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.
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?
Sasha Al Busaidy