#BTEHbook Spoilers: Excerpt from the last chapter


SPOILERS! Used under Creative Commons license from DCNerd


A lightly edited excerpt from my forthcoming book’s last chapter for your Friday reading pleasure. (And don’t worry about spoilers, I’m pretty sure this won’t ruin the suspense from the rest of the book…)

Listening to our food futures

Several years ago, members of the Cornell University students’ New World Agriculture and Ecology Group (NWAEG) and I met with staff of the Southside Community Center in Ithaca. Jemila Sequeira, a social worker, advocate for food dignity, and then-Vice President of the Community Center, was one of the people we spoke with—to think through how NWAEG and the Center could work together. At one point, sitting back from the conversation between the students and the Center staff, I thought to myself that there was a real enthusiasm and openness to working with us on the part of the staff. That contrasted with the critiques of university-community partnerships that Sequeira had voiced at a NWAEG-sponsored event the previous year. She had been critical of university staff and students “helicoptering” in to supposedly help the local community, but usually, in her view, without truly engaging with or respecting the community.

I jumped back into the conversation at a pause to ask the Center staff why they were so willing to work with us, with their limited resources and time. I was glad they were, of course, but why did they trust us enough to invest their time and open their Center to us, when they previously had expressed wariness about partnering with the university? Without missing a beat, Jemila, who has since become a dear friend, looked at each of us in turn: “Because you all listen.”

Those four words capture both how easy and how hard it is to work on what matters. It is no small thing to listen to others such that they feel heard—to hear their meaning in the context of their experiences and not just the surface of their words. This sort of listening requires one to stop and devote oneself to engaging with others as equal fellow human beings; someone whose priorities matter at least as much as your own; someone who may have something to say that is different from what you expect, or want, to hear. It is usually difficult to build the trust that, having listened to people from another community, you will truly work with them, rather than “at” them, to engage in conversations and work that matter and come out of their experience and not just your own agenda. It is as difficult to truly “hear” as it is to act on this responsibility.

But this is what the case of Belo Horizonte tell us we must pursue if we are to end hunger. While the voices of those who have been marginalized—particularly small-scale food producers and all those disadvantaged by poverty and inequality—must be given, or must take, the platforms upon which they can be heard, we have to make sure at the same time that those of us involved in the more technical literature or the fine points of public policy are listening. What is more, we must dedicate ourselves to supporting and expanding spaces where we can truly listen (and learn lessons that are just as important any of the lessons from peer-reviewed literature).

Brazil saw such an accumulation of understanding leading up to Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s revolutionary food policies: from Josué de Castro’s analyses and efforts in 1932 to the implementation and then dismantling of the Brazilian Social Security Food Service in the 1940s; the post-70s social movements; the National Constitutional Assembly of 1986-88; the Citizens’ Action Movement; the thousands of state-civil society-business citizens’ councils; the consolidation of the Workers’ Party’s broad agenda; the formation, dissolution, and re-institution of regional and national food security councils; and finally Belo Horizonte’s SMASAN in 1993, which was followed by Fome Zero in 2004 and the Constitutional Right to Food in 2010. And now, as of April 2017, even with regressive if embattled President Michel Temer and his allies seeking to limit spending on social programs, including Fome Zero, we should remember that the progress in the battle against hunger in Brazil saw many setbacks. Similarly, despite the threat the current U.S. administration and Congress offers to the healthcare programs implemented under former President Obama, we should remember the decades of ebb and flow in the problems, policies, and politics streams that led to the new health care program being passed in the first place. Setbacks, even serious ones, can be surmounted.

What does Belo Horizonte mean for Brazil moving forward as for the rest of us? Different parts of civil society came together after the dictatorship to create a common agenda, yes, but it is also true that trust and reciprocity were already forming across society. The dictatorship was formative not just for spurring so many people to action. In the face of exile and persecution, leftist scholars and activists such as Josué de Castro, Hebert de Souza, and many members of the Workers’ Party persisted in their work nonetheless. Their commitment to listening and advocacy despite often heavy personal costs both burnished their reputations and solidified trust among other social actors for change. The value of putting yourself on the line for the well-being of others should not be underestimated.

