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Overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  13 August 2018

Tom H. Oliver*
School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, UK
Emily Boyd
Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies, Sweden
Kelvin Balcombe
School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading, UK
Tim G. Benton
Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, UK
James M. Bullock
NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK
Deanna Donovan
Joint Nature Conservation Committee, Peterborough, UK
Giuseppe Feola
Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading, UK Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Matthew Heard
NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK
Georgina M. Mace
Centre for Biodiversity and Environment Research, University College London, UK
Simon R. Mortimer
School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading, UK
Richard J. Nunes
Henley Business School, University of Reading, UK
Richard F. Pywell
NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, UK
Dominik Zaum
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Reading, UK
Author for correspondence: T. H. Oliver, E-mail:

Non-technical summary

Our current global food system – from food production to consumption, including manufacture, packaging, transport, retail and associated businesses – is responsible for extensive negative social and environmental impacts which threaten the long-term well-being of society. This has led to increasing calls from science–policy organizations for major reform and transformation of the global food system. However, our knowledge regarding food system transformations is fragmented and this is hindering the development of co-ordinated solutions. Here, we collate recent research across several academic disciplines and sectors in order to better understand the mechanisms that ‘lock-in’ food systems in unsustainable states.

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Copyright © The Author(s) 2018

1. Navigating transformation, resilience and sustainability in the food system

In July 2017, the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development met to review progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and reaffirmed the pledge by the 193 UN member states to end hunger, achieve food security, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, among other aims of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). The participating member states emphasized that policy coherence and an enabling environment for sustainable development require engagement by all stakeholders including governments, public–private partnerships, the scientific community, the private sector, the donor community, non-governmental organizations, cooperatives, community groups, academic institutions and other relevant actors (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2017). Given such a multiplicity of stakeholders, and the fact that complex interdependencies create major trade-offs between sustainable development goals (Waage et al., Reference Waage, Yap, Bell, Levy, Mace, Pegram, Unterhalter, Dasandi, Hudson, Kock, Mayhew, Marx and Poole2015; European Environment Agency, 2016; IPES-Food, 2016; International Council for Science, 2017), a significant challenge is to prioritize suites of interventions that are most likely to be effective in transforming socio-ecological systems, such as the global food system, to better deliver the UN SDGs.

Our global food system – defined as the network of activities and processes from production to consumption, including manufacture, packaging, transport, retail and associated businesses (Fig. 1) – is thought to be responsible for approximately 60% of global terrestrial biodiversity loss, 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, 33% of degraded soils and the overexploitation of 20% of aquifers (UNEP, 2016). Much of this environmental degradation is driven by high-input industrial agriculture and livestock rearing, with global supply chains largely controlled by a small number of multinational agribusiness and food retail companies (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge Science and Technology for Development, 2009). This industrialization of the food system has resulted in substantially higher productivity, with global productivity tripling between 1961 and 2011, providing cheaper more abundant food for many people (FAO, 2017). However, this food system is also inefficient, with around one-third of food lost or wasted (FAO, 2017) and persistent inequality in food distribution – 815 million people are still undernourished globally, 155 million children are stunted, and other forms of malnutrition are rising (FAO et al., 2017). Additional social impacts include agrochemical exposure, local pollution from transport and processing, and increased zoonotic diseases and antibiotic resistance (Dangour et al., Reference Dangour, Mace and Shankar2017), as well as cultural erosion due to loss of traditional skills, knowledge, institutions and farming practices (IPES-Food, 2016).

Fig. 1. Key actors in the food system linked through flows of goods and information (arrows). The current food system configuration is driving chronic social and environmental impacts which threaten its long-term sustainability. The inset panel shows a ‘ball and cup’ diagram from ecosystem science, characterizing how transformation of a system (the ball) to a more desirable state is more likely when the full range of ‘lock-in’ mechanisms are tackled in a coordinated way (vertical arrow; see Fig. 2 for examples of mechanisms).

