The ‘modernist’ project that has come to dominate food and agricultural policy has failed to provide sustainable outcomes for many poor people in developing countries. Conventional agricultural science is not able to explain let alone address these concerns because it is based on a static equilibrium-centred view that provides little insight into the dynamic character of agri-food systems.
This paper analyses how prevailing narratives of technological change and economic growth have come to dominate key food and agriculture policy debates. It seeks to counter these orthodox notions by emphasising that agri-food systems are embedded in complex ecological, economic and social processes, and showing how their interactions are dynamic and vulnerable to short-term shocks and long-term stresses like climate change. The paper makes the case for a deeper understanding of diverse ‘rural worlds’ and their potential pathways to sustainability through agriculture. Moreover, it argues for a normative focus on poverty reduction and concern for the distributional consequences of dynamic changes in agri-food systems, rather than aggregates and averages. Finally, it sets out an interdisciplinary research agenda on agri-food systems that focuses on dynamic system interactions in complex, risk-prone environments and explores how pathways can become more resilient and robust in an era of growing risk and uncertainty.