Food systems resilience, as simple as knowing your ABCD?

Who do you feel should primarily be responsible for organizing resilience?

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Since the COVID-19 crisis food systems resilience is becoming an increasingly popular concept in the journey toward global food security. However, defining and assessing resilience remains a challenge. As it is such a broadly applicable concept, it needs to be operationalized for each specific case to make it meaningful. Resilience for whom? To what? Emerging as an approach in international development through the field of Disaster Risk Reduction, resilience building was originally applied to protect households and communities. In light of the emerging food systems approach it is now taken to the systems level.

A resilient food system is able to withstand and recover from shocks and disruptions, such as natural disasters, economic downturns, or pandemics while providing access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food for all. Incorporating these elements requires a holistic approach and does not add up to a single, straightforward approach to assess and build resilience at food systems level. Researchers at Wageningen University have taken on this challenge and developed an assessment framework for policy interventions, outlining the ABCD of food systems resilience.

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The framework makes operationalization of (food systems) resilience practical and accessible for policymakers and impact investors. An interesting addition the framework makes is that it specifically refers to trade-offs and potential unintended consequences of resilience building. An example it gives is how the introduction of crop insurance for smallholders may increase the buffering capacity of farmers, but often increases inequality. As more wealthy farmers buy the insurance and profit from a shift to more profitable cash crops, social cohesion (connectivity) in the community may drop.

Previously, resilience approaches have been criticized from a rights-based perspective for their focus on individual or community responsibility and depoliticized nature. Limiting problem identification to technical issues while overlooking their political nature, like the responsibility and role of the state. For instance, should the capacity of households or communities to adapt not at least be supported by various forms of social safety nets? Moreover, critics claim resilience approaches are too top-down and disregard underlying causes of vulnerability. By introducing the element of trade-offs and unintended consequences at systems level this framework may have found a way to bring especially this first issue to the surface.

However in line with the other two criticisms of resilience, important trade-offs also exist at a higher level, for instance: who should primarily be responsible for organizing resilience. Should it be international organizations? Governments? Local community led organizations? Likewise, who sets the food system boundaries, identifies key actors, and defines the problem? 

Let us know what you learned!

Have you worked with or invested in (food systems) resilience programming? Have you experienced any trade-offs or unintended consequences? Who do you feel should primarily be responsible for organizing resilience?


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  • Anonymous

    Nice to be the first at the party :-) and just to provide you with a reference to the paper that preceded the one we are discussing here. The link to this paper is: This paper presents the results of a review of literature on (food system) resilience. Based on scoring topics we came to conclude that approximately 70% of resilience of food systems can be attributed to either Agency, Buffers, Connectivity and Diversity, or a combination of these. That was the genesis of what we now refer to as the 'ABCD of food system resilience'.

    • Anonymous

      Interesting concept - bringing resilience to food systems. I am food systems expert working with FAO in Kenya. One critical element of food systems resilience is the stakeholders. Food systems is multisectoral and multidimensional, there it is very complex and dynamic. To build resilience of the food system , the 3 dimensions of sustainability need to be resilience - social, economic and natural environment. This post highlights a key consideration which is the trade-offs that need to be considered against the 3dimensions. Using the ABCD model is indeed a welcome approach - together with systems thinking along with scenario testing. That way a better understanding if the current situation Vs the futures with the proposed intervention can then be better understood. On who is responsible - we are all responsible. They way systems work - it cannot be a one man show. Therefore, the resilience of each element needs to be present and working together to have a wider impact on the resilience of the food system. Not to say the best if each part - but the functionality and practicality if each component working efficiently and effectively.

      • Anonymous

        I agree, we are all responsible to organize the resilience of our food system. Although this also depends on means and capacity, and the power to make choices that benefit the resilience of the system. Resilience is also about helping each other out in hard times, indeed to see the 'system' and not just your own individual situation. And that when tradeoffs arise, these are known and can be mitigated in consultation with the people affected.

