Building resilient food systems

IIED strengthens the capacity of local organisations and institutions by designing resilient food systems and sustaining local food systems.

2013 - ongoing
Barbara Adolph

Senior associate, Natural Resources

Resilience and diversity in food systems
A programme of work on how IIED is building greater local control, resilience and diversity into agricultural and food systems
Agricultural biodiversity in a Peruvian market. Photo: Bioversity International/A. Camacho

Agricultural biodiversity on show at a family market stall in Puno, Peru (Photo: copyright Bioversity International/A. Camacho)

We strengthen local organisations and institutions by identifying policies, institutions and technologies that enable locally driven design of resilient agri-food systems. Such systems are generally based on circular economy models that involve recycling, reuse and combining resources to reduce dependency on external inputs, in particular fossil fuels. They also apply principles of ‘ecoliteracy’ in which actors understand and carefully consider the interactions between the different components of agro-ecosystems.

We aim to support local food systems by enhancing local access and control over productive resources — including land and territories, water, seeds and livestock breeds, biodiversity-rich landscapes and ecosystem services. We do this by strengthening local organisations and advocating for fairer policies and their implementation.

Read about some of the projects we have worked on below.

Designing resilient food systems with, for and by people

This project was a collaborative research and communications programme coordinated by IIED in Africa, China, the Andean region of Latin America and the Caribbean, and parts of Europe.

It demonstrated the potential benefits of transforming our industrialised linear systems into locally-controlled circular systems, which mimic the closed-loops of natural cycles. These systems apply to the production of food, energy, materials and clean water, and are integrated with systems of waste management.

Key findings from this research can be found in this news story on ‘virtuous circles’ or download the book Virtuous Circles: Values, Systems and Sustainability.

Sustaining local food systems, agricultural biodiversity and livelihoods

This project analysed how and under what conditions decentralised governance, capacity building and participation by farmers can promote the adaptive management of agricultural biodiversity in the context of local food systems and livelihoods. It was set up in 2001 and collaborated directly with local farming and indigenous communities in regenerating biodiversity-rich farming and locally controlled food systems in India, Indonesia, Iran, Mali and Peru.

Some of the innovations to come out of the research included the following:

  • In southern India, collectives of marginalised women working with the programme created a community grain fund to distribute locally-grown, drought-tolerant grains to poor villagers.
  • In Indonesia, farmers learned sustainable farming methods through field experiments in Farmer Field Schools — and built the skills and confidence for collective action.
  • In Iran, nomadic tribal organisations advocated to co-manage rangelands with the government, using indigenous knowledge and new insights from the science of non-equilibrium ecology to adapt to the impacts of climate change in fragile agro-ecosystems.
  • In Peru, work was carried out to link community conserved areas, including the Potato Park, into ‘food sovereignty corridors’ stretching across the landscape.

Key findings from this research can be found in a Reflect & Act paper.

Towards food sovereignty  

This project looked at the ecological basis of food and agriculture, the social and environmental costs of modern food systems, and the policy reversals needed to democratise food systems.

Key findings from the project can be found in the multimedia book Towards food sovereignty: reclaiming autonomous food systems. This is an on-going project, with some chapters yet to be completed.

Farm seed conservation in Europe

In recent years, the demand for speciality and conservation seeds in Europe has risen. Yet, at the same time, the survival of local varieties and biodiversity have been threatened by strict European Union rules on the marketing of seeds, the small market niches for such varieties and the marketing priorities of commercial companies.

The Farm Seed Opportunities project (FSO) was a partnership that included public-sector research institutes, peasant networks and organic farmers’ associations from six European countries. The FSO aimed to develop innovative participatory approaches for managing agricultural biodiversity in Europe, and to identify appropriate regulatory frameworks for the on-farm conservation and sustainable use of seed diversity. It highlighted the need for a fundamental re-orientation of plant breeding so that it could build on both local and scientific knowledge in creating and maintaining a diversity of seeds.

The FSO aimed to:

  • develop methods with all relevant stakeholders for participatory breeding strategies
  • facilitate the marketing of landrace (local varieties of domesticated animals or plant species, which have developed by natural processes), and the conservation and special amateur seed varieties
  • provide information on scientific results and research to address the demand for locally-produced food and the conservation of endangered agro-biodiversity
  • stimulate public engagement and citizen involvement in decision making.

Key findings from the project can be found in the report Innovative approaches in participatory research, on-farm conservation and the management of agricultural biodiversity in Europe.

These projects were led by Dr Michel Pimbert, who is now director of the Centre for Agroecology and Food Security (CAFS) at Coventry University. For more information on these projects you can contact him at [email protected].