:Lähde, V., T. Vadén, T. Toivanen, P. Järvensivu, and J. T. Eronen. 2023. The crises inherent in the success of the global food system. Ecology and Society 28(4):16.
Food systems around the world are increasingly interwoven into a global network. The dominant productionist paradigm emphasizes aggregate production volumes, a focus on few key products, and the dominant role of large exporting countries and transnational corporations. This article proposes a new conceptualization of food systems that illuminates the unequal structure and the lock-ins of this network. The global network of national food systems manifests as a center–periphery constellation where the resilience of many food systems is fatefully undermined. This article also explores the reasons why the successes of the productionist paradigm are accompanied with severe problems, including the potential of global food crises. Increasing vulnerability to crises is an inherent feature of the tightly networked global food system. As a way forward, we propose a transformation pathway based on the notion of “next best transition steps.” A key idea is to afford agency and transformative resilience to those currently in the periphery of the global food system.
The prevalent forms of food production and trade have deep historical roots, reaching to the eras of colonization and early industrialization (Clapp 2023). However, after the Second World War an increasingly industrialized, interconnected, and globalized paradigm emerged. It is often called “productionism,” and in the literature certain key characteristics are named: emphasis on production volumes, standardized production, dominance of transnational corporations, focus on a few key species and industrial feedstocks, unifying consumption habits, global commodity transport systems, and intensive energy and resource use (Khoury et al. 2014, De Schutter 2017, Gordon et al. 2017, Horton et al. 2017, Clapp and Isakson 2018, Gaitán-Cremachi et al. 2019, Béné 2022). Agricultural subsidies are another important feature (Giller et al. 2021).
The productionist paradigm has had notable successes. It has brought advantages of scaling and global division of labor (Anderson et al. 2019). Measured in calories, production has grown faster than population (Gordon et al. 2017, Ramankutty et al. 2018). In fact, increasing production has been seen as the main way to overcome hunger and food insecurity (Lang and Barling 2012, Tomlinson 2013, Schipanski et al. 2016). A growing emphasis on production volumes is evident also in research (Tamburino et al. 2020).
However, productionism has been criticized for decades from many angles. First, the success in overcoming hunger has been questioned by criticizing the dominant calorie-based metrics of hunger and by emphasizing more diverse notions of nutrition (Lappé et al. 2013, Hickel 2016, Ingram 2017). Using the terminology of food security, overemphasis on the dimension of availability has overshadowed the other dimensions of access, utilization, and stability (De Schutter 2017, Chappell 2018). This line of criticism has been bolstered by the fact that both the absolute number and the relative prevalence of chronically undernourished people has been growing since 2017, even if measured by the narrow caloric metric (FAO et al. 2022).
The second line of criticism has highlighted issues of distribution and wastage. The current supply of food greatly surpasses the amount of food that is really eaten, due to inequality of distribution and to diverse forms of waste and loss (Cassidy et al. 2013, Clapp 2017, Berners-Lee et al. 2018, Lundqvist and Unver 2018, Giller et al. 2021). Calculations of total loss and waste differ, ranging from one third to half, and even over 90% if the losses inherent in industrial animal production are included (Alexander et al. 2017).
The third line of criticism has focused on the lack of rights and agency of many people in current food systems: lack of food sovereignty and rights, gender inequalities and structural racism. Many of these criticism stem from social movements in developing countries (e.g., landless people, smallholders), especially those rallying around the concept of food sovereignty (Mooney and Hunt 2009, Holt-Giménez and Shattuck 2011, De Schutter 2017, Béné et al. 2019).
The fourth line of criticism stems from environmental concerns. The practices of food production, processing and consumption are the main drivers in appropriation of natural resources (land, fresh water, fisheries, etc.), driving biodiversity decline and the degradation of the natural systems that maintain the flow of said resources (Kahiluoto et al. 2014, Pauly and Zeller 2016, Campbell et al. 2017, Gordon et al. 2017, Kroodsma et al. 2018, Springmann et al. 2018, Poore and Nemecek 2018, Ramankutty et al. 2018, Nyström et al. 2019, Rousseau et al. 2019, Willet et al. 2019). They are also main causes of various forms of pollution, from nutrient flows to greenhouse gas emissions (Campbell et al. 2017, Poore and Nemecek 2018, Ramankutty et al. 2018, Springmann et al. 2018, Clark et al. 2020, Crippa et al. 2021). On the other hand, especially food production is strongly affected by climate change and other environmental changes: increasing frequency of droughts and floods, declining fertility of soils, salinization, loss of pollinators, collapse of fish stocks, etc. These effects come both as long-term stressors and as sudden events (Tendall et al. 2015, Zhao et al. 2017, Fanzo et al. 2018, Gaupp et al. 2019, Gaupp 2020, Heslin et al. 2020, Davis et al. 2021, Kummu et al. 2021).