…And so as I think about the importance of bringing about a new reality with new institutions capable of ending hunger—in Belo Horizonte and beyond, including the U.S., the proverbial belly of the beast—I see the “good-news stories, pockets of reality that could be seeds of a wider vision” (Meadows 1996). The future, unevenly distributed as it may be, is also firmly present, whether it be in organizations such as Portland’s Growing Gardens, SoulFire Farm, La Vía Campesina, the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, or the beats and flow laid down by the youth of North Minneapolis’s Appetite For Change. People are showing their commitment to a new world and new ways of new futures. We can see these initial steps along the path not as isolated efforts, but as multiple manifestations of a world where broader visions are already becoming reality. It is down to all of us to end hunger. The work will be extremely difficult, but as so much evidence, peer-reviewed and otherwise, now shows us, ending hunger is possible.

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Pangloss’s Guide to Changing the Food System (from the #BTEHbook cutting room floor)

Dr. Pangloss, at a dinner party at Stauf Mansion

Pictured: Either Dr. Peter Pangloss, or preternatural toymaker Henry Stauf

Another quasi-excerpt from my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger. Cut from Chapter 1, again, because “That’s what blogs are for,” (Shattuck 2017). This was actually one of the first things I wrote when I seriously got started on the book’s final form two years ago. It is one of my favorite little pieces of writing, and I’m sad it didn’t make the book, but here it is for your reading enjoyment:

Pangloss’s Guide to Changing the Food System

It is… not possible for the levels of consumption in food and material goods enjoyed by the wealthy in rich countries to be enjoyed by all without grave, and possibly catastrophic, risks to the global environment in terms of biodiversity loss, water scarcity and climate change… While reductions in food waste and changes to less meat-intensive diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the need for land clearing… wishing this were the case is very different from making it happen.” (Grafton et al. 2015)

I’ll take my chances with trying to change the politically impossible, because I don’t think I can change the biophysically impossible.” (Herman Daly, in Montenegro 2011)

Assumptions and models shape our world. As we have been discussing, it is not usually easy to tell when our own assumptions or models are bad ones, nor to see that they are not the only ones. This last observation is also why this section is “Paging Dr. Pangloss.”

Dr. Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s 1918 novel Candide, maintains throughout the book that “all is for the best” in this, “the best of all possible worlds.” Notably, he maintains this view of the world through the course of a long series of misfortunes, including his contraction of syphilis, the murder of many of his associates and students, the destruction of his home, and being hanged, for starters. From this fictional character, the term “Panglossian” has come to mean “naively optimistic.” It’s an “always look on the bright side of life” attitude akin to the song of the same name at the end of the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (The characters also happily advise looking on the bright side of death in a later verse.)

However, “naively optimistic” does not catch two other underlying flavors present in the depiction of Pangloss. For example, he mixes causes and effects throughout the book in his explanations of why all is indeed for the best. This includes the idea that syphilis was necessary for Europeans to get chocolate, as it was explorers and conquistadors who brought both back from their travels.

Think about that.

Not only does it make a mess of cause and effect, but it is actually weirdly pessimistic: claiming that syphilis is the price to pay for getting luxury goods ignores many better possible worlds, including the very slightly alternative world where Pangloss simply chooses not to have the affair that led to his syphilis, while conquistadors still pillage the Americas and bring back chocolate. It strikes me as pessimistic, not optimistic, to decide “There’s no way all of Europe could have ever had chocolate if I didn’t contract a venereal disease.”

The connection to food security, agriculture, and sustainability here is the pessimistically Panglossian tone of the first quote at the top of this box. The reality that not everyone in the world can eat like Americans (nor should they!) without causing environmental catastrophe is uncontroversial, but their assessment of decreasing food waste and achieving dietary change reads almost as a rebuke: Wishing won’t make it so. This seems to me but half a step from something we could imagine Pangloss saying: “Well, sure, we may have global disaster and environmental collapse, but such is the price of universal access to Whoppers and having enough food for everyone to throw away one third of it uneaten. What can you do?”

