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)

Makueni Small Scale Farmers Forum, Kenya

The Transformative Pilot Action (TPA) in Makueni, Kenya, has made great progress in the construction of the grain aggregation store. The farmers met the secretary general of Kenya Small scale Farmers Forum for the second time and they agreed to form the Makueni Small Scale Farmers Forum. The process of mobilization, sensitization, and registration will start soon. Farmer group mobilization will be an ongoing processof this TPA.

Signature of the Interinstitutional Cooperation Agreement between COMPAS - Bolivia and UNIBOL Quechua

In the frame of the Swiss r4d project “Towards Food Sustainability”, the “Glocal Network for Sustainable Food Systems” that emerged in Latin America from project activities, has broadened its membership. Read the press release:

Press release (PDF, 229KB)



Empowering Women Cheesemakers in Brazil - Community Voices

Raw-milk cheese-making belongs to the culinary culture of Seara in Brazil. Originally established by settlers from Germany, Italy and Poland, this cheese has traditionally been produced by women who passed it on to new generations. Cheese-making enhanced their visibility in the community, and generated extra income. Potential health risks prompted Brazil to ban produce from raw-milk cheese-making in the 1990s. The r4d project Food Sustainability focuses on food value chains and food security. Researchers organised panel discussions with local famers about food security, traditions, rights and sustainability.

Does Commons Grabbing Lead to Resilience Grabbing? The Anti-Politics Machine of Neo-Liberal Agrarian Development and Local Responses

This publication from the r4d "Towards Food Sustainability"-project employs Ferguson's concept of the "Anti-Politics Machine" to uncover hidden power asymmetries of state-drive development strategies in the age of neoliberalism. "Commons-grabbing" is the institutional change from common to state and private property, often based on a false discourse of "unproductive" or "unused" resources. Institutional pluralism facilitates this process. Moreover, financial compensation for grabbing commons do not equally reach affected people, do not cover their loss and increase vulnerability, thus eroding resilience and especially affecting women.

"Commonification of food as an approach for the achievement of food security and the realisation of the right to food for all"

Nicholas Orago’s article in the Strathmore Law Journal contends that commodification of food is one of the many causes of food insecurity as it occasions the inability of poor households to access the available food because of high prices and dysfunctional markets. He suggests a change of approach from commodification to commonification to deal with food insecurity at the national, regional and global level. With commonification, decisions relating to the use of local resources for the production, processing, distribution and consumption of food are made at the local level, to ensure that other socio-economic and cultural aspects of food are taken into account in the decision-making processes.

Community henhouse in Zambia, milk cooperative in Kenya

The current crisis is not stopping r4d project partners from advancing food sustainability: In the Zambian village of Magobbo, where the project supports food system transformation, a women farmers’ group have completed construction of their community henhouse, which now generates income and food that they manage themselves. In Kenya, the Umande Milk Cooperative, formed with the project’s support, have acquired a milk collection vehicle. This has enabled them to overcome all coronavirus barriers and collect milk from small-scale farmers for the cooperative’s storage and processing plant.

Two new affiliated postdocs

CDE’s "Towards Food Sustainability" project is being joined by two new affiliated postdocs, who will support the project in its final year: Dr. Aymara Llanque-Zonta, who conducted her PhD research in the project, and Dr. Georgina Catacora-Vargas, who completed her master's thesis in the project’s first phase. Both researchers bring with them a wealth of experience in agroecology, food system analysis, and feminist food studies. We recommend reading this sample of their work published by the Latin American Scientific Society of Agroecology (SOCLA). The publication "Agroecología en feminino" analyses the theoretical and methodological framework of agroecology through the lens of feminist studies, with a view to illuminating synergies between the approaches in terms of care, sustainability, and respect for life.

Handelsabkommen: Gute Rahmenbedingungen für die Nachhaltigkeits-Positionierung schaffen

«Viel effektiver als allgemein gehaltene Zielvereinbarungen wäre es, die gewährten Zollkonzessionen direkt mit Nachhaltigkeitsvorgaben zu verknüpfen», sagt Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi, CDE, im Interview.

Waldbrände am Amazonas: «Bolivien geht, so gut wie möglich, professionell vor»

In verschiedenen Medienberichten wurde behauptet, dass die Waldbrände im bolivianischen Amazonasgebiet mit dem kürzlich von Präsident Evo Morales unterzeichneten Dekret zur Umwandlung von Wald- in Landwirtschaftsflächen zu tun hätten. «Das ist falsch. Richtig ist, dass die Brandrodung im Departamento Santa Cruz – wo es jetzt brennt – unter der neoliberalen Regierung im Jahr 2001 vom damaligen Präsidenten und früheren Militärdiktator, Hugo Banzer, erlaubt wurde», schreibt Stephan Rist, Leiter des r4d-Programms «Towards Food Sustainability», unter anderem in einer Stellungnahme zur Medienberichterstattung über die Brände am Amazonas auf dem Lateinamerika-Nachrichtenportal «amerika21».