Therefore, the current configuration of the global food system is directly undermining the attainment of many of the UN SDGs. This has led to increasing calls for major reform and transformation of the global food system (European Environment Agency, 2017; International Council for Science, 2017; United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2017). Concurrently, however, other science–policy and business initiatives call for a more resilient food system (MacLennan, Reference MacLennan2014; Global Food Security Programme UK, 2015; Zeuli & Nijhuis, Reference Zeuli and Nijhuis2017). Resilience is defined as the resistance or rapid recovery of system inter-relationships and functions after perturbation, which can also potentially involve aspects of internal adaptation and transformation in order to maintain function (Holling, Reference Holling1973; Pimm, Reference Pimm1984; Carpenter et al., Reference Carpenter, Walker, Anderies and Abel2001; Walker et al., Reference Walker, Holling, Carpenter and Kinzig2004; Schipanski et al., Reference Schipanski, MacDonald, Rosenzweig, Chappell, Bennett, Kerr, Blesh, Crews, Drinkwater, Lundgren and Schnarr2016). However, resilient functioning for particular actors within the food system could promote the overall status quo and maintain the aforementioned negative aspects of the food system. How can these two apparently opposing perspectives of broad-scale system transformation and resilience be reconciled?

Many different disciplines investigate concepts of resilience, for example, engineering, geography, computer science, mathematics, psychology and ecology, and it has been a useful ‘bridging concept’ (Brand & Jax, Reference Brand and Jax2007), although it is used nearly exclusively in a normative sense focussing on the beneficial aspects of maintaining function or structure in the face of shocks. However, many aspects of socio-ecological systems show resilience of outcomes which are undesirable for society as a whole (e.g. chronic poverty, invasive species, diseases, terrorist networks and greenhouse gas emissions from industry) (Unruh, Reference Unruh2000).

When talking about resilience, there is a need to be explicit regarding resilience ‘of what?’, ‘to what?’ and ‘for whom?’ (Carpenter et al., Reference Carpenter, Walker, Anderies and Abel2001; Cutter, Reference Cutter2016), and, importantly, ‘over what timeframe?’ (Oliver, Reference Oliver2016). For example, global food retailers may seek resilient supply chains to maintain uninterrupted delivery of food products for their consumers in the face of extreme weather perturbations. To increase their economic resilience, one tactic is to secure production across multiple territories to defray risks; this has led to large-scale land acquisitions in developing countries which threaten the food security of local communities (European Environment Agency, 2015). Thus, targeting resilience in a narrow sectoral manner creates trade-offs with the resilience of positive outcomes for other actors in the system, or for society as a whole, including future generations.

In this article, we advocate a more holistic and long-term approach focussing on the resilience of a broad range of positive outcomes for the whole of society, that is, capturing the aim to promote the resilient delivery of multiple UN SDGs. The focus on a longer time frame (i.e. 2030 and beyond) is crucial, because whilst over the short term food security may be successfully achieved through redistribution of food using the same intensive production methods, over longer time scales food security will be threatened by these approaches. Under intensive food production, the loss and degradation of top soil, declines in pollinators and natural pest enemies, the development of pesticide and herbicide resistance, and the pollution of water and soil in the face of a changing climate all undermine the ability to sustain sufficient food production (Bullock et al., Reference Bullock, Dhanjal-Adams, Milne, Oliver, Todman, Whitmore and Pywell2017; FAO, 2017).

2. Unlocking undesirable resilience to achieve food system transformation

There have been optimistic approaches to achieving transformations in social–technical systems in sectors such as energy and transport (European Environment Agency, 2016). Under what is called the ‘multi-level’ perspective, social–technical systems are characterized as being structured and stabilized by factors such as knowledge, investments, policies, institutions, skills and cultural values (European Environment Agency, 2016; Geels, Reference Geels2011). To disrupt this prevailing ‘regime’, new ideas, technologies, business models or cultural norms have to emerge, and positive ones (such as renewable energy technologies) may need protecting from immediate pressure from the regime (European Environment Agency, 2017). Certain authors even suggest actively searching for ‘cracks’ in the prevailing regime to sow disruption (Fourcade, Reference Fourcade2012). Such approaches, which focus primarily on developing alternative approaches could remain largely theoretical unless we can tackle the strong feedback mechanisms that maintain a given system in its current undesirable state. For example, the rapid development of the global South and large-scale land acquisition by private interests may further drive the current industrial food model to even greater dominance (IPES-Food, 2016). Unless we can overcome such undesirable resilience, the food system may remain locked into its current state, slowly eroding its own sustainability until a perturbation or series of related perturbations cause sudden non-linear systemic collapses (Homer-Dixon et al., Reference Homer-Dixon, Walker, Biggs, Crepin, Folke, Lambin, Peterson, Rockström, Scheffer, Steffen and Troell2015; Global Food Security Programme UK, 2017).

