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Taking Complexity in Food Systems Seriously: An Interdisciplinary Analysis

This paper looks at four different conceptual frameworks that tend to be used by diverse stakeholders when analysing the problem of food security and suggesting solutions: agroecology, agricultural innovation systems, social-ecological systems and political ecology. In this paper the authors look at how each perspective or framework thinks about the food security problem, the theoretical positions underpinning each framework, its approach to improving the food security situation and ultimately its vision of what ‘good’ looks like.

It then comments on the strengths and weaknesses of each position as well as identifying important synergies and trade offs between them. 


Motivated by donor interest in innovative thinking on food security, we conducted an interdisciplinary, triangulation analysis of four divergent conceptual frameworks, each relevant to diagnosing food insecurity in developing countries. We found notable tensions as well as synergistic interactions between agroecology, agricultural innovation systems, social–ecological systems, and political ecology. Cross-framework interactions enhance our understanding of how sectoral and macro-economic development strategies impact on livelihoods, availability, and access. Re-invigorated, more profound dialog between divergent conceptual frameworks enables diagnosis of complex food insecurity problems, and context-specific interventions and innovations. Informed use of divergent approaches constitutes a new ambition for research and practice.


Foran, T., Butler, J. R. A., Williams, L. J., Wanjura, W. J., Hall, A., Carter, L., 2014, Taking Complexity in Food Systems Seriously: An Interdisciplinary Analysis, World Development, Vol 61

Read the full paper here.

Note that a similar approach can be found in two publications by FCRN’s Tara Garnett: see Three perspectives on sustainable food security and Food sustainability: problems, perspectives and solutions.

There is also some discussion of different perspectives on the food security issue in the FCRN-Oxford Martin report on sustainable intensification here.

You can also search the FCRN research library for more on food systems and food insecurity links.

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