Raw milk cheese from smallholder farms declared illegal and incinerated after cheese contest in Brazil

Traditional raw milk cheese from smallholder farmers is illegal in Santa Catarina, Brazil. The "Transformative Pilot Action for Sustainable Food Systems" aims at changing this situation. The “1st Contest of Artisan Raw Milk Cheese” took place on July 27, 2019, as part of the project. The objective was to value the traditional knowledge of local cheese production, as well as discussing with farmers and consumers issues on the legislation for the marketing of cheese and raw milk derivatives. The organizing committee had to sign an agreement that the cheese could only be evaluated by smelling and touching it, and that all cheese would be incinerated after the evaluation. Knowing that the cheese would be discarded, 27 families participated in the contest. While the cheese was being prepared for incineration, there was commotion and revolt among the people present at the contest.

“Trade agreement between European Union and the Mercosur: some critical points on agrifood matters”

What developments are currently taking place in Brazilian agriculture? Comments by Renato S. Malouf, former member of the Steering Committee of the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security (HLPE), UN Committee for World Food Security, and his team on the trade agreement between the European Union (EU) and Mercosur.

Comments on the Agreement EU - Mercosur (PDF, 149KB)

Transformative Pilot Acitons (TPAs) for Sustainable Food Systems

The Kenyan government has delivered the first milk cooler machine for the smallholder dairy farmers' cooperative that was formed through the TPA in Laikipa. Through the project, a cooperative milk processing plant was planned and cooperative members received capacity building. A government program supports them with land, buildings and machines. All this will help to build a by-pass around middlemen and powerful dairy firms who control the milk value chain.

"Sucre Capital of Urban and Periurban Agriculture"

On Tuesday, 28 May 2019, in a ceremony held at the Municipal Palace of "El Guereo", 43 producers of Urban and Periurban Agriculture of the Municipality of Sucre received certifications of the course "Basic Technician in Sustainable Food Systems and Dialogue of Knowledge"; project within the programme "Towards Food Sustainability" executed by the Municipal Government in coordination with CDE, University of Bern.

The Normative Dimension of Food Sustainability: A Human Rights-Based Approach to Food Systems Governance

This Working paper engages in the discussion on food sustainability from a human rights-based perspective. It maps out international human rights standards closely related to food production that should be taken into account by law- and policy-makers when developing domestic normative and policy frameworks concerning food systems. The selection of the instruments here is not exhaustive: the focus is on the various aspects concerning the right to food, the rights of actors involved in food supply chains (especially production) and the international norms related to productive resources fundamental for food production, particularly land, water and seeds.

Download (PDF, 14.7 MB)

Memorandum of Understanding between the University of Bern and the Universidad Mayor, Real y Pontificia de San Francisco de Chuquisaca, Bolivia

The agreement formalizes the mutual desire to strengthen the ongoing successful collaboration of the two institutions. Its general objective is to stimulate and facilitate the development of scientific and academic cooperation and exchange between the two Universities. The Memorandum of Understanding includes the ongoing cooperation of the Universidad Mayor, Real y Pontificia de San Francisco de Chuquisaca, and the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) as well as the Institute of Geography of the University of Bern in the r4d programme Towards Food Sustainability.

Presentation of the importance of an inter- and transdisciplinary approach to research

Freddy Delgado, director of Compas Bolivia, highlighted the importance of inter- and transdisciplinary research approaches in applied science projects supported by CDE, at the interactive dialogue of the General Assembly on Harmony with Nature, held during the commemoration of International Mother Earth Day 2019.

Sustainability in the trade agreement with Indonesia

A study by CDE researcher Dr. Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi sheds light on the new trade agreement EFTA-Indonesia from a sustainability perspective. The parties to the agreement have chosen an innovative, promising approach to palm oil. This approach could be further extended and developed in the context of future trade negotiations (e.g. Mercosur, Malaysia, USA).

