Towards Food Sustainability

Project workshop on traditional food in the Guaraní viallage of Yatirenda, Bolivia
Project workshop on traditional food in the Guaraní viallage of Yatirenda, Bolivia. Photo: Johanna Jacobi, CDE

At least since Amartya Sen published Poverty and Famines in 1981, we know that food security –viewed globally – is more a question of proper distribution than of a need for ever more productivity. Nevertheless, a “productivist” understanding of food security continues to dominate in science, policy, and practice – gaining steam in the aftermath the 2008 food price crisis – even though more than enough calories for every person on earth are already being produced.

In order to better understand and address the “wicked problems” of hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity, this project takes a food system approach in its analysis of actors, activities, and results of food system activities. In case studies in Kenya and Bolivia, we examine different food value chains (e.g. agro-industrial and agroecological, from production to consumption), the livelihoods of those who depend on them, and the consequences of various food-system related activities.

Going beyond "producing enough"

Instead of applying a narrow food security concept, we have adopted an understanding of food sustainability that includes realization of the right to food, environmental sustainability, reduction of poverty and inequality, and resilience of food systems going beyond just producing enough. In a transdisciplinary process, the project seeks to develop a tool to assess the sustainability of food systems – a tool that can also be used by non-scientists who are interested in identifying ways to make food systems more sustainable.

Concept of food sustainability

                                                    Concept of food sustainability

Case studies

An interdisciplinary team of researchers from Switzerland, Kenya, and Bolivia has begun researching various aspects of different food systems in Kenya and Bolivia. Our case studies focus on agro-industrial food systems as well as local, indigenous, and alternative food systems. Five postdoctoral researchers, nine doctoral candidates, and 21 master’s candidates are involved in corresponding “Work Packages” (WPs). WP1 examines the policy context and the right to food from a legal perspective. WP2 looks at institutions and actors from an anthropological perspective. WP3 analyses value chains, livelihoods, and food security. WP4 assesses the environmental sustainability of food systems as well as their social-ecological resilience.

Indicators of food sustainability

Together with our partners and interested organizations in Kenya and Bolivia, we defined indicators for use in assessing each of the five pillars of food sustainability. To assess the environmental performance of food systems, for example, we defined agrobiodiversity and landscape patchiness and connectivity as important indicators, in addition to resource use intensity, generation and handling of waste, emission of greenhouse gases, and more. In a workshop to define ways of assessing the right to food, we identified indicators that describe equality, non-discrimination, and empowerment of vulnerable groups, for example the proportion of land titles held by women, or levels of public investment in agro-pastoral activities.

The Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) Programme of the 10-Year Framework

The project is an affiliated project of the 10YFP Sustainable Food Systems Programme of the United Nations Environment Programme. The Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production Patterns (10YFP) is a gobal multi-stakeholder partnership to accelerate the shift towards more sustainable food systems.


Manual for Participatory Food System Sustainability Assessments and Transformation (FoodSAT) – Steps towards Food Democracy

This guide offers an introduction to multidimensional assessment of food systems, based on experiences from action research carried out by scientists and practitioners from CDE, University of Bern, Switzerland, together with their partners in food systems in Africa and South America. It describes how to conduct analyses in participatory ways, how to assess the degree to which food systems are sustainable and democratic, and how interested food system actors can engage in co-designing and implementing “transformative actions” for food sustainability and democracy. The manual includes examples and illustrations from the experiences in practice.

Download (PDF, 14.7 MB)