In the absence of genuinely disruptive innovations that may endogenously transform a system, we need to take a strategic transdisciplinary approach to unlock undesirable resilience. First, we need to envision an alternative trajectory for the system that secures multiple long-term benefits for society (IIASA, 2017), understanding how this influences incumbent power relationships on the one hand, and social goods on the other (in short, in a transformed system, who wins, who loses and over what time scales?). We use the UN SDGs to identify a set of long-term outcomes to which the food system needs to be re-aligned. Second, an interdisciplinary lens is needed to identify the various mechanisms that underpin undesirable resilience and prevent food system transformation. Finally, higher-level emergent system properties should be considered that help or hinder transformations. A broad set of disciplines can provide insights from the analytical sciences, such as complexity and ecosystem science, to the social sciences (analysis of power relationships, governance, institutions, economics, equity and gender) and the humanities (e.g. history of food systems).

Although research into system transformations is a rapidly expanding field, knowledge is still fragmented across disciplines (Feola, Reference Feola2015). Much primary research on the mechanisms inhibiting system transformation, for example, are often discipline specific, with their own terminology (e.g. ‘institutional inertia’ (Rosenschöld et al., Reference Rosenschöld, Rozema and Frye-Levine2014), ‘wicked resilience’ (Glaser et al., Reference Glaser, Plass-Johnson, Ferse, Neil, Satari, Teichberg and Reuter2018), ‘unhelpful resilience’ (Standish et al., Reference Standish, Hobbs, Mayfield, Bestelmeyer, Suding, Battaglia, Eviner, Hawkes, Temperton, Cramer, Harris, Funk and Thomas2014), ‘path dependency’ (Barnes et al., Reference Barnes, Gartland and Stack2004), ‘lock-in’ (Barnes et al., Reference Barnes, Gartland and Stack2004), ‘traps’ (Haider et al., Reference Haider, Boonstra, Peterson and Schlüter2018)). Previous syntheses of the specific mechanisms that maintain what we term ‘undesirable resilience’ in food systems have identified only a handful of mechanisms and have tended to exclude lessons from the environmental sciences (Robertson & Swinton, Reference Robertson and Swinton2005; Scheffer & Westley, Reference Scheffer and Westley2007; European Environment Agency, 2016; IPES-Food, 2016; Kuokkanen et al., Reference Kuokkanen, Mikkilä, Kuisma, Kahiluoto and Linnanen2017). Such fragmentation is hindering the development of co-ordinated solutions. The development of less siloed approaches, agreed to be essential for successful system transformations, requires better integration of understanding across academic disciplines (European Environment Agency, 2016; IPES-Food, 2016; International Council for Science, 2017). For example, we need to understand when, how and why biophysical mechanisms limit socio-ecological transformation and whether tackling these is a prerequisite for the development of effective social, political and economic interventions. A case in point is the extensive global land area degraded by soil erosion and desertification, such as the Loess Plateau in China, which requires extensive ecosystem restoration to facilitate sustainable food production and associated social benefits (Zhao et al., Reference Zhao, Mu, Wen, Wang and Gao2013).

