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Global Resilience 2024

Unpacking the vulnerable anatomy of the global food system

Smiling African American male worker tossing dried coffee beans with hands at farm outdoors
Smiling African American male worker tossing dried coffee beans with hands at farm outdoors
iStock / Getty Images Plus / Yaroslav Astakhov

Cibele Queiroz (Ph.D)

Head of Knowledge, Global Resilience Partnership (GRP)/Researcher and Theme Leader, Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC)

Line Gordon (Ph.D)

Director, Curt Bergfors Professor in Sustainability Science, Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC)

Amanda Wood (Ph.D)

Researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC)

Learn how the intersection of climate change, conflict and Covid-19 triggered a global food crisis affecting 2.4 billion people. Resilience-based transformative pathways are now required./

The co-occurrence of climate change, conflict and Covid-19 has sparked a global food crisis, with 2.4 billion people currently food insecure. Although food crises are not new, the speed and scale through which this crisis has propagated is largely unprecedented.

At the origin of this is the vulnerable anatomy of hyperconnected, simplified, highly consolidated and concentrated food systems. Investments in food systems resilience need to foster transformative pathways that address this vulnerable configuration to successfully prevent future crises.

Vulnerable global food system anatomy

Global trade has been crucial for food security and resilience since supply shortages caused by local shocks, such as extreme weather, can now be buffered by food imports from elsewhere. However, as international food trade expanded, regions and sectors became overly connected and interdependent, causing food shocks to spread rapidly across the globe.

While agricultural intensification and global trade have undeniably increased food availability and affordability, they have also led to specialisation of agricultural landscapes in favour of a few export crops. This specialisation has caused substantial environmental impacts and reduced crop diversity, varieties, farming practices, food cultures and diets. 

Resilience-based transformative pathways need to be fostered across all scales of the food system.

The increasing consolidation and concentration of the global food system further undermines resilience. Today, a few dominant actors — nations or transnational corporations — have a disproportionate influence on all segments of food production and supply chains, sidelining more inclusive decision-making processes. 

An example from the current crisis was when the overreliance on a few crops and artificial fertilisers produced and exported by a handful of companies and countries led to food supply shortages and rising food prices. This highlights the vulnerabilities of a hyperconnected, simplified and highly concentrated global food system. Thus, no investments in resilience will be effective if they do not target change to this vulnerable anatomy. 

Sustainable, equitable food resilience pathways

With conflict, pandemics and environmental change growing more frequent, resilience-based transformative pathways need to be fostered across all scales of the food system. This includes:

  • Actively invest in the diversity of food landscapes, food cultures, food-chain actors and healthy diets.
  • Foster a moderate level of connectivity, ensuring that local and regional food systems are neither isolated nor overconnected. While global trade remains important for global food resilience, market diversification at different scales, from local to global, is needed. 
  • Broad participation in decision-making related to food systems governance: polycentric forms of governance and collaboration between different actors are crucial to designing transformative pathways that are inclusive and pluralistic. 

These actions require recognition of global food systems as integrated social-ecological systems, understanding that no true change towards resilience can be achieved by focusing on single parts of the system. Finally, they necessitate a fundamental shift from incremental change to resilience-based transformative pathways that are better suited to face uncertainty. 

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