Food System Workshops - more info

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Why are we modelling the food system?

When the EU put out a call for international research projects to 'rethink globalisation', we responded with a proposal to explore how we can manage and allocate the earth's resources so the projected global population of 9 billion people in 2050, and their offspring, can flourish – indefinitely. - We had a concept in mind that might be able to act as a sort of guiding compass, and we wanted to test it out:

Put simplistically a converged world is one where everyone has a fair share of the earth's resources (including future generations indefinitely) – and convergence - the pathway towards this imaginary converged world - and bit we are exploring – is a word for any process or mechanism that leads towards increased fairness in the way we manage and allocate resources whilst also developing sustainability. i.e. convergence is a subset of sustainable development with extra emphasis on fairness.

We've been developing our concept of convergence, and now we want to see if it can work in the real world -

Several reasons lie behind the Converge Team choosing to use food as the handle by which to lift and interrogate the global system during the testing. We couldn't possibly model the entire globe, so we wanted a compelling scope through which to engage stakeholders in our test communities. The focus needed to be on something that was comparable and of concern in most communities - our project is based in 5 countries so we took a look at 5 different communities to see which areas they were concerned about. Food and energy emerged as areas that were unanimously of concern. Given that we can look at a big part of the energy system via the food system - (transport, distribution, wholesale, production, processing, packaging etc) we decided to focus our efforts on food and the food system as it could be linked fairly immediately to almost all areas of municipal life. So now we are going to exploring the food sector in 3 different communities (Bristol in the UK, Iceland, and India, with the view to comparing results across these and extrapolating transferable learning for other communities to use.

The Food Challenge

Food is fundamental to human life and it is an issue all governments discuss at some level or other. Global demand for food is on the rise, due to the growing population, change in diet preference worldwide, and increasing demand for biofuel (Hubert et al 2010). The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that humans must increase the global food production by as much as 70 per cent by 2050, if demands and needs are to be met (Schmidhuber and Tubiello 2007, Smedshaug 2010). Though a high number, some researchers have even found this to be an underestimation (Tilman et al 2002, 2010). The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) established a Special Program on Food Security (SPFS) in 1994 (FAO 2010 a) and alarm-bells have been ringing since 2008 when food prices rose sharply (World Food Programme 2011), as higher price on food means that those who are less affluent may not be able to feed themselves or their families.

A bitter irony lies in the fact that whilst as obesity is growing in the world (WHO 2011), hunger is still a great unsolved problem. In 2010, an estimated number of 925 million people were undernourished on Earth (FAO 2010 b), or nearly one seventh of the global human population. Women and children are the great majority of those who go hungry (Halweil and Nierenberg 2011). Meanwhile, obesity worldwide has more than doubled since 1980 (WHO 2011). In 2008, 1.5 billion adults were overweight in the world (of those, more than 200 million men and nearly 300 million women were obese), and in 2010, nearly 43 million children under the age of five were overweight (WHO 2011).

What is even more disturbing is that obesity is no longer only on the rise among richer nations, but now also increases in countries where malnutrition is still a great problem (WHO 2011). These numbers point to a great divergence between classes of people, where convergence might provide a solution. Furthermore, while the problems of hunger and obesity remain unsolved, a recent FAO-commissioned study showed that about one third of all the food that is produced in the world for human consumption every year gets lost or is thrown away (FAO 2011). These facts taken together seem to indicate that there is room for convergence in the food sector worldwide. Humans produce enough food to feed the world appropriately, but the problem lies in the facts that our treatment of and distribution of food needs to be considered anew.

The way that food is produced and distributed on the global scale is rife with inequality. In Tanzania, only the bones and guts leftover from the filleting of perch destined for European markets is consumed by the processing plant workers, and communities there suffer abject poverty (Sauper 2004). It is often considered that the use of cheap labour and the externalising of environmental costs in food production is exploitative of developing countries and economies. In response to such perceived social injustices, the fair trade movement has emerged as a means of equalising labour in food production including via the use of product labelling.

Scientists believe global water and food security may be in jeopardy towards the end of this century (IPCC 2007). Recent research indicates that the current ways of growing food are unsustainable, and voices are becoming louder that the world as a whole needs to move more towards agro-ecology (Karner 2010, de Schutter 2010, and more). Irrigation, chemical inputs and mechanization have over the past 200 years allowed us to increase food production to support the steadily growing population. During that time, as the human population became ever more numerous, it followed that more land space was continuously needed for food production. The problem now is that “most high-quality agricultural land is already in production. ... Much of the remaining soil is less productive and more fragile” (World Resources Institute 1998). Worldwide soil erosion on agricultural land is now as much as 100 to 1000 times faster than soil formation (Brantley et al. 2007). In Iceland, for example, desertification or severe soil erosion currently affects 40 per cent of the island’s total surface area (Björnsson 1999). Moreover, as humanity we now are, in addition to being at a time of “peak oil”, also at a time of “peak phosphorus”, which according to some researches means that humans must now move towards organic agriculture to feed the population (Ragnarsdottir et al. 2011; Sverdrup and Ragnarsdottir 2011). Finally, though the Converge Project is not focused on water and water scarcity, it is worth noting that currently it is estimated that over a billion people have little or no access to safe drinking water, and it is expected that by 2025, 1.8 billion people will live in regions with absolute water scarcity (UNEP 2007).

Considering all of the above, it is clear that opportunities abound for the food sector of the test communities in Bristol, Iceland and India to explore issues connected with the planet’s biophysical limits and equal or fair sharing of the Earth’s decreasing bounty and to see how they may be able to work towards a fair and sustainable future. 