3. An interdisciplinary lens on food system ‘lock-in’ mechanisms

Below, we define an extensive list of mechanisms, including biophysical constraints, coupled with sociocultural, economic/regulatory and knowledge constraints, that underpin undesirable resilience in the global food system (Fig. 2 and sub-sections below; where ‘#’ in parentheses refer to numbered mechanisms in the figure). These mechanisms were identified through an interdisciplinary workshop followed up with an exploration of relevant literature around the potential mechanisms identified. Many of these mechanisms are more likely to become apparent only once other constraining mechanisms are removed, yet over time they may become increasingly costly, or even impossible, to reverse. Although our list is not exhaustive, we propose that this interdisciplinary synthesis, which brings together ecological, cultural, social and economic factors, is a significant starting point. Most food systems transformation research frames this issue primarily as separate production, social or economic problems (Robertson & Swinton, Reference Robertson and Swinton2005). Linked to these mechanisms we also provide a non-exhaustive list of possible solutions (Fig. 3), which need to be implemented contemporaneously across all the hierarchical scales in the food system – from individual to business to governance. This appreciation of cross-scale interactions for food system transformation leads to a more holistic approach akin to the ‘panarchy’ concept in socio-ecological studies (Allen et al., Reference Allen, Angeler, Garmestani, Gunderson and Holling2014); yet, by focussing first on particular solutions identified using a reductionist approach, it is arguably more pragmatic and potentially easier to operationalize.

Fig. 2. Some of the mechanisms locking the food system into its current undesirable state. At the bottom are different actor types to which the different mechanisms mostly pertain (from the three levels in Fig. 1; colour shading indicates tally count of mechanisms, which are coded by numbers). See headed sections below for mechanism descriptions.

Fig. 3. Potential solutions implemented across hierarchical levels of the food system. The list is not exhaustive and multiple solutions must be implemented across all hierarchical levels in order to overcome the undesirable resilience of the current food system. Colour coding links to the type of mechanism in Fig. 2, that is, knowledge-based, economic/regulatory, sociocultural and biophysical constraints.

3.1. Knowledge constraints

For some food system actors there may be limited understanding of the wider scale, longer term negative environmental impacts of current approaches (e.g. the impacts of food waste and dietary choices) and therefore no incentive to adopt alternatives [#1] (Ingram, Reference Ingram2008). There may be some appreciation of the unsustainability of current approaches, but uncertainty and lack of consensus prevail regarding the costs and benefits of adopting alternative approaches (due to lack of reliable information and forecasting tools, or plurality of values, among other factors) [#2] (Vermeulen et al., Reference Vermeulen, Campbell and Ingram2012). Another constraint is that certain actors (e.g. farmers or retailers) might want to adopt a new strategy that enhances food system sustainability, but they lack access to the necessary knowledge or skills [#3]. For example, many farmers have lost the traditional knowledge needed to farm more sustainably, or lack information on how to innovate or adapt current best practice to changing environmental conditions (Altieri et al., Reference Altieri, Nicholls, Henao and Lana2015). Thus, there is a clear role for policy to stimulate innovations and opportunities in practice across the food system and to support more effective and targeted knowledge exchange and training in alternative approaches. Moreover, recent research shows how homogeneous representations of women farmers and the technical focus of policy interventions pose risks to further marginalize knowledge of the most vulnerable and exacerbate existing inequalities within agriculture under climate change (Friedman et al., Reference Friedman, Hirons and Boyd2018).

3.2. Economic/regulatory constraints

Being a first mover (e.g. a retailer deciding to stock only sustainably produced food) can have higher direct costs and carry greater risks [#4]. Incentive structures and regulatory frameworks need reform because the rational economic choice for actors is often to maintain unsustainable practices [#5] (Civil Society Statement on the Reform of European Agricultural Policies, 2017). Also, powerful vested interests who benefit financially from the current situation may hinder system reform (IPES-Food, 2016). Improved inter-governmental alignment on food system policy is urgently needed because macroeconomic decisions can shape and constrain sustainable approaches. International price competition has prompted national governments to encourage large-scale specialization in food production to reap the benefits of comparative advantage (MacDonald et al., Reference MacDonald, Brauman, Sun, Carlson, Cassidy, Gerber and West2015; European Environment Agency, 2016). Governments have been reticent to regulate for internalization of environmental costs into prices to avoid unpopular price rises and a reduction in competitiveness [#6]. Reform of financial incentives (direct subsidies, tariffs or quotas) is also needed because these often promote food production at the expense of the environment and sustainability to gain competitiveness [#7]. Other economic obstacles to food system transitions include limited support of new practices [#8], lack of innovative insurance products (e.g. to buffer the uncertain yields of farming [#9]), and the ‘sunk’ capital cost that actors such as farmers, manufacturers and retailers have invested in conventional approaches [#10] (IPES-Food, 2016). Financial and regulatory reform is needed to stimulate necessary risk taking to overcome these constraints and support innovation. Finally, review of land tenure and governance structures may be needed, given that unclear or reduced continuity of land ownership and increasing contract/tenant farming creates greater incentives for farmers to ignore sustainability [#11] (Gebremedhin & Swinton, Reference Gebremedhin and Swinton2003).