This is important because, as I said, models and assumptions shape our world. It also is true that wishing, for example, did not end South African Apartheid, grant the right to vote to women and minorities in countries throughout the world, free African-American and Indigenous slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere, nor win United States, India, Haiti, or any other country its independence. If anyone is seriously suggesting that we can wish our way to a better food system, then I am right there with Grafton and colleagues: it’s not going to work.

But, as Daly reminds us, between changing the laws of reality (which places limits on what and how much humans can consume) and changing the “laws” of political realism (our models and assumptions about what kind of changes are possible or likely), there’s little contest: only one of those two things is, as far as we know, literally impossible. Changing our politics is very difficult, but it may in fact be necessary. And if we look at the long scope of history, it certainly seems possible. Or as the saying goes, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

Put another way, ecological economist Nathan Pelletier pointed out in 2010 that

“[Some maintain] that incremental improvements in current governance will have to be adequate… such an argument must be turned firmly on its head. What is grossly      utopian is the expectation that humanity can proceed on its current   trajectory of global industrialization, with a system of global environmental governance that is hopelessly inadequate to the task. The language of necessity must replace that of political expediency.” (p. 226)

Thus the idea that “wishing it were so” will not work cuts both ways: we may wish that there were alternatives to reconsidering the very way we do governance, production, and consumption. But the expectation that this can be avoided is perhaps yet another kind of perverse Panglossianism: the idea that we live in a world where it is not only impossible to change the fundamental sociopolitical elements of our trajectory, but unnecessary. All is for the best (and worst) in this, the best of all possible worlds…

Works Cited

Grafton, R. Q., Daugbjerg, C., & Qureshi, M. E. (2015). Towards food security by 2050. Food Security, 7(2), 179-183.

Montenegro, M. (2009). Rethinking growth. Seed Magazine, (February issue), 20-22.

Pelletier, N. (2010). Of laws and limits: An ecological economic perspective on redressing the failure of contemporary global environmental governance. Global Environmental Change, 20(2), 220-228.

Voltaire. (1918/2006). Candide (Anonymous, Trans.). New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc.

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Is there space for innovation (and technology) in the CFS?

Food Governance

By Allison Loconto

 This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

Today we continue with our fourth thematic cluster: “Emerging Issues at the CFS: How are they being addressed?”.  In this post, Allison Loconto reflects on the politics of knowledge and techniques within in the CFS and in turn, how these contribute to food security.She acknowledges that frank debate about innovation and technology for sustainable agriculture and food security are not yet high on the CFS agenda, but that the CFS could become a mechanism to provide guidance on these questions as the global community begins to tackle them.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

Loconto pic.jpeg

Each of us attending…

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New Paper: Assessing sustainable biophysical human–nature connectedness at regional scales

Some important new work from researchers at Leuphana University.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Christian Dorninger

Humans are biophysically connected to the biosphere through the flows of materials and energy appropriated from ecosystems. While this connection is fundamental for human well-being, many modern societies have—for better or worse—disconnected themselves from the natural productivity of their immediate regional environment by accessing material and energy flows from distant places and from outside the biosphere.

In the search for the most “efficient” sustainability solutions for land-use based management issues modern societies often tend to supplement, or replace, (potentially) naturally renewable regional energy—its net primary production (NPP)—with external material and energy inputs (e.g. fossils, metals, and other minerals extracted from the lithosphere). The extent and consequences of these biophysical disconnections remain unclear.

In our new paper, we conceptualize the biophysical human–nature connectedness of land use systems at regional scales. We distinguish two mechanisms by which the connectedness of people to their regional ecosystems has been circumvented.

  1. ‘Biospheric…

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Brief primer on the “great” land-sharing debate: Ripped from the #BTEHBook cutting room floor…

This “excised excerpt” is one of several I’ll be posting here that I was not able to fit in my forthcoming book Beginning to End Hungerbut which I think are useful or (hopefully) interesting and informative. As a friend said when I made the difficult decision to cut this out, “That’s what blogs are for.” :-p

In this case, it is my simple (but hopefully not overly simplistic) two-paragraph summary of the land-sparing/land-sharing debate (about which, much has been written; some might argue too much).

