Social ecological framing of vulnerability analysis of food systems
Simple definitions of the term “sustainability” have existed for several decades. However they provide little guidance on how to assess sustainability in support of achieving sustainable development. Frameworks are needed to make the term operational. The global food system is an important lens that can be used to address many of the practical challenges of sustainable development. The environmental and social footprint of this industry is indisputable, mostly as a result of improved global datasets measuring issues such as land, water, biodiversity, climate change, poverty, malnutrition, and economic prosperity. Although actors have increasingly succeeded in addressing these issues from their own perspective, it remains difficult to succeed in isolation since many of the impacts and vulnerabilities extend far beyond the boundaries of any single firm. For instance, the majority of the resource footprint of food manufactures and processers is upstream in their supply chains, and these same chains remain vulnerable to droughts, diseases, and socioeconomic disruptions. In fact, a strategy implemented with the best intentions may have a larger negative, unintended tradeoff somewhere else in the food system.
Comprehensive strategies that address issues from many perspectives throughout the food system require collaborations and coordinated action among a diverse set of stakeholders. Ongoing work at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute and the Information Center for the Environment at UC Davis is harnessing information technology tools to better organize the massive amounts of data necessary to communicate and facilitate coordinated decision making. This approach uses an open-data platform with lists of the important issues, indicators for measuring those issues, and tools for choosing sets of indicators and data that help visualize tradeoffs and assess strategies. The prototype databases and tools have shown that while three or four indicators will not be sufficient, 15-20 indicators may be suitable for food system sustainability assessment in specific contexts. Such IT applications can help users better communicate their mitigation and adaptation priorities and communicate them with other stakeholders, as well as the public in general. This approach is particularly pertinent for food companies that are striving to build a competitive advantage by communicating sustainability goals and achievements to consumers. A new open-data food business model would be able to benefit from the big data and verifiable transparency that forms the basis of this platform.