This article explores the problems of productionism from a fifth critical angle: vulnerability to crises. After the Second World War, there have been at least three major food crises of global extent: 1973–1974, 2007–2012 and recently due to the overlapping Covid-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine (Clapp 2023). We continue this line of criticism and contend that the very features that have made the successes of productionism possible have increased vulnerability to crises, even on a global level.
In the research literature, there is a widely shared view that the current paradigm is not working and that there is an urgent need of transformation (De Schutter 2017, Oliver et al. 2018, Béné et al. 2019, Conti et al. 2021, Dinesh et al 2021, Béné 2022). However, the productionist paradigm has proven to be extremely resistant against critique, and it remains the default position. Challenges have been successfully appropriated into the dominant paradigm: the main problem is always insufficient production, and the solution is to boost production, for example, by “greener” or “climate-smart” methods (Anderson et al. 2019, Newell and Taylor 2018, Béné 2022).
This apparent contradiction is more understandable if we approach productionism as an established political economy with tangible institutional and material manifestations that cannot be challenged by scientific critique alone (Newell and Taylor 2018, Leach et al. 2020). In policy and research discussions, a prominent way to approach these institutional and material manifestations is to describe them in the terminology of food systems. “Food system” has become a dominant term, but its meanings can diverge widely, even including directly opposite viewpoints and notions of what “a system” is (Brock 2023, Foran et al. 2014, Leach et al. 2020). This was apparent especially around the first UN Food System Summit in 2021, with vocal criticism against the terminology of food systems (Canfield et al. 2021, Brock 2023, Ewert et al. 2023).
In conceptualizing food systems, most research articles and reports tend to follow the example established by Ericksen’s seminal text (Ericksen 2008). Such conceptualizations firstly catalog the different activities within a food system; secondly, they examine the various drivers, outcomes, and feedbacks both within the system and in relation to the surrounding society and environment (Allen and Prosperi 2016, Ewert et al. 2023). Building on this, typologies of food systems have been created (e.g., traditional, mixed, and modern) (HLPE 2017, Gaitán-Cremachi et al. 2019, Marshall et al. 2021). These typologies point to the fact that there are diverse types of food systems, not only between regions or countries but within them.
On the other hand, there is one food system: an increasingly interconnected global one, “a network of networks” (Helbing 2013). This tension between multiplicity and unity creates a conceptual problem. The conceptualizations that examine the activities and dynamics of separate food systems rely on drawing a borderline between factors internal and external to the food system in question (Brock 2023). Thus, they are not fit to describe the relations between food systems within a network of trade and power relations. There is a conceptual gap between the intra-system and inter-system level: we need different tools for different jobs (Müller et al. 2020). Intra-system conceptualizations are not suited to reflect the inequality of power relations in the network of the global food system, widely divergent levels of access to the markets, and power to influence socio-political systems (Schipanski et al. 2016, De Schutter 2017).
Thus, in the first section of this Synthesis, we propose a new conceptualization of the global food system as a network of national food systems. We emphasize that this is not meant as a replacement of the conceptualizations that explore single food systems and create typologies. Instead of analyzing the components and dynamics of single food systems (local, regional, national), our aim is to highlight the global power relations and inequalities inherent in the current network of food systems. In this conceptualization, we focus on relations between national food systems, drawing a tentative constellation of center-periphery. Further work is of course necessary to flesh out more specific differences between national systems, and more granularity would be needed to examine the diversity reaching sub-national levels. This is a proposal for a direction of travel.
In the second and third sections, we examine the key features of the global food system and how these features contribute to various forms of food crises. This bolsters the fifth line of criticism described previously and helps to show how vulnerability to crises is inherent in the structures of the global food system.
In the fourth section, we explore how one’s location in the network determines the level of vulnerability and then examine the potential strategies of increasing resilience. Such an approach is needed in order to tailor solutions that fit national food systems, not only according to their internal features but according to their position in the global network.
In the final section, we return to the theme that began this Introduction. The global food system is dominated by the productionist paradigm, and the need for change is widely recognized. Yet the paradigm seems impervious to criticism (Oliver et al. 2018, Béné 2022). Different approaches to transformation abound in the literature, from lists of incremental remedies to programs of wholesale system change (Conti et al. 2021, Dinesh et al. 2021). An added complication is that the answers surely are different depending on whether one is talking about change in one food system (local, regional, national) or in a global network of food systems. Again, we need different tools for different jobs.