[The erstwhile] Box 4: The great land debate

Land sharing: Sharing both space and governance with farmers and other land-users to foster both agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. Recognizes both the need for protected areas and the need to manage agricultural land to support on-farm biodiversity and biodiversity in surrounding natural habitats. But views it as equally fundamental to conduct this management through substantively democratic and just processes, in concordance with securing adequate livelihoods for all land-users.

Land sparing: Seeking to produce as much as possible from any given agricultural plot, regardless of its impact on biodiversity within that plot, in order to allow other spaces to be set aside and protected from production, given the assumption (and some empirical results) that the net effect on biodiversity is positive if and when corresponding additional areas are placed under protection. May assume, but rarely directly addresses, substantively democratic and just mechanisms and outcomes.

Both land-sparing and land-sharing recognize the vital need for protected natural areas. But how to design, designate, and manage those areas and the spaces around them, and how to effectively implement the necessary variety of locally-tailored approaches are matters of substantial on-going debate.


Butsic, V., & Kuemmerle, T. (2015). Using optimization methods to align food production and biodiversity conservation beyond land sharing and land sparing. Ecological Applications, 25(3), 589-595.

Fischer, J., Abson, D. J., Butsic, V., Chappell, M. J., Ekroos, J., Hanspach, J., . . . von Wehrden, H. (2014). Land sparing versus land sharing: moving forward. Conservation Letters, 7(3), 149–157.

Hill, R., Miller, C., Newell, B., Dunlop, M., & Gordon, I. J. (2015). Why biodiversity declines as protected areas increase: the effect of the power of governance regimes on sustainable landscapes. Sustainability Science, 10(2), 357-369.

Law, E. A., Bryan, B. A., Meijaard, E., Mallawaarachchi, T., Struebig, M. J., Watts, M. E., & Wilson, K. A. (2016). Mixed policies give more options in multifunctional tropical forest landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology, Early Access. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12666

Phalan, B., Green, R. E., Dicks, L. V., Dotta, G., Feniuk, C., Lamb, A., . . . Balmford, A. (2016). How can higher-yield farming help to spare nature? Science, 351(6272), 450-451.


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Early praise for Beginning to End Hunger

Rob Wallace, the astute political phylogeographer and author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and Neoliberal Ebola (and, full disclosure, a friend who spent no small amount of time offering advice and feedback) has this to say about my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger (out December 2017; available for pre-order now):

Jahi Chappell’s Beginning to End Hunger is at one and the same time an erudite, passionate, and accessible account of Belo Horizonte’s award-winning efforts to end hunger in that Brazilian city of 2.5 million people. Chappell connects the impacts of Brazil’s history and the politics of regional interventions on food access to the economics of local farming and the agroecology of the forest.

But the book is much, much more than that. Beginning to End Hunger is a road map for the difficult path to ending hunger and famine everywhere. The two chapters with which it begins take on the big picture, refuting the core of the productivist model of food and famine upon which much of the agribusiness paradigm depends as an existential rationale. In passing, Chappell shows us the extent to which even many a dedicated food activist and scholar has accepted false premises about food production and availability.

Ludwig Wittgenstein offered that the best a philosopher can do is help free his or her reader from many a historical trap, like helping a fly out of a bottle. What is done with that liberty is entirely up to the reader. For Chappell’s efforts here, I am grateful for my new found freedom. A foundational text.

Rob’s positive comments on the book mean a lot to me. I highly recommend checking out his writing at FarmingPathogens.wordpress.com and his recent books, particularly Big Farms Make Big Flu. And don’t forget, in light of Rob’s assessment, to pre-order your own copy of Beginning to End Hunger, of course.

