Assessment of food and agricultural assessments

world map made out of food

This is one of a series of case studies showing how STEPS Centre projects have used methods and methodologies in particular settings.


After a long period, from the late 1960s until around 2008, when prices of internationally traded food products suddenly started to rise and oscillate, with levels of volatility far higher than had been expected, or that were deemed acceptable, the affordability of food and the sustainability of systems of production and consumption came to be seen as increasingly problematic by a widening but so far incomplete set of stakeholders.

Among those who recognised problems, diagnoses and prescriptions vary.  One consequence of the way in which ‘food security’ rose up the agenda was the emergence of not just analyses and policy documents, but attempts as global consensual study in the form of the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). It raised the bar by broadening out the agenda and opening up opportunities for participation.  While it articulated and well-informed set of analyses and conclusions, it failed to achieve a consensus.

Subsequently, other counterparts were published, but all methodologically less demanding that IAASTD.  No two of them have reached the same conclusions.  This project aspired to explaining the diversity, and explore the extent to which diverse and contrary framing assumptions help explain the diversity.  Moreover, it asked how far the diverse approaches have engaged appropriately with the 3Ds (Direction, Distribution and Diversity) and benchmarked them against the STEPS normative criteria.

What’s involved?

This is a desk-based study that has comparatively analysed, a set of assessments and policy analyses of problems facing the global food system, which are seen as threatening food security.  Given resources constraints, the scope of the study was confined to three assessments of the current state of the global food system, along with their distinctive recommendations for changes that could enhance food security and three policy documents that recommend changes, but which do not provide a detailed assessment of the changing dynamics of global food systems.

The project aims to answers two main questions:

1)      Why have the reviews and policy initiatives come to different conclusions?

Answering that question requires firstly answering two sub-questions:

  • Can different framings of the problems be identified in different processes?
  • How have different framings informed the issues selected for attention, competing policy proposals and recommended practices?

2)      How do the assumptions, diagnoses and prescriptions perform when benchmarked against the criteria of: acknowledging and addressing directionality, diversity and distributional considerations?

The criteria by which the assessments were chosen were:

  1. that they provide diagnoses of the problems facing the global food system, and
  2. offer prescriptions as to how those problems can and should be addressed.
  3. that they engage explicitly with choices concerning the directions in which agricultural and food science and technology are being developed, and should be developed.

The criteria by which policy documents were chosen were:

  1. that they provide diagnoses of the problems facing the global food system,
  2. offer prescriptions as to how those problems can and should be addressed, and have emerged from bodies that are widely seen internationally as important, authoritative and influential.

The 3 assessments of agricultural technologies are:

  1. International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) (2009)
  2. UK Foresight / Government Office for Science The Future of Food & Farming (2011)
  3. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Food and      Agriculture: The Future of Sustainability. A strategic input to the      Sustainable Development in the 21st Century (SD21) project (2012)

The 3 policy documents are:

  1. World Economic Forum New Vision for Agriculture initiative Realizing a New Vision for Agriculture: A Roadmap for Stakeholders (2010)
  2. G20 Action Plan on Food Price Volatility and Agriculture (2011)
  3. UN Committee on World Food Security Global Strategic Framework for Food Security and Nutrition (2012)

In each case, the documents and related literature, were gathered and analysed to provide an accurate characterisation of their distinctive overall perspectives and their characterisation of ‘problems’ affecting food security and the global food system.  In respect of each of the documents, the study asked:

  1. How had they understood and framed the challenge of ‘sustainability’?
  2. Had they explored multiple pathways towards more sustainable food and agricultural futures?  If so how?
  3. Had they analysed across multiple scales, integrated their analyses across those scales and analysed regimes of governance and the challenges they face?
  4. Did they examine the dynamic properties of the systems they discuss?

The analyses sought accurately to characterise in particular their underlying assumptions, problem diagnoses and prescriptions?  Particular attention was paid to the issue of how they characterised the role of science and technology in addressing problems afflicting the agricultural and food systems?

The next stage has been a comparative analysis that:

  • reviews areas of agreement and difference
  • identifies the range and balance of opinions
  • identifies and compares their framing assumptions.
  • Asks if they have coupled their analyses with proposals for practical action?

The normative assumptions, analyses and prescriptions, of each of the documents was then benchmarked by reference to the three defining normative dimensions of the STEPS Pathways Approach, namely their consideration of the ‘3-Ds’ concepts of ‘directionality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘distribution’ (STEPS, 2010).  Those three criteria apply in particular to proposals for innovations, in relationship to which it was important to ask: what is it for, who is it for and “what – and how many – kinds of innovation do we need to address any particular challenge?” (STEPS, 2010:9).

Broadening out and opening up

This project is predicated on the assumption that it is important not just to acknowledge that there are multiple diverse perspectives on, diagnoses of, and prescriptions for ‘food insecurity’, and therefore that there may not be one single ‘correct’ or even ‘authoritative’ analysis.  It thereby broadens out the range of perspectives under consideration, and seeks to analyse and explain their differences.  In doing so, it opens up pathways of analysis, and possibly even for prescription, by avoiding the supposition that ‘anything goes’. On the contrary this project is grounded in an explicit normative framework, which is constitutive of the STEPS approach.

Possible Roles Fit and limits

A strength of the topic focus, and of the methods used in this project, is that enables STEPS researchers to characterise and explain diverse understandings of, and approaches to addressing, ‘food insecurity’.   Moreover it provides an opportunity to deploy the explicit normative criteria that characterise an essential feature of the work of the STEPS Centre.  That work equips STEPS scholars actively to participate in and engage with a wide range of stakeholders in both developing and industrialised countries, as well as with local, regional and global bodies.

A shortcoming is that, without a far larger and more comprehensive review of other candidate assessments and policy documents, it is difficult to be confident that the range of perspectives has been accurately mapped and the full range has been explored sufficiently comprehensively.