Building on the preceding analysis of the crises inherent in the global food system, we draft a series of steps that would break persistent lock-ins and open up pathways to transformation in order to decrease systemic vulnerability to crises. In this, we employ Robyn Eckersley’s notion of “next best transition steps” (Eckersley 2021), an approach that we believe treads an alternative route between incrementalism and wholesale system change. Such an approach would help to explore potentials for new alliances in the political struggles over food system transformation, and to make food system research more pertinent to them.
THE GLOBAL FOOD SYSTEM: CENTER VS. PERIPHERY
There is a plethora of approaches to the emergence and the nature of power in the current global food system. Productionism is seen to be a product of the post-World War II era of reconstruction and high population growth and the later Green Revolution (Lang and Barling 2012, De Schutter 2017). Its entrenchment is also linked to the rise of neoliberalism in the 1980s and the attendant corporatization and financialization in the food system (Clapp 2017, Clapp and Isakson 2018, Clapp and Purugganan 2020). The term “corporate food regime” is often used to highlight the dominant position of large transnational companies (Leach et al. 2020, Béné 2022).
Power is highly centralized in wealthy countries that are major exporters and in transnational corporations, whereas smaller local actors are increasingly vulnerable and politically marginalized (Chandra et al. 2017, Anderson et al. 2019, Clapp and Isakson 2018, HLPE 2020; Davis et al. 2021). The latter applies on a macro-level, especially to poor and import-dependent countries, and on a micro-level, to a majority of smallholders who are critical to food security in many countries. Smallholders produce circa half of the calories for human consumption globally and are the major contributors in developing countries (Samberg et al. 2016, De Schutter 2017, Ricciardi et al. 2018, Giller et al. 2021).
In order to understand the complexities of power in food systems, a plural approach is needed, as no theory or conceptualization alone suffices (Leach et al. 2020). An approach coming from the theory of hegemonies offers a useful division into material, institutional, and discursive power (Newell and Taylor 2018). We focus mostly on the first two: mutual institutional reinforcement of dominant actors and material control over production and producers. However, we conceive “material power” also in a more extensive sense: how the inherited situation of the global food system creates dependencies and lock-ins that are hard to break and how this is reflected in the narrow options for action by many actors. One concrete example of such material power is dependence on industrial fertilizers: sudden disentanglement would create insurmountable problems (Kahiluoto et al. 2014, Clapp 2017, Porkka et al. 2017, Gerten et al. 2020).
A recent article proposes four major drivers that maintain the lock-in of the current paradigm: 1) influence of transnational corporations; 2) divergent interests between states and other actors; 3) exclusively profit-driven innovation and 4) failure of the scientific community to combat problematic applications of science (Béné 2022). The second one is the most pertinent for this Synthesis. Even though the policy space of governments (and citizenries) is restricted in the global food system, national and international politics remains the viable arena for contesting the entrenchment of productivism (Clapp and Purugganan 2020, Leach et al. 2020, Béné 2022).
It is because of this, and because trade between nations forms the main connections in the network of the global food system, that we focus our attention on the relationships between national food systems. Even though in practice there are many actors, especially corporations, that are active in many food systems simultaneously, it is heuristically fruitful to begin by taking the national food systems as the main units in the global network.
All national food systems take part in the global network, but in a highly unequal way, forming a center-periphery constellation (Fig. 1). Despite terminological similarity, our approach does not stem directly from world-systems analysis where those are key concepts. This constellation is intended as a rough draft of the power relations in “the network of networks” of the global food system. More granularity and perhaps intermediate levels will no doubt be needed as this conceptualization is developed further.
Center and periphery do not denote degrees of geographical proximity, nor merely the level of affluence. Rather, the constellation denotes access to the global network and the capacity to affect it (e.g., the possibility to form new trade relationships, the ability to compete in the global markets, political leeway to protect one’s own food system). The national food systems in the center are not of course in an equal situation. They range from affluent to mid-level countries: some are key export hubs, some are import-dependent but wealthy, some export certain key products but are import-dependent in others, and some import, process, and re-export products. This constellation aims to illuminate that when it comes to vulnerability to food crises and the potential to increase resilience, the main division line is between the center and the periphery.
MAIN FEATURES OF THE GLOBAL FOOD SYSTEM
Next, we describe the global food system in general terms. We divide its distinctive features into two groups: on the one hand, simplification and homogenization, and on the other hand, strong connectedness and specialization.
Simplification and homogenization
Intensive use of energy and chemical inputs has made it possible to partially detach food production from the limitations of local conditions, “forcing” them to be more predictable and controllable, in effect simplifying the environment of production (Ramankutty et al. 2018, Nyström et al. 2019). Maximization of yields has become a dominant practice in simplified landscapes of monocultures (Lundqvist and Unver 2018, Kummu et al. 2020).