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How to make “good policy” from “good science”? An agroeco-infodump with Steven Rosenzweig

In other “original content” news, the following conversation on ResearchGate with my co-author Steven Rosenzweig seemed like it might be useful, so I thought I’d give it a (slightly?) larger audience than the comments section for my 2013 conference presentation, The need for action, ethics and values in ecology: Examples from food systems and conservation (though thank you to all of the countless folks who no doubt have been closely following it with baited breath!)
Steven commented:
I think your point about the disconnect between “good science in” and “good policy out” is as salient as ever. I’ve often fantasized about really diving into the solution implementation literature, which it appears you may have done. Is it as enlightening as you would have hoped? I feel as if there is more analysis to be done about why we aren’t seeing the environmental policies we would expect by looking at surveys of public environmental concern. Maybe I’m still swimming in pessimism of the election, but many federal politicians aren’t beholden to the public or to the truth, and the incentive structure in policymaking isn’t necessarily designed to reward well reasoned and forward thinking decision-making. Where do scientists fit in in this new political reality? I think you may be right that we need to enter the political and moral realm more explicitly.
Writing back to him, I pointed to some sources others might find useful:
Thanks for the comment, Steven Rosenzweig .
From my point of view, the “solution implementation literature” is fully as enlightening as I would have hoped, though of course what it did not provide was a straight-forward recipe for fixing things.
That said, it has offered any number of useful insights.
One, as well established in numerous venues, science is not and cannot be “neutral,” particularly with regards important issues of the day. (Even the choice of a researcher to focus on one issue versus another, and seek to procure public or private resources for it, is a powerful signal of what that researcher considers important, and puts at the very minimum support for their research as having a higher priority in their mind than other research, and implicitly higher than other uses of public funds. The fact that researchers often don’t think of it this way does nothing to decrease the force or effects of this dynamic and its implications.)
This may or may not be a point I have made before
I continued —
Two, policies almost never get changed/passed/improved without a policy advocate. One necessary corresponding idea is thus that if a scientist has an idea about proper/better policies, and incorporates it into their work (motivations, questions, or conclusions), they are implicitly assuming one of the following:
(a) Someone involved in policy will read their article/ideas and advocate for it on their behalf;
(b) Their article/ideas may influence a broader consensus, such that someone involved in policy will be influenced by the “proper” synthesis of this consensus and advocate for appropriate corresponding policy ideas;
(c) Policy advocates are not necessary and that policy-making bodies as a whole proceed based on careful assessment of often-complex, often-contradictory, often-paywalled, often-technical body of research, and make time for this above other completely valid priorities (and any questionable ones as well).
None of these are true or present. A scientist with ideas for proper policy who does not advocate on their ideas’ own behalf, or work with others who may be willing to do so, is consigning him or herself to very, very low probabilities of having any important influence on policies.
Further, ethically speaking, scientists should not assume that there is unlimited time for everyone in society to consider each problem in its details, and so in the scheme of things, priorities have to be made. Scientists who are not involved in considering the larger political economy–competing priorities and effects on others of their preferred policies, whether directly or from opportunity costs–again are hobbling their ability to be effective.
I have a rather long bit on how policy change *does* work, but for short versions, I highly recommend Paul Cairney’s work: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ . His “1000 word” summaries are very useful.
Hmm…. I also would add that something scientists seem loathe to consider “how much evidence is *enough* evidence for action?” in their opinion. While evidence & research are important and necessary, we too often act like it is possible or desirable for things to slow down and wait for nice, clear research, instead of the constant need to make decisions in the absence of certainty. When scientists lack any idea of competing priorities, limitations on budget, etc, their ideas are all the more likely to be ignored.
But I suppose the SHORT SHORT version of policy implementation is I am quite convinced we cannot achieve many of our policy objectives–substantive equity, sustainability, halting and adapting to climate change, stopping biodiversity loss, food security–fully within our current governance systems. From many researchers, but including Elinor Ostrom and Prugh, Costanza & Daly, I believe there is clear and compelling evidence that a more participatory democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving these various problems. While many see political change as hopeless or too slow, I would point out that political change obviously *does* happen, so while it does not happen on a set schedule, it behooves us to work towards it, as working towards it makes it more likely to happen; and that I think there is ample evidence we don’t have an alternative, so however long it takes is how long it takes, but that there are no effective shortcuts. (Prugh, Costanza and Daly argue that top-down/benevolent dictator approaches seem attractive with reference to stopping environmental catastrophe, but that there is ample evidence that this does not, and is extremely unlikely to ever, work.)
In the “meantime”:
The snake finally eats its own tail! I’ve managed again to link to myself.
Steven made the claim (which I cannot scientifically verify) that he found these responses enlightening, and that others would, too. I leave that question to you, dear reader. (Or readers, if there actually is more than one of you.)
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A (hopefully lasting) return to original content: Big update – The Book is Done!