Read more (PDF, 794KB)

Essen. Macht. Arbeit. Feministische Blicke auf Fair Food Ideen

From a gender viewpoint and the ideas of Fair food, Co-PI of the r4d Food Sustainability project, Dr Elisabeth Bürgi-Bonanomi, reflects about the conditions under which sustainable trade can strengthen the position of female farmers. She concludes that international markets should foster gender-balanced production systems by allowing for product differentiation. p.28ff

Transformative Pilot Actions

In December 2018, after evaluating food system sustainability in Kalbeon village near Bolgatanga in Ghana, our local partner Millar Open University together with the village community started to improve processing opportunities for food and Shea.

New research article: Agroecosystem Service Capacity Index

The article of our PhD candidate Horacio Augstburger published in Landscape Online introduces a method that allows to show the benefits that different fam-based agroecosystem can provide to nature and society. The results can help to better decide which land use types within food systems to enhance and which to hinder in order to move towards sustainable food systems.

Food Sustainability through Sustainable Trade Relations?

Denis Kabiitoj and Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi

“The food systems of the global North and the global South are interdependent and often complementary. Transforming them into sustainable food systems thus requires a joint effort. Of particular importance is how trade relations are shaped between partner countries”, said CDE researcher Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi at the WTO Public Forum 2018. She emphasized that the current trade regime leaves some policy space to shape agricultural trade in a more sustainable way, i.e. by privileging sustainably produced food (see the “fair food” concept as enshrined in the Swiss Constitution).

Link to presentation (in English) (PDF, 426KB)


Resilience is often considered a precondition for sustainable social-ecological systems. But how can this understanding of resilience be applied to food systems? CDE researchers operationalized the concept by subdividing it into three different resilience dimensions: buffer capacity, self-organization and capacity for learning and adaptation. Specific indicators were defined for each dimension and applied to different food systems (agroindustrial, local, and agroecological) in Kenya and Bolivia, including assessment of the interaction and coexistence of food systems. While the contexts in the two countries differ greatly, there are several common trends that appear to be undermining food system resilience in both settings. These trends include low ecological buffer capacity and self-regulation in agroindustrial food systems; strong disparities in income and access to productive resources; competition for water, land, and labor; exclusion from markets; and low human capital and feedback mechanisms in locally based, traditional food systems. The results make it possible to identify leverage points in the food systems that could be used to foster food system transformations linked to goals of sustainability and justice.

Pesticides in soybean production

The findings of doctoral researcher Roberto Bascopé of the r4d project Towards Food Sustainability on pesticides in Bolivian soybean production were published in a policy brief in July 2018. They were also presented in a major Bolivian newspaper. The data show that since the legalization of transgenic soya in Bolivia in 2005, imports of related pesticides have quadrupled. Several active ingredients that are prohibited in Bolivia (e.g. methamidophos) are used in soybean production. From the 229 active ingredients that are registered, at least 164 are highly toxic and prohibited in other parts of the world. The research is intended to support the Bolivian Ministry of Health, which is currently evaluating all registered pesticides according to their toxicity.

The project expands to Brazil

The r4d project Towards Food Sustainability is expanding to Brazil: Project team members from Switzerland and Bolivia joined a multi-stakeholder workshop in Juazeiro, State of Bahia. Juazeiro lies in Brazil’s largest irrigated area, in the semi-arid part of the Rio San Francisco watershed. The workshop was organized by Prof. Dr. Renato Maluf, member of the r4d project’s scientific advisory board. He is Coordinator of the Reference Centre on Food and Nutrition Security at the Rural Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Under Brazil’s former president Lula da Silva, Prof. Maluf acted as President of the National Council on Food and Nutrition Security in Brazil. (June 2018)

Labelling of transgenic food in Bolivia

Georgina Catacora, r4d researcher in the first phase of the r4d project "Towards Food Sustainability" is also advising the Bolivian Viceministry of Environment and Water on labelling of transgenic food, which is now enforced in Bolivia, as established in the 2015 National Livestock and Agricultural Summit and Law 144. This important achievement contributes to the right to food enshrined in Bolivia's 2009 constitution.

Salen al mercado los primeros productos con sello de transgénico - La Razón.pdf (PDF, 250KB)

Publications of the University of Bern

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Master theses and working papers

Catacora Vargas, Georgina (2016): Agrobiodiversidad en Sistemas Alimentarios Agroindustrial, Indígena y Agroecológico en tres Municipios de Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Tesis para optar el título de Magister en "Agroecología, Cultura y Desarrollo Endógeno Sostenibe en Latinomérica", Agruco, Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba.

Crespo, Miguel Angel (2016): La situación de la agricultura en Bolivia y crisis de la seguridad y soberanía alimentaria. Documento de trabajo 1 proyecto R4D hacia la sustentabilidad alimentaria en Bolivia y Kenia. Agruco, Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba.