Food production focuses on a narrow selection of key species, with emphasis on bulk products as feedstocks in industrial food processing (e.g., maize, oil crops, soy, fish meal). This homogenization links diverse food industries intimately together and has facilitated the growth of key corporate actors with expanding control over resources (Nyström et al. 2019, Béné et al. 2019, Clapp 2023). During the 20th century, genetic diversity of crops has plummeted, and now merely three crops (rice, wheat, maize) produce more than half of total food calories (Sundkvist et al. 2005, Cassidy et al. 2013). Accordingly, consumption habits are increasingly unified, which is a key contributor to “the triple burden of hunger” (the co-existence of undernourishment, malnourishment, and health problems due to excessively energy-rich diets) and increasing food-related non-communicable diseases (Schipanski et al. 2016, De Schutter 2017, Ramankutty et al. 2018, Willett et al. 2019, Kinnunen et al. 2020). Homogenization also makes propagation of disturbances (e.g., pests) more likely (Fraser et al. 2005).
Alongside the process of homogenization, diversification has been taking place. The selection of food has increased in many areas, as trade makes new products available, but globally the selection has narrowed, as a global “standard food supply” has emerged. Prominence of animal agriculture has furthered the homogenization of the global suite of food plants used as feed (Swift et al. 2004, Khoury et al. 2014, Kummu et al. 2020).
Strong connectedness and specialization
Connections in trade, communication, cooperation, and aid are vital to food systems: isolated areas are vulnerable in the face of serious production losses and other local disturbances. However, whether increasing connectedness of food systems increases or decreases resilience depends on the structure of networks (Sartori and Schiavo 2015, Tu et al. 2019). One key issue is whether the modules of a network are compartmentalized: are there buffers that limit the spread of disturbances, and does the network offer alternative pathways in case of a localized disturbance? Examples of those are crop failures or abrupt policy changes in an important trade partner or a conflict blocking a trade hub (Tu et al. 2019).
The globalized food system does not embody compartmentalization. Rather, it is ever more tightly connected, with relatively few dominant trade and production nodes and powerful key actors (Helbing 2013, Clapp 2017, Horton et al. 2017, Nyström et al. 2019, Kummu et al. 2020). This development is fed by the growing financialization of the food system and the growth of key corporate players via mergers (De Schutter 2017, Gordon et al. 2017, Clapp and Isakson 2018, Clapp and Purugganan 2020). In such a “hyper-connected” system, cascades of failures become more likely: local shocks are amplified as they travel in the network (Liu et al. 2013, Puma et al. 2015, Nyström et al. 2019). Tight interconnectedness provides resistance against local failures, but with increasing complexity, susceptibility to self-propagating disturbances increases (Jones and Phillips 2016, Nyström et al. 2019, Kummu et al. 2020, Loring and Sanyal 2021). This applies especially to disturbances in the key nodes of the center, whereas those in the periphery do not “travel” so readily.
At the heart of the tightening connectedness of the food system is global trade. In recent decades, the volume of food trade has increased rapidly (Liu et al. 2013, Gordon et al. 2017, Nyström et al. 2019, Kummu et al. 2020). Up to one quarter of agricultural food, land, and freshwater are accessed through trade, and regional specialization of production is increasing, further necessitating dependence on trade (MacDonald et al. 2015, Cotrell et al. 2019, Tu et al. 2019). Indeed, inter-country interconnectedness has increased dramatically, and the majority of countries have low food self-sufficiency (MacDonald et al. 2015, Puma et al. 2015, Jones and Phillips 2016, Clapp 2017, Kummu et al. 2020).
Growing interconnectedness has been accompanied by the separation of importers and exporters. Especially poorer net-importing countries are more and more dependent on a limited number of key actors, while their remaining local production is increasingly reliant on the centralized market of production inputs such as seeds, fertilizers, and agricultural chemicals (Bren d’Amour et al. 2016, Tu et al. 2019, Anderson et al. 2019, Kinnunen et al. 2020, Kummu et al. 2020). These developments take place in the context of systematically unequal patterns of global exchange of biophysical resources (Dorninger et al. 2021). The global “network of networks” is becoming less and less compartmentalized and more and more asymmetric.
NATURE OF FOOD CRISES
By food crises we mean any disruption in a food system or the network of food systems that results in food insecurity, by weakening availability (e.g., production losses, logistics disruptions) or access (e.g., price spikes). Production shocks have been steadily increasing from the 1960s onwards (Cotrell et al. 2019). Overall, sensitivity to disturbances and susceptibility to instability of the global food system has increased over the past two decades (Suweis et al. 2015). The close linkages of food systems to especially energy and financial systems give rise to myriad drivers, such as changes in oil prices, geopolitical crises, or commodity speculation (Tadesse et al. 2014, Clapp and Isakson 2018, Cotrell et al. 2019).