3.3. Sociocultural constraints

In the face of economic costs or risks to first movers, policy innovations may be needed to ensure that a critical mass of actors adopt an alternative approach in tandem; for example, through incentivizing collective responses [#4] (Feola & Binder, Reference Feola and Binder2010). A related issue at an individual level is the potential loss of social networks providing both personal and financial support that are at risk from a shift to alternative approaches [#12] (Amel et al., Reference Amel, Manning, Scott and Koger2017). Policy focussed on influencing consumer demand is also critical. Many consumers now expect a wide variety of cheap food to be constantly available, leading food retailers to source products accordingly, with less regard for environmental impacts [#13]. The limited demand for, and supply of, sustainably sourced food may stem from knowledge deficits. However, in some cases consumers, producers and retailers may recognize, yet disregard, environmental impacts on the basis that they themselves do not bear the direct costs. In this case, collective identity, which would incline individuals to favour choices that provide benefit to wider society, including future generations, is negligible, precluding shifts towards sustainability [#14] (Zylstra et al., Reference Zylstra, Knight, Esler and Le Grange2014; Amel et al., Reference Amel, Manning, Scott and Koger2017). In other cases, people may indeed care deeply about wider societal inequality but suffer cognitive bias causing them to accept the current status quo (cf. ‘systems justification’ (Jost et al., Reference Jost, Banaji and Nosek2004)) [#15]. Alternatively, consumers assume that government oversight ensures food system sustainability, whilst governments assume that consumers act rationally on the basis of their value sets and adequate information, so that market choices should deliver the best for society [#16]. Reframing the social contract between governments and citizens is needed to prevent this simultaneous abdication of responsibility. Finally, many actors throughout the food system believe that society will be able to innovate its way out of future environmental problems through technological ‘fixes’ to compensate for compromised regulating services (e.g. geoengineering solutions to climate change, new genetically engineered crop strains and robotic pollinators) [#17] (Corner et al., Reference Corner, Parkhill, Pidgeon and Vaughan2013). Support for technological innovation is essential, but this does not obviate the need for policy to stimulate action to mitigate future environmental damage (European Environment Agency, 2015).

3.4. Biophysical constraints

Certain ecological factors are likely to be obstacles to alleviating food system lock-ins. Water availability may increasingly be a constraint in areas that have come to depend upon irrigation; reversion to rain-fed agriculture might compromise yield levels, predictability or quality, especially under climate change [#18] (Elliott et al., Reference Elliott, Deryng, Müller, Frieler, Konzmann, Gerten, Glotter, Flörke, Wada, Best, Eisner, Fekete, Folberth, Foster, Gosling, Haddeland, Khabarov, Ludwig, Masaki, Olin, Rosenzweig, Ruane, Satoh, Schmid, Stacke, Tang and Wisser2014). In such cases, facilitation of innovative water management – for example, multiscale governance through public–private partnerships – may become necessary (Chaffin et al., Reference Chaffin, Garmestani, Gosnell and Craig2016). Reliance on few crop and livestock varieties demanding high chemical, water and nutritional inputs, and the loss of genetic diversity in other varieties, may become a limiting factor in shifting to less intensive farming practices [#19]. Years of intensive farming can often lead to soil degradation (e.g. compaction; erosion; depletion of nutrients, organic matter and key functional biodiversity), so that relinquishing techniques relying heavily on chemical inputs is difficult [#20] (Feola & Binder, Reference Feola and Binder2010). Extensive loss of natural areas in farmed landscapes may mean that, among other species, key pollinator species and natural enemies of agricultural pests are lost, and hence that low-pesticide farming is no longer viable (Hammond Wagner et al., Reference Hammond Wagner, Cox and Bazo Robles2016). Therefore, fast-tracking implementation of targets, such as those of the Convention for Biological Diversity on habitat restoration, may be necessary to enable the viability of less intensive food system approaches [#21]. Improved international collaboration on invasive alien pests and diseases, exacerbated by globalized trade and climate change (Chapman et al., Reference Chapman, Purse, Roy and Bullock2017), may also be needed to ensure that natural biological control can be effective in preventing yield losses.

