Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)


Project activities

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). If done in a non-discriminatory and context adapted way, the fair food concept bears potential to advance the SDG Agenda by enabling sustainable food systems to gain momentum all over the world.

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.

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)

Sustainable agricultural imports? WTO conformity

On 26 March 2018, Elisabeth Bürgi Bonanomi, Senior Research Scientist at CDE, gave a presentation about “Sustainable agricultural imports” at the Swiss Farmers’ Union conference on international issues.

Link to presentation (in German) (PDF, 427KB)

Local views on "good food" in the Mt Kenya region

The Master's thesis by Marie-Luise Hertkorn from ETH Zurich, elaborated in cooperation with CETRAD, analyzes local views in the NW-Mt Kenya region on what "good food" is. She finds that people distinguish between "food that fills you" -like rice- and "food that makes you strong" - for example the traditional Mokimoo and Githeri of the Kikuyu people. Interviewees said that in the dry season they cannot afford to buy sufficient fruits and vegetables for a healthy diet. Those who work on their farms in turn, always have fruits and vegetables. Young people still know how to prepare traditional and healthy food, but health experts confirmed a strong orientation of diets towards french fries and saucages, associated with a range of health problems that are strongly on the rise. In almost all interviews, people expressed worries about adverse health impacts of pesticide use, and that artifically fertilized plants made people grow fat and not tall."

Link to PDF (in German) (PDF, 1.5 MB)

A food system analysis in two communities in the soy production area of Bolivia

The Master's thesis with the title 'We have the land, but not the food': A food system analysis in two communities in the soy area of Bolivia" by Sarah Märki and Sophie Hirsig (Institute of Geography, University of Bern) analyses local families' livelihood strategies and food security in the soy bean production area of the Santa Cruz Department in Bolivia. The analysis shows how local families, especially small-scale landholders, are subject to a phenomenon that has been called "productive exclusion" which means that they have not many options but to rent out their land to largescale soy bean producers. This "exclusion" also applies to agrobiodiversity, as food production is almost entirely given up to produce soy beans and other feed-, agrofuel or flex crops.

Link to PDF (in English) (PDF, 5.6 MB)

Progress workshop 13–16 June 2016 in Sagana, Kenya

Most recently, in a progress workshop in Kenya with six doctoral candidates (three from Kenya, three from Switzerland), their supervisors, four postdoctoral researchers (two from Kenya, two from Switzerland), and six master’s candidates (five from Kenya, one from Switzerland), we reviewed and revised each research study and its specific contribution to the overall project. The master’s thesis of Jackline Wakuyu from the Geographical Institute of the University of Nairobi, for example, assesses agrobiodiversity in the three different food systems and generates information on the indicators of crop diversity, breeds diversity, and seed handling. In addition to revising everyone’s contribution to the overall assessment of food system sustainability, the workshop sought to bring together the “loose ends” and to sharpen our common understanding of the project. Further, space was provided for revising the indicators and assessments according to what we have learned in fieldwork to date. In the process, we derived three working hypotheses from our ongoing research activities: 1) The rapid expansion of agro-industrial food value chains strongly impacts socio-economic and environmental livelihood assets; access to land and natural resources; formal and customary law; as well as human, labour, and other rights. This makes other food systems more dependent on possible positive social-ecological benefits as well as more vulnerable to risks, shocks, and other socio-economic externalities. 2) Local to global actors are recognizing the threats of expanding agro-industrial value chains. As a result, a fast-growing number of initiatives and policies are emerging aiming at the mitigation of negative effects of single (or interacting) food systems, or seeking to make them more sustainable through sustainability innovations. 3) These initiatives and policies point in the right direction, but they often clash and must compete with other existing policies that provide strong incentives for agro-industrial production and leave little room for other food systems to remain or evolve. For the moment, we consider these hypotheses solely applicable to our research areas and not generalizable to entire countries. Based on two general impact hypotheses, we developed co-hypotheses that are addressed by each work package. These were validated in our workshop in Kenya and will be discussed in the next progress workshop in Bolivia (21–22 July 2016). The hypotheses are being continuously adapted based on further empirical insights emerging from the work packages, in an effort to ensure that we capture the relevant trade-offs and factors influencing food sustainability.

The actor-interest matrix

Actor-interest matrix of the differentiated quality food system “Plataforma Agroecológica” in Bolivia

Application of an actor-interest matrix has enabled us to identify who the most important actors are, and which stakeholders have more or less interest and bargaining power to change the respective food system. In the example of a “differentiated quality food system” we study according to the definition of Colonna et al. (2013), the “Agroecological Platform” (Figure 3), for instance, we see that actors within the Agroecological Platform (in light green) – such as the educational centre Colonia Piraí or the agroecological input provider Probiotec – have a high interest in sustainability changes, but low to medium decision-making power. By contrast, powerful political actors (in blue) who take decisions at the local to the national level – such as municipal governments and the agricultural innovation centre INIAF – have shown little interest in sustainability changes and the Agroecological Platform so far.

Food value chains taken as a basis

Food system map of the food system of the Guaraní people in the Cabezas municipality, Santa Cruz Department, Bolivia (April 2016)

To establish a common starting point, researchers focussed on food value chains as the backbone of the operational subsystem. They started with a joint food system mapping procedure, identifying the most important value chains and actors by asking different stakeholders where they buy food, where they sell it, and what their main challenges are. Based on stakeholders’ responses and other factors, researchers elaborated food system maps and actor-interest maps. In the course of food system mapping, researchers identified many linkages between different food systems. In Bolivia, for example, Guaraní people in certain villages rent their community land to agro-industrial soybean producers. In an assembly of village authorities, one women stated, “We don’t produce for ourselves anymore, everything is just for sale now. We even buy the maize”. Maize is the most important food in the Guaraní culture, and we learned that not long ago every family cultivated different maize varieties for different uses – as many as 15 varieties were normal, but have largely disappeared.