By JULIA DAY, STEPS Centre member

Polly Ericksen of Global Environmental Change and Food Systems (GECAFS)
at the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University is here at IDS today to give a STEPS Centre seminar asking: Will managing food systems for resilience maker us more food secure? Photo: Polly Ericksen at the STEPS Centre seminar

Ericksen begins by looking at the components of food security – utilisation, access and availability. Food insecurity arises from overlapping and interacting stressors, she says, and in the last 50 years there has been a shift from traditional to modern food systems in areas such as the supply chain and type of food consumed.
When talking about the resilience of food systems, social and environmental factors are key influencers and affect the vulnerability of food systems and their adaptive capacity. As such are built in to the food security framework developed by GECAFS.

Ericksen talks about the contested definition of resilience and says she likes Carl Folke’s 2006 definition – resilience is the ability to persist through continuous development in the face of change, and innovate and transform in to more desirable configurations.

So what is appealing about a resilience approach to food systems, Ericksen asks? Does wealthy food come at the cost of the poor? And what about the arguments about food miles. What about fair miles? She cites the Soil Association’s imminent announcement that it will remove the term organic from any food that has been flown in to the UK. How will that decision affect farmers in producing countries?

Moving to the example of pastoralist food insecurity in northern Kenya Ericksen says droughts increasingly trigger food insecurity, but the adaptive capacity of local pastoralists has slowly been eroded and early warning systems are hampered by a lack of information. And in Europe, the bans on animal movements because of foot and mouth disease outbreaks this year has adversely affected farmers, while at the same time there were dairy and wheat price shocks, both globally and locally, as well as unsustainable consumption levels.

So, how to create a resilient state? Ericksen points out that you can have a resilient state, but it may not be desirable. You have to take in to account that you may have to both build and erode resilience, depending on the desirability of the state, she says. And you also have to ask for whom is resilience? Asking that question means engaging with politics and power. This is a key theme running through the STEPS Centre’s work.

Back to the Kenyan example, and what challenges exist. Governance is at national level and international donors are important actors in the decision-making process, says Ericksen. Accountability is difficult, participation is top-down and the idea persists that outside subsidies are necessary. So transforming the system could mean changing livelihoods and identities. In the European case, the heavy influence of business as well as government, means that building a polycentric structure involves multiple actors and. participation in transformation ideas is not uniform, it is skewed towards the wealthy.

So, tradeoffs are inevitable whether or not there is involvement on a local level. The challenges to resilience in food systems include globalisation – is it a help or a threat to adaptive capacity? And another major challenge comes from the fact that social dynamics are replacing biophysical dynamics in globalised social-ecological systems. So for instance, connectedness is increased, but it is random.

Unfortunately our session with Ericksen comes to a close before we are able to explore many of her fascinating ideas and insights about food security and resilience. But you can read Ericksen’s full presentation on the STEPS website

And GECAFS is organising a conference on Food Security and Environmental Change at Oxford University next year, 2nd-4th April 2008, so log on to the event’s website to find out more.