4. Consideration of whole-system dynamics

After identifying a more desirable state for the global food system that balances multiple UN SDGs and subsequently ascertaining the mechanisms that constrain such a transformation (Fig. 2), it is important to consider the emergent dynamics of the system. More holistic, analytical approaches to investigating lock-ins in socio-economic systems are developing (Lade et al., Reference Lade, Haider, Engström and Schlüter2017; Ngonghala et al., Reference Ngonghala, De Leo, Pascual, Keenan, Dobson and Bonds2017), even though the field is still in its infancy. However, there is a long history of research into the opposite phenomenon of positive narratives of resilience, generally defined as the ability of a system to resist or recover from perturbations and maintain function (Holling, Reference Holling1973; Pimm, Reference Pimm1984; Oliver et al., Reference Oliver, Heard, Isaac, Roy, Procter, Eigenbrod, Freckleton, Hector, Orme, Petchey, Proença, Raffaelli, Suttle, Mace, Martín-López, Woodcock and Bullock2015), from which lessons can be learned. Below, we draw out lessons relevant to understanding undesirable resilience in the global food system.

4.1. Exploiting windows of opportunity for food system transformation

Substantial research, in particular with regards to shifts in ecosystems between semi-stable states has documented how system transformations are most likely to occur during periods when external perturbations are substantial (Folke et al., Reference Folke, Carpenter, Walker, Scheffer, Elmqvist, Gunderson and Holling2004). Reported shifts in ecosystems are usually considered as being from a desirable to a less desirable state (e.g. with lower provision of ecosystem services), but ecosystems can equally be locked-in to less undesirable states (Standish et al., Reference Standish, Hobbs, Mayfield, Bestelmeyer, Suding, Battaglia, Eviner, Hawkes, Temperton, Cramer, Harris, Funk and Thomas2014). Transient periods of unusual environmental conditions can be quantified to predict when a shift to a new ecosystem state is likely to occur (Balke et al., Reference Balke, Herman and Bouma2014). Much effort has been spent ascertaining whether there might be ‘early warning’ indicators of impending ecosystem shifts (Scheffer et al., Reference Scheffer, Bascompte, Brock, Brovkin, Carpenter, Dakos, Held, van Nes, Rietkerk and Sugihara2009; Dai et al., Reference Dai, Vorselen, Korolev and Gore2012; Global Food Security Programme UK, 2017), although with limited success in some real-world systems (Biggs et al., Reference Biggs, Carpenter and Brock2009; Dakos et al., Reference Dakos, Carpenter, van Nes and Scheffer2015). For socio-ecological systems, and food systems in particular, we might question whether there are similar transient ‘windows of opportunity’ to reconfigure systems to more desirable, sustainable states. Recognizing these conditions a priori may be challenging, but doing so would provide a stimulus to galvanize coordinated efforts to act on some of the mechanisms described in Fig. 2 to facilitate successful system transformation. Windows of opportunity may arise at different hierarchical levels in food systems: individual citizens, business or governments (Fig. 1). For example, for the European food system, opportunities for system change may be opening at the level of individual citizens, where there is growing demand for food system reform – as called for by over 150 European organizations in a Civil Society Statement on the Reform of the European Agricultural Policies (Civil Society Statement on the Reform of European Agricultural Policies, 2017). At the level of businesses, there is increasing potential for working in partnership with government and civil society to shape the food environment and consumer preferences, especially around promoting healthy diets, for example, through ‘choice editing’ by retailers (European Environment Agency, 2017). At the level of governance, a window is arising through simultaneous major policy renewals (e.g. in 2020 renewal of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy and Cohesion Policy). For the UK, exit from the EU, including the proposed major new changes to trade agreements, offers an opportunity to redesign food and environmental regulation in order to improve long-term sustainability. However, it of course also harbours substantial risks for food system transformations that could actually have worse net long-term outcomes for society (Schipanski et al., Reference Schipanski, MacDonald, Rosenzweig, Chappell, Bennett, Kerr, Blesh, Crews, Drinkwater, Lundgren and Schnarr2016).