    • Anonymous

      With reference to the two papers we now know how to define and understand the resilience capacity of a food system. we have proposed a framework to assess the resilience of a food system and more or less predict the impact of interventions, such as investments or policies. But the 'how to' question remains: if we aspire to increase the resilience of a food system, who can take action and what can be done? This will require besides an anlysis of food system resilience capacities a political economic analysis of various actors in the food system. This will reveal their interests, motivations, power to influence other actors, and - ultimately - willingness or resistance to contribute to food system resilience.

      • Anonymous

        The ABCD framework identifies some important influences on the resilience of food systems and how they interact with peoples experience of shocks and stresses that undermine their food and nutrition security. There are a couple of important perspectives that Mercy Corps experience further brings to this discussion. First, the concept that a resilience approach fundamentally is a systems approach requires that the core underlying drivers of individual, household and communities exposure and sensitivity to shocks in a system must be included in the approach. This is why Mercy Corps market systems resilience measurement framework(1) adapted from USAIDs MSR Measurement guidance includes the systems resilience domains of power, which considers how governance within systems influences functionality before, during and after shocks; and inclusion, which considers the extent to which those most marginalized in a given shock context are able to continue or quickly recover sourcing benefits from the systems they rely on for their resilience and improved wellbeing. Power and inclusion are added to the important domains of connectivity, functional diversity and decision-making. In Northeast Nigeria, for instance, our experience found that as fertilizer and input prices soared last year and massive flooding devastated yields, smallholder farmers were reducing their production of maize, which was more input-intensive and expensive. Instead, we saw farmers adjusting by increasing production of less fertilizer-dependent pulses like groundnuts and cowpea. While this may signal (2) an inability in the food system to offer adequate affordable alternatives for farmers to continue cultivating this important cash crop that households rely on for income, it also opened up an opportunity. It meant the crops dominated by women and which tend to be more nutritious for household consumption needs suddenly had a window of expansion around which new market services could be supported to adapt and innovate to spur commercial production. Now, Mercy Corps is facilitating a partnership (3) between women groundnut farmers with one of the largest groundnut sourcing companies in the country, helping to establish stronger connections to smallholder-dominant markets in the underserved Northeast, which has potential to expand women-led micro and small enterprises in the food system. Second, when it comes to the question raised about who is responsible for organizing resilience: as a systems approach, it needs a system of actors bringing their joint resources to bear. This is where collective impact frameworks grounded in locally-led development become especially critical for advancing coherent responses (4) across collaborating actors. All mechanisms and funding tools should be on the table humanitarian, development, peacebuilding to jointly assess food systems and the impact of recurrent and emerging risks; identify and engage in mutually coherent short, medium and long-term actions; and collaborate to monitor, adapt and gather evidence to improve. There is progress on this collective agenda: in Somalia, for example, Mercy Corps, with USAID funding, is supporting a resilience measurement system that is sharing analysis on shocks, capacities and outcomes with higher frequency so that local and international actors across the food crisis landscape can come to a more shared awareness and approach for bringing collective solutions that will alleviate the most immediate effects while reducing future vulnerabilities in the food system. (1) (2) (3) (4)

        • Anonymous

          With reference to the contribution by Danielle of Merci Corps: very nice elaboration on the importance to consider power, inclusion and governance when analysing options for enhancing the resilience of a food system. One could argue that these features are more important than the state of technological innovation, which is often emphasized by policy makers.. And this reflects a continuous debate simplified by the (perceived) dichatomy between governance and technology. Maybe the technological options speak more to our imagination or are easier to capture as compared to adjusting the governance of a food system in order to achieve higher levels of resilience? As the latter comes with the mind blowing question: who governs the food system any way? If I would raise this question here in the Netherlands, common people would not be able to provide me with an answer. Or I would get as many answers as I would ask people.. Which brings me to conclude: we need to research the governance of food systems much more than we ever did in the past. To bring about needed transparency and public understanding who steers our food system and in what directions. So that we do not implicitly refer to the technology pathway, but are more able to balance our options, including: let's make the governance of our food system work harder for enhancing its resilience for all.