The effects of disruptions can stay local, or they can travel in the food system network. This depends mostly on how central the country of origin is in global food trade; the network makes the propagation of disturbances possible (Puma et al. 2015). For example, the effects of production shocks that are transmitted to net-importing countries depend on the market share of the affected exporter, the potential to shift trading partners, the diversity of diet composition, et cetera (Bren d’Amour et al. 2016). Whether the disturbance stays local or propagates, one’s location in the network of the global food system crucially determines vulnerability and resilience. There are no inevitable consequences of drivers: similar droughts in Africa have had very different regional outcomes (Seekell et al. 2017). A disruption does not inevitably result in a crisis.
Even if a production shock in a major exporter affects global supply, it may not manifest as a crisis in that country itself, if it has the capabilities to buffer its own population by increased importation and other means (Jones and Phillips 2016). The most vulnerable countries are clustered in Africa, and they tend to display either import-dependency with a limited range of trading partners or high dependence on local staple crops and thus vulnerability to local crop losses (Bren d’Amour et al. 2016).
The vulnerability and adaptability of individual people in the face of food crises is also determined by many factors, like the presence of conflicts and dependence of livelihoods on food production (Cotrell et al. 2019, Davis et al. 2021). Repeated disruptions, especially when combined with maladaptive coping strategies, can also result in a downward spiral of resilience capabilities, making even relatively minor disturbances more severe (Béné et al. 2015). The concrete manifestation of a food crisis is always relative to the responses of nations, communities, and individuals (Davis et al. 2021).
In other words, even though the global networking of food systems has brought overall resilience to localized disruptions, the food systems of the periphery remain especially vulnerable. Resilience for some has been gained at the expense of others (Béné et al. 2015, Oliver et al. 2018). Resilience in the context of food systems means the ability to withstand and absorb stressors, and to either recover or to adapt to the changing situation, or even to transform in order to build resilience on new ground (Béné et al. 2015, Tendall et al. 2015, Wood et al. 2023). These capacities vary radically across the network of the global food system. The more vulnerable areas tend to be limited to withstanding, absorbing, and recovering resilience. Thus, they are entrenched in the inherently crisis-prone situation; adaptation and transformation are needed, but their position in the network works against that.
Using our conceptualization of the global food system (Fig. 1) as a basis, we distinguish four different types of food crises (Fig. 2). The first one is a local production shock in the center or in the periphery: it can be remedied by imports if the affected country has the wealth and the connections for it. The second is a disruption in an export hub: as the country decreases exports, the effects (mediated through fluctuating prices) travel in the network but affect the countries in the center and the periphery differently. Extreme environmental impacts are a key driver for both of these types (Lin 2011, Bren d’Amour et al. 2016, Zhao et al. 2017, Ramankutty et al. 2018, Heslin et al. 2020, Davis et al. 2021, Kummu et al. 2021). Conflicts are another key driver: it was customary to assume that these would affect poorer countries more likely, but the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown how major export hubs can be affected as well.
The third type describes simultaneous disturbances in many export hubs at the same time. Climate change will make such events more likely, even at the level of 1.5 °C or 2 °C post-industrial warming aimed at in the Paris Agreement (Gaupp et al. 2019, Heslin et al. 2020, Gaupp 2020, Davis et al. 2021). Simultaneous disruptions can cause problems anywhere in the network via fluctuating prices and logistic problems. The Covid-19 pandemic can be seen as a variation of this type: even though the effect was primarily on livelihoods (access to food) and transport systems rather than production, the effects reverberated across the whole network, affecting vulnerable parts of the population even in the wealthy countries of the center. The tightly interconnected structure of the network creates potential for a general crisis (Puma et al. 2015).
Different types can of course take place simultaneously. The overlapping Covid-19 pandemic, war, and sanctions due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine have combined with weather extremes in many areas (Clapp 2023.) Such “perfect storms” become ever more likely as the multifaceted environmental crisis progresses.
The fourth type emphasizes the difference between temporary crises and slower, incrementally emerging crises (Paloviita et al. 2017, Davis et al. 2021). The diverse effects of environmental problems threaten to diminish aggregate production all around the globe, affecting food systems across the network. (Lin 2011, Tendall et al. 2015, Bren d’Amour et al. 2016, Zhao et al. 2017, Fanzo et al. 2018, Ramankutty et al. 2018, Gaupp et al. 2019, Heslin et al. 2020, Davis et al. 2021, Kummu et al. 2021). In the current food system, the warning signals are masked by the long distance between producers and consumers and the sequential displacement of negative impacts to new areas (Gordon et al. 2017, Nyström et al. 2019, Kummu et al. 2020, Dorninger et al. 2021). There is a systemic incentive in the center of the global food system to keep up with such delaying actions, so that the first rounds of severe effects are felt mostly by the food systems of the periphery (Helbing 2013, Seekell et al. 2017). Until they are not.