Gonzales Soto, Danny (2016): Efectos de la Política Púiblica en la Seguridad y Soberanía Alimentaria a partir de la Legislación existente en los Sistemas Alimentarios Agroindustrial, Indígena-Campesino y Agroecológico. Estudio de Caso de los Municipios San Pedro, Cabezas y La Guardia del Departamento de Santa Cruz. Tesis para optar el título de Magister en "Agroecología, Cultura y Desarrollo Endógeno Sostenibe en Latinomérica", Agruco, Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba.

Hertkorn, Marie-Luise (2016): Implizites und explizites Wissen im Kontext globaler Entwicklung am Beispiel der Interaktionen wissenschaftlicher und bäuerlicher Perspektiven auf "gute Ernährung". Masterarbeit zur Erlangung des akademischen Grades Master of Arts in Geschichte und Philosophie des Wissens am Department für Geistes- Sozial- und Staatswissenschaften der Eidgenössischen Technischen Hochschule Zürich.

Hirsig, Sophie, and Märki, Sarah (2016): 'We have the land but not the food': A food system analysis in two communities in the soy production area of Bolivia. Masterarbeit der Philosophisch-naturwissenschaftlichen Fakultät der Universität Bern.

Kopp Valdivia, Ciro (2016): Reconocimiento e implementación del Derecho Hmano a la Alimentación adecuada y temas relacionados: Estudio jurídico-político en Bolivia. Documento de trabajo 2 proyecto R4D hacia la sustentabilidad alimentaria en Bolivia y Kenia. Agruco, Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba.

Pomacosi Andrade, Daniela (2016): Percepciones de los actores sociales sobre: La situación de seguridad alimentaria nutricional, soberanía alimentaria para saber alimentarse en los sistemas alimentarios indígena agroecológico. Tesis de grado para obtener el titulo de Licenciatura en sociología, Universidad Mayor de San Simón, Cochabamba.

Food Security

As defined at the World Food Summit 1996, food security exists "when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life".

Human Right to Food

The right to adequate food is realized when every man, woman and child, alone and in community with others, has physical and economic access at all times to adequate food or means for its procurement (Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1999: para. 6.)

Food System

According to Rastoin and Ghersi (2010:19), food systems can be regarded as “interdependent networks of stakeholders (companies, financial institutions, public and private organizations, and individuals) in a geographical area (region, state, multinational region) that participate directly or indirectly in the creation of flows of goods and services geared towards satisfying the food needs of one or more groups of consumers in the same geographical area or elsewhere”. We extend the definition of stakeholders to explicitly include farmers and consumers.

Food Sovereignty

The right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems (Nyéléni Declaration 2007).

Food Sustainability

We suggest a definition of food sustainability that is based on five principles: (1) food security; (2) the right to food and other related human rights; (3) the reduction of poverty and inequality; (4) environmental performance; and (5) social-ecological resilience (Figure 1). We further believe that these basic variables for assessing food sustainability must remain consistent with more general principles of sustainable development, such as democratic participation in food system governance, economic viability, and intergenerational equity in both the short- and the long-term.


Fair Food, trade and states - a contribution from the R4D Food Sustainability to an emerging debate (in German an English):

Toxic pesticides in soybean production in Bolivia

Roberto Bascopé, PhD candidate in the Swiss R4D project “Towards Food Sustainability” led by the University of Bern studied environmental impacts of soybean production in the tropical lowlands of Bolivia.
Date: August 2018 | Source: 10 YFP Programme Sustainable Food Systems Programme Newsletter


Eine Banane ist eine Banane - Details unerwünscht

Mit dem Ja an der Urne zum «Bundesbeschluss über die Ernährungssicherheit» vom September 2017 wurden nachhaltige Handelsbeziehungen in die Verfassung geschrieben. Was sind die Konsequenzen dieses Artikels, wenn man ihn ernst nimmt? Mehr dazu mit Kommentaren von Elisabeth Bürgi, CDE.
Datum: 28.09.2017 | Quelle: WOZ


Fair Food initiative (in German):

Für arme Agrarländer sind die Hürden nach wie vor zu hoch

Die Fair-Food-Initiative sei kaum umsetzbar. Sie würde inter­nationale Abkommen verletzen, warnt der Bundesrat. Völkerrechtsexpertin Elisabeth Bürgi vom CDE widerspricht. "Mehr Fairness bei Lebensmittelimporten ist vertragskonform möglich."
Datum: 27.09.2017 | Quelle: Berner Zeitung