4.2. The importance of co-ordinated action on multiple leverage points

There are multiple mechanisms maintaining lock-ins to undesirable outcomes in the food system (Fig. 2), and thus multiple entry points for levers to unlock such undesirable resilience (e.g. instigating behavioural change amongst shareholders, consumers and producers; facilitation of business innovation; government regulation or incentive schemes; Fig. 3) (Ölander & Thøgersen, Reference Ölander and Thøgersen2014; Everard et al., Reference Everard, Reed and Kenter2016). The lack of a genuinely interdisciplinary approach to appraising lock-in mechanisms to date has led to siloed approaches to solutions for food systems transformation. An additional problem this fragmented approach engenders – as well as completely neglecting certain important mechanisms – is that interventions aiming to transform the system tend to be poorly coordinated and unlikely to be effective. It is rarely acknowledged that ineffective solutions may actually enhance undesirable resilience. Using an ecosystems example, attempts to control certain toxic pasture weeds (e.g. globally invasive ragwort species) through conventional management practices can actually increase weed spread (Leiss, Reference Leiss2011). Similar properties may occur in socio-ecological systems, such as the global food system. For example, persistent communication regarding negative environmental and social impacts may cause actors who have vested interests in the current food system configuration to develop strategies to resist or influence change for their own interests (e.g. denigration of ‘expert knowledge’ and propagation of ‘alternative facts’) (Lang & Heasman, Reference Lang and Heasman2015). Another example is where resource efficiency gains in food production lead to cheaper product prices, which stimulate increased consumption or increased waste (the Jevons paradox or ‘rebound effect’), thus subverting any environmental gains (European Environment Agency, 2015). In light of these unexpected consequences, careful planning of co-ordinated cross-sectoral interventions is likely to be necessary to achieve food system transformation.

5. ‘Locking-in’ positive system states to achieve resilience of beneficial outcomes

Following transformation of a system, or subsets of that system, to deliver beneficial outcomes for society, we may want to ‘lock-in’ these benefits so that they are resilient over the longer term (i.e. in systems science language, creating ‘virtuous circles’ rather than ‘vicious cycles’) (Nyborg et al., Reference Nyborg, Anderies, Dannenberg, Lindahl, Schill, Schlüter, Adger, Arrow, Barrett, Carpenter, Chapin, Crépin, Daily, Ehrlich, Folke, Jager, Kautsky, Levin, Madsen, Polasky, Scheffer, Walker, Weber, Wilen, Xepapadeas and de Zeeuw2016). A reformed food system delivering across multiple UN SDG outcomes needs to be resilient to the forces that might undermine this new system configuration. High levels of inter-connectivity in food systems can create a systemic risk to a reformed system by undermining sustainability efforts through price undercutting (Benton, Reference Benton and Vasbinderin press), whereby cheaper but less sustainable products (due to externalization of health and environmental costs) outcompete sustainably produced products and spread through the food system. This is analogous to highly-competitive invasive species spreading rapidly through globalized trade routes (Chapman et al., Reference Chapman, Purse, Roy and Bullock2017). To reduce this risk of the system reverting to an undesirable state, promoting modularity in the food system (i.e. relatively isolated sub-systems with differentiated approaches to sustainability) may be helpful (Gilarranz et al., Reference Gilarranz, Rayfield, Liñán-Cembrano, Bascompte and Gonzalez2017). In ecological systems, diversity enhances the stability of beneficial ecosystem functions through increased likelihood of at least one strategy (e.g. genotype or species) performing well in a given set of circumstances (Oliver et al., Reference Oliver, Heard, Isaac, Roy, Procter, Eigenbrod, Freckleton, Hector, Orme, Petchey, Proença, Raffaelli, Suttle, Mace, Martín-López, Woodcock and Bullock2015). Similar ‘portfolio effects’ operate in financial investment systems (Abson et al., Reference Abson, Fraser and Benton2013). In food systems, local networks could achieve systemic diversity through the adoption of different governance mechanisms, institutional organization or food production methods (Hodbod et al., Reference Hodbod, Barreteau, Allen and Magda2016; Bullock et al., Reference Bullock, Dhanjal-Adams, Milne, Oliver, Todman, Whitmore and Pywell2017).