REACTION: LOCAL OR GLOBAL?
In order to alleviate susceptibility to crises both for individual food systems and the network in general, what is needed is more compartmentalization and redundancy (Puma et al. 2015, Oliver et al. 2018, Tu et al. 2019, Kummu et al. 2020). However, translating this into concrete terms is difficult, and discussions easily devolve into a simplistic opposition between local and global: the virtues of self-sufficiency vs. interdependence. Unfortunately, self-sufficiency tends to be addressed as an either/or question (Clapp 2017, Wood et al. 2023). This regresses the discussion into an opposition between continuation of the status quo and hopelessly extreme autarky.
Historically, food trade has had undeniable benefits, as it helps to balance demand and supply, affords a more diverse food supply, and can protect against local disturbances (Sundkvist et al. 2005, Puma et al. 2015, Gordon et al. 2017, Kummu et al. 2020). In principle, trade allows areas to supplement for lack of natural resources, but “the import strategy” is not only an autonomous choice: it is affected by export strategies of other countries, declining local productivity, and the emergence of political barriers (Porkka et al. 2017, Clapp 2017). Nor does the import strategy necessarily succeed in safeguarding food security. After all, hunger and malnutrition can be prevalent in food surplus areas (Clapp 2017, Porkka et al. 2017). Imports can out-compete local production but not be sufficient to replace it, nor are they always affordable to the impoverished populations (De Schutter 2017).
Circa 80% of the world population live currently in net-importing countries with a food deficit between local production and consumption (MacDonald et al. 2015, Clapp 2017). Thus, in moments of crisis, export restrictions by key producers, market speculation, or hoarding by wealthier major importers, can manifest in increased vulnerability of millions of people (Bren d’Amour et al. 2016, HLPE 2020, Clapp 2023). Even with much-needed changes in local production and regional distribution, global trade would be necessary for adequate and stable food supply in many areas of the world for the foreseeable future (Kinnunen et al. 2020).
Transformation of the global food system needs to find a balance between self-sufficiency and dependence on external trade (Sundkvist et al. 2005, Puma et al. 2015, Clapp 2017, Kinnunen et al. 2020). Using our conceptualization of the global food system as a basis, we distinguish potential strategies to reduce vulnerability to crises and to increase resilience of national food systems (Fig. 3).
In areas where import dependence results in vulnerability, improving local production is of course crucial, not only in order to increase available food and to decrease the need for importation but to improve local livelihoods (Fig. 3: Strategy 1). The productionist panacea of increasing aggregate global production ignores the fact that hunger and food insecurity mostly stem from poverty, seasonal vulnerability, poor logistics, and lack of sanitation rather than lack of available food. Production has to be increased, but the need is local, not global: increasing production will be vital in certain areas of the world, especially sub-Saharan Africa (Giller et al. 2021).
But there are not always enough natural resources for growing production, or environmental threats can thwart such development. Thus, it must be supplemented by diversifying import portfolios, creating more pathways in the trade network (Fig. 3: Strategy 2). These strategies can of course be bolstered by moving diets away from the most volatile commodities, increasing emergency reserves, decreasing food loss and waste, and de-emphasizing cash crop production (Bren d’Amour et al. 2016, Clapp 2017).
One possibility would be for groups of vulnerable countries to form regional coalitions in order to foster local and regional food trade (Fig. 3: Strategy 3). It could afford opportunities to trade in a more diverse selection of foods, ill-suited to the homogenous global market (Lin 2011, Schipanski et al. 2016, Anderson et al. 2019, Giller et al. 2021) For the poorer producers, diversification is crucial, as it can foster resilience in changing environmental conditions, increase income and spread it seasonally, and result in more nutritionally rich foods (Lundqvist and Unver 2018, Ramankutty et al. 2018, Ricciardi et al. 2018). But without proper access to markets and competitive prices this cannot happen (Lin 2011, Giller et al. 2021). The producers of the periphery, especially the smallholders, are facing an uphill battle, as they also often lack access to credit and control of land (Samberg et al. 2016, Clapp and Isakson 2018, Anderson et al. 2019).
Unfortunately, wealthier countries acting individually, in concert, and through trade organizations, have consistently opposed attempts to selectively protect the agriculture of poorer countries, which would be necessary for rebuilding local food systems and furthering diversity (Clapp 2017, Giller et al. 2021).