          • Anonymous

            Governments have an important role to play in setting policies and providing resources to support resilience-building efforts at the national, regional, and local levels. This may include investing in infrastructure, emergency management planning, and public education campaigns. Communities also play a critical role in organizing resilience. Local residents can work together to prepare for emergencies, establish mutual aid networks, and support vulnerable populations. Businesses have a responsibility to ensure the resilience of their operations and supply chains, as disruptions can have far-reaching impacts on the economy and society as a whole. This may involve investing in backup systems, diversifying supply chains, and participating in public-private partnerships to improve community resilience. Finally, individuals can take steps to build their own resilience, such as maintaining emergency supplies, staying informed about potential hazards, and participating in community preparedness efforts. Overall, building resilience requires a collective effort from all of these entities, working together to ensure that our communities, economies, and societies are better prepared to weather challenges and bounce back from adversity.

            • Anonymous

              Also see this recent publication with the 'state of the art' of resilience and food systems: A useful takeaway from the discussion is that 'resilient households require resilient food systems': individuals, households or communities that can be considered wealthy and resilient, can still be severely affected by unexpected shocks to food access if the food system itself cannot withstand the shock. Then the question of responsibility becomes twofold: strengthening the resilience of individuals, households, communities, and strengthening food system components themselves (supply chains, markets, transport, etc.).

              • Anonymous

                The following is a comment by Victor Nyirongo, working at the IFAD PRIDE project as an environmental specialist. I am posting on his behalf: I am an Environmental Specialist for the Programme for Rural Irrigation Development (PRIDE) Project and a coordinator for the Enhancing the Resilience of Agro-ecological Systems Project (ERASP), both of which are under the Department of Irrigation in Malawi. ERASP builds primarily on the Programme for Rural Irrigation Development (PRIDE) and links with another IFAD-funded intervention, the Sustainable Agriculture Production Programme (SAPP). ERASP promotes interventions in four districts, covering an estimated 35,000 hectares and involving 25,680 farmers. The approach focuses on a comprehensive landscape planning process for the sub-catchments, adding an agroecological approach to improving food security, and raising agricultural yields on rain-fed farming systems through climate-smart and conservation agriculture techniques. The project has three components:  1) Establishing a multi-stakeholder institutional framework for Integrated Catchment Management (ICM); 2) Scaling up catchment-level Sustainable Land Management (SLM) practices; and Monitoring and assessing ecosystem services, resilience and food security. Sustainability of the project is generated through a strong incentive framework, a high level of technical support, and cross-cutting aspects related to value chains, capacity building, knowledge management, and monitoring and reporting. The food resilience by both projects is brought about by having well protected catchments where irrigation schemes get their water and providing climate-proofed irrigation infrastructure that are able to withstand the effects of extreme weather conditions such as floods. The definition of a resilient food system underscores the importance of having food sustainability in three dimensions environmental, economic and social at each point of a food system, from production, processing, marketing up to consumption. In addition, agricultural production is not only affected by the impacts of climate change but also land-use changes. One of the ways of achieving a resilient food system is by having a food system that is climate-smart where you apply climate smart technologies to achieve high agricultural productivity, enhances climate resilience, and reduced GHGs. ERASP has sub-themes that are premised along these lines. In terms of organization the Government is the one which sources funding for the project. The PCO works in collaboration with government stakeholders to implement interventions at community level, with committees formed at that level leading the process. It is important that all the stakeholders affected by the project are consulted at the onset of the project to ensure that their needs and concerns are articulated and the project aims at addressing those. It is important that the frontline staff are involved in planning for interventions because they are the ones who are in close association with the farmers. The ABCD model gives a comprehensive understanding on the extent of vulnerability of the target communities to inform programming. It thus enriches programming in a way of making sure that all the important factors that affect vulnerability are taken into account and also enables a clear comparison of the before and after situation.

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