Knowledge for better food systems

Reframing the Food-Biodiversity Challenge

In the latest in a series of articles seeking to shake up the conversation about food production and its trade-offs (see for example our previous summary of Elena Bennett’s Nature commentary, and the subsequent FCRN discussion forum), this opinion piece seeks to shift the focus of the discourse away from food production as the goal of agriculture, and towards food security, incorporating biodiversity outcomes.

The authors advocate a move away from land-sparing as an approach, highlighting three main limitations of the land-sparing philosophy: 1) it emphasises food production not food security, even though food security is only weakly associated with food production; 2) it assumes that ‘spared’ land will be used to establish protected areas, even though this is rarely the case; and 3) it oversimplifies the debate into production vs. biodiversity, while the real world is much more complex.

The article proposes a social-ecological framework for considering the food-biodiversity nexus, based on a classification of landscapes into four ‘system archetypes’ or ‘alternative system states’. The four archetypes are distinguished by characteristic social-ecological features, drivers and feedbacks that maintain the archetype. At a local level, focussing on food security and biodiversity, these four archetypes can be summarised as: win-win (high food security and biodiversity), win-lose (intensive agriculture), lose-win (conservation at the expense of food security) and lose-lose (degraded landscapes). This social-ecological model is summarised in Fig. 1 (directly from the article).

Most of the article is concerned with defining each of the four archetypes in more detail and examining the real-world implications of these archetypes by drawing on examples of mixed rural agriculture in the Global South. For the win-win archetype, the authors propose smallholder agriculture, while also recognising the potential limitations of this oft-over-idealised approach.

The authors propose that their framework can be used firstly to relate complex real-world examples to archetypal extremes, and to test them against the characteristics of each archetypes, and secondly to facilitate attempts to shift landscapes from undesirable archetypes to desirable ones. They recognise the limitations of their model, but conclude with the hope that systems thinking approaches such as this will help advance both food security and biodiversity conservation.


Given the serious limitations of production-oriented frameworks, we offer here a new conceptual framework for how to analyze the nexus of food security and biodiversity conservation. We introduce four archetypes of social-ecological system states corresponding to win–win (e.g., agroecology), win–lose (e.g., intensive agriculture), lose–win (e.g., fortress conservation), and lose–lose (e.g., degraded landscapes) outcomes for food security and biodiversity conservation. Each archetype is shaped by characteristic external drivers, exhibits characteristic internal social-ecological features, and has characteristic feedbacks that maintain it. This framework shifts the emphasis from focusing on production only to considering social-ecological dynamics, and enables comparison among landscapes. Moreover, examining drivers and feedbacks facilitates the analysis of possible transitions between system states (e.g., from a lose–lose outcome to a more preferred outcome).


Fischer, J., Abson, D. J., Bergsten, A., French Collier, N., Dorresteijn, I., Hanspach, J., Hylander, K., Schultner, J. (2017). Reframing the Food–Biodiversity Challenge. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, [in press]

Read the full article here.


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While some of the food system challenges facing humanity are local, in an interconnected world, adopting a global perspective is essential. Many environmental issues, such as climate change, need supranational commitments and action to be addressed effectively. Due to ever increasing global trade flows, prices of commodities are connected through space; a drought in Romania may thus increase the price of wheat in Zimbabwe.

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