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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Rojan Bolling

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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

        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.

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