The emerging long-term crises and the increasing frequency of simultaneous disruptions makes relative self-sufficiency an important question for all, including those wealthier countries who are net importers and can currently well afford the imports. Some of these countries have relatively high levels of self-sufficiency, which provides resilience, although current production and consumption patterns are not ecologically sustainable and production is reliant on highly centralized production of fertilizers and other inputs, the prices of which can soar during crises (Béné 2022). For them, aiming for ever higher levels of food self-sufficiency has increasingly diminishing returns. However, aiming for a higher level of self-sufficiency in production inputs, decreasing their use, and enhancing nutrient cycling would safeguard the potential of maintaining the local production in the case of a prolonged crisis or a long-term regime shift of the global system.
There is an added complication: promoting self-sufficiency can also become a tool of selfish or even xenophobic politics. For wealthy countries, there is a temptation to see national self-sufficiency as a safeguard against future environmental threats and as a way to ignore its effects on the periphery. Beggar-thy-neighbor attitudes were evident in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis (Clapp 2023, Wood et al. 2023). This attitude can easily be combined with xenophobia and appropriated forms of environmentalism that see the main causes of problems elsewhere and, most perniciously, one’s own society as a potential beneficiary of environmental crises (Koch and Perreault 2018, Turner and Bailey 2022). This is another reason why the question “local or global?” should not be understood as an exclusive opposition.
The inherent problems of the global food system are well known, but recognition of problems does not in itself lead to solutions. The very structure of the global food system obstructs transformation: while the responsibility for, and the necessity of, changes is distributed widely in the system, power, and capabilities are not (Horton et al. 2017, HLPE 2020). There is no “we” who can choose the pathways to transformation. Transformation is, inevitably, a process of political struggle, where the countries in the periphery of the global food system need to gain adaptive and transformative resilience, not only the capacity to withstand, to absorb, and to recover (Tendall et al. 2015, Béné et al. 2019). Our conceptualization of the global food system aims to create resources for this, making food system research more pertinent instead of arousing suspicion, as was evident around the 2021 UN Food System Summit.
Different visions of transformation abound in the literature. Many are lists of desirable incremental changes without clear interconnections. While pointing out many good things, such diffuse lists do not draft concrete pathways of transformation (Leach et al. 2020, Béné 2022). Others are based on different theories of change and aim for a system-level state shift, coming from diverse disciplines (Conti et al. 2021, Dinesh et al. 2021, Leeuwis et al. 2021). Some look at the level of single nations or regions, others at the global level (Brock 2023). We focus on the potential to change the power relations and the structures of the global network of national food systems, with the vulnerability to crisis as the main issue. Many different approaches are doubtlessly needed, as the problems at hand are legion (hunger and food insecurity, environmental degradation, inequality within nations, etc.).
It should be noted, however, that environmental challenges are primary in one sense. Failure on that front will inevitably lead to failure on the others. But environmental challenges cannot be solved as separate “technical” issues. Environmental problems are highly context-specific, as are their solutions, which should be tailored not only to the ecological conditions but to the wider social-ecological landscape. The solutions have to be appropriate especially to smallholders, who are vital for the food systems of the periphery, and the solutions should fit together with widening the policy space of peripheral food systems (Loos et al. 2014, Tittonell 2014, Chandra et al. 2017, De Schutter 2017, Springmann et al. 2018, Poore and Nemecek 2018, Rasmussen et al. 2018, HLPE 2020).
The growing power of key actors, especially large corporations, makes it harder to challenge the dominant regime (Clapp and Isakson 2018). Feedback between production and consumption has weakened consistently but strengthened between large actors of the system (Gordon et al. 2017, Nyström et al. 2019, Davis et al. 2021). States, on the other hand, have generally scaled back their role or adopted productionist priorities (Clapp and Purugganan 2020, HLPE 2020). Taking these issues seriously is crucial, since ignoring political confrontation perpetuates the dominant paradigm (Dentoni et al. 2017, Anderson et al. 2019). Transformation is not possible without challenging the power imbalance between the center and the periphery.
The food system cannot be transformed separately from other systems (O’Neill et al. 2018, Fanning et al. 2020, HLPE 2020, Eckersley 2021). However, envisioning transformative change in complex systems with entrenched power relations is very hard. As Robyn Eckersley has noted, prioritizing wholesale systemic transformation before changes in concrete practices tends to make change a distant prospect, always just beyond the horizon (Eckersley 2021). This is why piecemeal problem-solving from within the productionist paradigm is so prevalent in discussions about food systems.
