A Systems View on Food and Agriculture to End Hunger and Poverty

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, FAO, has recently published its vision document Future of Food and Agriculture. Trends and Challenges.

The Future of Food by UN FAO in causal loop diagrams (c) Olaf Brugman.

The Future of Food by UN FAO in causal loop diagrams (c) Olaf Brugman.

The document provides a fundamental and concise view of how policy makers may look at interdependencies between key factors that affect the demand and supply of agricultural and food products. And all this from the perspective of realising Sustainable Development Goals 1 and 2: to end hunger and poverty. This insightful vision has several implications for policy makers, business and investors if one analyses the report one level deeper and from a system dynamics perspective.

A couple of characteristics stand out in the future vision on agriculture and food. First, the vision is explicitly systemic in its approach. It addresses both social and environmental factors and their interrelationships including the self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms therein as the keys to combatting poverty and hunger. This provides a sense of the immense design complexity to steer to steer complex systems that end hunger and eradicated poverty. The report shows that several environmental, social, and economic aspects need to be kept in a certain equilibrium.

Second, the vision shows that environmental issues like greenhouse gas emissions have material social effects. It also shows that social and economic factors like population growth, consumption patters, increased needs for food, energy, space, and materials implies intensified environmental problems. Finally, the report implies that economic inequality implies different consequences for different groups. The problems and also the opportunities and capacities to solve them are not equally distributed. Analysing the impact of social, environmental and economic factors, it becomes clear that these aspects can be distinguished, but not separated.

Third, environmental policy and investments affect social outcomes, social policies and investments affect environmental outcomes.

One cannot fix a part to fix the whole. One can only fix the whole by fixing the parts and their interdependencies. This becomes especially apparent when one visualises the main trends, challenges and causal relationship mentioned in the vision document in the form of causal feedback diagrams. As an example, the manually drawn visualisation of the main causal loop relationships is visualised in the diagram below. For a full analysis, please consider the original vision document. While the complexity of the circular processes in the diagram may be daunting at first, the diagrams – that can be perfectly modelled in quantitative terms and then used for quantitative dynamic simulation – the diagram also shows that the real challenge is steering and maintaining equilibrium of a multitude of factors. Strategies to impact only one or two of these key factors are too simplistic and are a design for failure.

Fourth, the vision document is clearly focused on fixing the whole, providing a vision that incorporates aspects of agriculture, natural resources, poverty, hunger, inequality and a range of other factors. To develop coherent, integrated and effective policies at both national an international level is proposed as one of the most important if not the most important factor of realising the above-mentioned development goals. From a systems perspective, this is logical to understand. If systems produce outcomes or impacts that are not desired or that do not solve problems, then they lack proper governance.

And finally, two key variables are modelled but not challenged or analysed for the opportunities to steer them: population size and migration. While population size is clearly one of the root drivers of most of the global challenges discussed by the FAO in its vision document, it is not object of any policy consideration in the vision document. Rather, all policy efforts are focused on mitigating the consequences. And also, the future of food and agriculture laid out in the vision document seems to take zero migration as one of its points of departure for policy-making. This limits solutions to national policies and interventions. Policy considerations on these fundamental factors are not part of this report. Perhaps they are dealt with in other arenas. Or perhaps these factors are simply out of scope of this vision, in other words: taboos.

All in all, the vision document is a ‘must read’ for those who desire to actively promote and contribute to sustainable development. The complex interdependencies between population, food demand and supply, economic development, natural resources, inequality distributions of wealth and capacities to solve major economic, environmental and social challenges in an integrated way need to be understood. And any policy, ambition, action plan that aims to impact one or two of those complex factors should take into consideration how it affects that other ones. Sustainable development and investment strategies need to be developed from an integral perspective. Focussing on one or two key impact ambitions may be a pragmatic approach but also implies blindness to potential outcomes and risks on the other system parameters becoming attenuated.

NB: The cause loop diagram was created with Staedtler pigment liner pens, Stabilo colour int 68/88 pens on Evernote smart notebook paper.

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