Testing through workshops

We now intend to test whether the concept of convergence can be applied to the food sector and in particular whether a holistic systems dynamics approach used within individual food sector of 3 communities, can bring inspiring solutions to the participants, including policy makers. We will be holding 3 workshops in each of the 3 communities.

The aims of the workshops are:

  1. For participants to gain insight into sustainability, convergence and their own system – including how their community is linked to the state of the global food and drink supply chain, and to identify niches they can improve or affect both at a local and a global scale.

  2. For the research team to see how the Converge approach we have developed works and discover things that can be improved

The workshops are led by a team of people trained in systems thinking and group management, who also have a background in sustainability, but the information that goes into the models comes from the workshop participants who will ultimately be the people who will continue working in and with the communities. The participants are the final owners of the Converge model created for their community, and they are the key to any problem solving to be undertaken in the communities, including any changes to policy.

The testing Workshops

We will be using a systems dynamics approach for our testing - Systems dynamics is used to explain the behaviour of complex systems over time. With this approach, it is possible to show the effects of internal feedback loops and time delays that affect the behaviour of the whole system. Developed in the 1950s, systems dynamics also uses stocks and flows, to show the dynamic behaviour of complex systems. The stocks, flows, time lags and feedback loops help explain how both simple and complex systems function in a non-linear way.

As a part of this we will be developing causal loop diagrams - Causal loop diagrams are crucial to get an overview of the whole system and to see how individual components within it affect each other and the system as a whole. Feedback is one of the core concepts of systems dynamics, but human mental models often fail to include the essential feedbacks that determine the dynamics of the system being studied – we are much more accustomed to thinking in lists. When a causal loop diagram is drawn, those feedbacks quickly become visible. In addition, causal loop diagrams help us understand how any given behaviour has been manifesting within a system, and thereby aid in the development of strategies to work with or counteract the behaviour. They can also show to what extent and how the problem that is being looked at connects with other systems.

Below is a draft schedule of what the Converge workshops may look like. Note that depending on the groups’ dynamics and progress, the draft schedule may change – the process is not always as outlined and never linear.

Workshop 1 – Definition – full day (10-16)

  • Awareness –2 hours – where we set you up with the info you need to be able to participate fully.

    • Intro to sustainability and convergence

    • Sustainable systems conditions

    • The Sustainability Funnel

    • About our project

  • Visioning – where we want to be

    • Using the four directions of sustainability – Nature, Society, Well-Being and Economy (AtKisson 2008)

    • Defining equity

    • What does a successful Food System look like

    • Using backcasting and framing the vision for the food system within the Sustainable System Conditions

  • Draft baseline – where we are today

    • Introduction to systems thinking

    • Identify parameters in all four dimensions and start outlining structures

    • draft version of baseline 

Workshop 2 – Clarification – full day (10-16.30)

  • Baseline

    • Summary of vision for the food system from 1st session

    • Baseline analysis via systems analysis

    • Through Systems analysis we tie the baseline and vision together

    • policy and the food system

    • Causal loop mapping

  • Creative solutions

    • Brainstorming on solutions/actions

    • Make a start on prioritizing

    • First round of indicators identified 

Workshop 3 – Implementation – full day (10-16)

  • Prioritizing

    • revisiting the last 2 workshops

    • Prioritising actions for the food system

    • Policy implications / recommendations

    • Systems dynamics tie the whole thing together in the prioritizing phase

  • Strategic plan

    • Strategic plan for the community discussed

    • Second round of indicators identified

  • Evaluation

Event 4 – Lunch-hour meeting a reporting session where we present the final models – this session is open to a wider audience.

  • Strategic plan

    • The stakeholders get the plan in their hands

    • This includes suggestions to policy changes

  • Follow-up

    • Info then put on Converge website, where those who can’t make it to the final meeting can get info, plus for others who want to continue working with the final outcome.

    • The follow up will make use of the systems analysis to come up with system-adapted indicators that will help how to see if we are having success with our efforts (Figure 2), by monitoring our efforts (drivers or anything that affect drivers, look at how the system changes internally, and the parameters related to our goals, so we can follow whether we are successful or not

The participants

Each workshop will involve between 20 to a maximum of 50 participants from all levels of society, including those who have political influence, either individually or collectively. We've taken care to invite people from the full food value-chain to ensure that we get the whole picture. This image shows the value-chain.

If you have any questions do not hesitate to contact us -

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Cite as: Kristinsdóttir, S., Ragnarsdóttir, K.V., Davíðsdóttir, B., Sverdrup, H. and the CONVERGE Project Team (2011) Framework for Convergence – Draft – Deliverable 35. Environment and Natural Resources, University of Iceland, Chemical Engineering, University of Lund.

The CONVERGE Project Team consists of:

  • Kristin Vala Ragnarsdottir, Brynhildur Davidsdottir, Sigrun Maria Kristinsdottir (University of Iceland; lead authors of this deliverable)
  • Matthew Fortnam, Sarah Cornell, Jenneth Parker (University of Bristol, UK)
  • Edina Vadovics, Kristof Vadovics, Simon Milton (GreenDependent, Hungary)
  • Bálint Balász, Gyorgy Pataki (St István University, Budapest, Hungary)
  • Harald Sverdrup, Deniz Koca (Lund University, Sweden)
  • Josefin Nyström, Edith Callaghan, David Cook (The Natural Step International, Sweden)
  • Cletus Babu, G. Nagarajan, A. Christy (SCAD-India) Alice-Marie Archer, Ian Roderick (The Schumacher Institute, UK)

CONVERGE is a European Commission FP7 Research Project: Rethinking globalisation in the light of Contraction and CONVERGEnce. CONVERGE publications are published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence. (