With regards to the scale (regional, national, sub-national) at which such modules could most effectively operate, the ‘city-region’ scale has been suggested as promising with regards to the potential for shorter supply chains with lower environmental impacts (FAO, 2016; IPES-Food, 2016; International Food Policy Research Institute, 2017), and a number of policy initiatives are developing focussed at this scale (e.g. the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact signed by cities globally, and the New Urban Agenda adopted by the UN (United Nations, 2016)). However, consideration is needed on how to share good practice across these initiatives without reducing their diversity, and also on how to ensure that local networks are not undercut by cheaper, less sustainable products from the global market. This may become a particular problem as chronic environmental and social issues escalate (with impacts particularly concentrated in cities) (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2017) in combination with rapid urbanization, making sustainably produced food an unaffordable luxury.

6. Conclusion

Although there seem to be contradictions amongst concurrent calls for greater resilience in the food system versus wholesale system transformation, these may be resolved by taking a more comprehensive, longer term approach to beneficial outcomes – that is, ensuring maintenance of multiple UN SDGs for the benefits of wider society now and in future generations. Resilience in UN SDG delivery up to 2030 and beyond requires transformation of our global food system (European Environment Agency, 2017; International Council for Science, 2017; United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2017). We have highlighted new insights using a transdisciplinary lens, where one can begin to identify lock-in mechanisms that span four key areas: knowledge-based, economic/regulatory, sociocultural and biophysical constraints, to avoid ineffective, siloed solutions to food system reform. Furthermore, in our work we show emergent system dynamics also need to be considered using a more holistic approach; for example, helping us to recognize the importance of well-coordinated action on multiple leverage points during windows of opportunity for food system transformation. The crucial need to foster a much broader interdisciplinary dialogue is equally applicable to undesirable resilience in many socio-ecological systems; for example, greenhouse gas emissions, poverty traps, invasive species, diseases and terrorist networks. Building on the bridging concept of resilience, but with a new focus on overcoming resilience of undesirable outcomes, will allow more rapid progress in transforming systems to states that deliver multiple long-term beneficial outcomes to society. For the global food system, this involves designing system transformation to overcome short-term gains and vested interests in order to deliver multiple UN SDGs for current and future generations.


This work was supported by a workshop funded by the University of Reading. The authors thank Mike Asquith, Andre Dornelles, Cathy Maguire and Ralf Seppelt and two anonymous reviewers for comments on the manuscript.

Author contributions

T.O. and E.B. co-led the workshop leading to this article. All co-authors participated in the workshop and subsequently contributed to the article planning and writing.

Financial support

This research received no specific grant from any funding agency, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

Conflict of interest



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Figure 0

Fig. 1. Key actors in the food system linked through flows of goods and information (arrows). The current food system configuration is driving chronic social and environmental impacts which threaten its long-term sustainability. The inset panel shows a ‘ball and cup’ diagram from ecosystem science, characterizing how transformation of a system (the ball) to a more desirable state is more likely when the full range of ‘lock-in’ mechanisms are tackled in a coordinated way (vertical arrow; see Fig. 2 for examples of mechanisms).

Figure 1

Fig. 2. Some of the mechanisms locking the food system into its current undesirable state. At the bottom are different actor types to which the different mechanisms mostly pertain (from the three levels in Fig. 1; colour shading indicates tally count of mechanisms, which are coded by numbers). See headed sections below for mechanism descriptions.

Figure 2

Fig. 3. Potential solutions implemented across hierarchical levels of the food system. The list is not exhaustive and multiple solutions must be implemented across all hierarchical levels in order to overcome the undesirable resilience of the current food system. Colour coding links to the type of mechanism in Fig. 2, that is, knowledge-based, economic/regulatory, sociocultural and biophysical constraints.