We propose an approach based on Eckersley’s idea of situated critical problem-solving (Eckersley 2021). Stemming from pragmatist environmental philosophy, Eckersley’s approach is “theory-light” and looks for concrete actions, “next best transition steps” which hold transformation potential within the temporal and spatial context in which they are enacted (Eckersley 2021). The transition steps should amplify each other, forming actionable transformation pathways, in which a diverse range of agents can form productive alliances. In the context of food systems, it is vital to break through the lock-ins that restrict the policy space of vulnerable actors. Access to power in the global food system has to be opened up to those who are currently restrained and marginalized (Schipanski et al. 2016).
States are the necessary key actors in furthering such transformative pathways (Clapp and Purugganan 2020, Béné 2022). However, states are also invested in the current productionist paradigm, and their ability to act is hampered and compromised by the current constellation of the food system (e.g., the power of large corporations, divergent interests between states). Fracturing these inherited structures requires pragmatic alliances between diverse actors but also recognition of potential conflicts (Eckersley 2021).
Building on our conceptualization of the crisis-prone global food system, we offer a rough draft of a transformative pathway (Fig. 4) that is divided into three phases: 1) Empowering Smallholders, 2) Selective Barriers, and 3) Equalizing Exchange. The key idea is that the first phases are necessary for the latter ones, in order to break restrictive lock-ins, but also the later phases are needed to realize the potential opened up by the previous ones.
Phase 1: Empowering Smallholders
1.1. Supporting smallholder organizations as credible actors in food policy by forming coalitions of supporting nations, including countries of the center, which could also offer political protection against repression in their own regions. Potential agents could be either coalitions of countries with history in international aid and diplomacy (e.g., the Scandinavian countries) or other existing coalitions, provided political will can be mobilized to change the current priorities (e.g., the EU) (Markelova et al. 2009, King 2014, Chandra et al. 2017).
1.2. Supporting long-term and low-risk credit schemes for smallholders, allowing investments in production where it is needed. International NGOs would be important agents, but long-term development requires support of local governments (Langyintuo 2020).
1.3. In developmental aid and cooperation, tailoring environmental solutions to the local context, with local producers as prime agents, who know the local environmental conditions and the political context. The goal is that the environmental solutions would not overshadow the other key concerns of hunger and poverty alleviation and building resilience (Chandra et al. 2017, Pereira et al. 2018, Rasmussen et al. 2018, Ewert et al. 2023).
Phase 2: Selective Barriers
2.1. Creating trade agreements that allow partial and transitory protection of local production in vulnerable countries, making rebuilding local food systems a viable prospect (Giller et al. 2021).
2.2. In addition to already existing local trading schemes, foodsheds, et cetera, creating regional trade agreements tailored to make mid-distance trading of more diverse produce viable. This would help escape the binary choice between low-profit food production for local uses and higher-profit (but volatile and uncompetitive) production for global markets. Local governments would be the key actors, but vested interests in export-oriented production are hard to change without support from the previous phase.
2.3. Local and regional public procurement programs could be a valuable part in fostering such regional food systems. These exist currently, but a supporting context is lacking (Nehring et al. 2017, Leão et al. 2023).
Phase 3: Equalizing Exchange
3.1. In wealthy, food surplus, or relatively high self-sufficiency countries of the center, moving agricultural subsidies away from incentivizing production volumes toward incentivizing diminishing energy and material investments and environmental impacts.
3.2. Some countries would thus lose a portion of their high degree of self-sufficiency, allowing countries of the periphery to find new markets for their products (those not aimed at the local and regional markets). This is crucial for revitalized local food systems for unlocking their potential as “the engines of development.”
The dominant productionist paradigm has resulted in increasing production and an ever more tightly intertwined global food system. However, this development has not managed to overcome hunger and food insecurity, both of which are rising again. In addition to that, food systems are mostly functioning on an ecologically unsustainable basis, becoming victims to perilous changes in environmental conditions. Despite offering protection against some kinds of disruptions, the tightly networked food systems are increasingly susceptible to food crises, even global ones.
We propose a tentative conceptualization of the global food system as an unequal network of national food systems, forming a center-periphery constellation, in order to highlight how the vulnerability to crises is connected to the differences of power and resilience in the food system network. The lock-ins of this inherited situation cannot be broken by incremental changes within the productionist paradigm. Instead, a transformative change is needed, one that challenges the prevailing constellation of center-periphery. We propose a transformation pathway of “next best steps” that would challenge this constellation and make it possible for the periphery to gain power and agency and to begin the process of rebuilding local food systems and creating new forms of resilience against food crises.
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This research has been funded by the Kone Foundation, the Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland (336253/336259), and the Academy of Finland (338558).
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