Hello fine folks of the interwebs–

It’s been pretty much nothing but reposts for months now here on Agroecopeople. I have been focusing on finishing a fairly major project! That is, my (first?) book, Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, and Beyond, due out this December from University of California Press! Based on my research in Belo Horizonte, Brazil over the past 15 years, the book presents BH’s story.

Vista do mirante no bairro Mangabeiras em Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brasil.

(c) bcorreabh / Adobe Stock

From the official summary at UC Press, Belo Horizonte


“is home to 2.5 million people and one of the world’s most successful city food security programs. Since its Municipal Secretariat for Food Security was founded in 1993, malnutrition in Belo Horizonte has declined dramatically, allowing it to serve as an inspiration for Brazil’s renowned Zero Hunger programs. The Municipal Secretariat’s work with local small family farmers also offers a glimpse of how food security, rural livelihoods, and healthy ecosystems can be supported together. While inevitably imperfect, Belo Horizonte offers a vision of the path away from food system dysfunction, unsustainability, and hunger. This case study shows the vital importance of holistic approaches to food security, offers ideas on how to design successful policies to end hunger, and lays out strategies for how to make policy change happen. With these tools, we can take the next steps towards achieving similar reductions in hunger and food insecurity elsewhere in the developed and developing worlds.”

Beginning to End Hunger is available for pre-order from UC Press, and also from the various normal outlets!

A paper co-written by several of the erstwhile Chappell lab crew on the (possible) biodiversity effects of Belo Horizonte’s food security programs was published last year in Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (author’s copy available on ResearchGate here.)

And you can learn more about Belo Horizonte’s stories from several other sources, including fantastic work by my mentor Cecilia Rocha of Ryerson University and colleagues (e.g. here, here, and here); and several videos on YouTube (for example, a brief documentary based on Belo Horizonte’s win of the Future Policy Award, and another one put together a bit back by my friend and colleague, Lindsay Smith).

I hope to visit a number of cities next year to talk about the book; feel free to comment or otherwise contact me to let me know if you’d like me to visit where you are!

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Critiquing the ‘Double food production’ narrative

Ideas for Sustainability

There is little doubt that 9-10 billion people will need to be fed during the next few decades. How we do it is open for debate. The research in our group focusses on the food-biodiversity nexus (Fischer et al 2017), i.e. the challenge of attaining food security for all while conserving global biodiversity. In this field a couple of arguments on how to achieve these goals dominate the discourse. If you want to read more about them then see here, here, here and here for some examples.

Typically, papers addressing these two challenges begin with statements about how agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity loss, something like “Land use change is the biggest threat to biodiversity”, and then the attention turns to food security. Here is where you will more often than not read about the need to increase food production by 70-100 % to…

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New paper: A fresh perspective on food and biodiversity

More great work from Joern Fischer and colleagues.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

I’m writing to share new paper of ours that just appeared online in Trends in Ecology & Evolution. Following from our earlier work, this is our most concrete attempt yet to show what a social-ecological approach to the food-biodiversity nexus might look like. The PDF is available here.

SES food and biodiversity

In a nutshell, we argue to conceptualise the food-biodiversity nexus via four archetypical outcomes. Hypothetical outcomes regarding food security and biodiversity conservation could be win-win, win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose. We then argue that all of these outcomes can be observed in the real world, and that – importantly – they are not entirely idiosyncratic. Rather, each has typical system characteristics associated with it. These characteristics are (i) features of the system (e.g. the kinds of capital stocks and governance arrangements in the system); (ii) drivers of the system (external influences that push the system in a…

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