Sustainable Food Systems: Agriculture by another name?

Written on 06 March 2018 by:
Steven Prager
Steven Prager

Authors: Steven D. Prager, Mark Lundy and Chris Bene.

We live in a world that is rapidly urbanising and increasingly globalised.

These trends are set amidst a backdrop of a fast growing population, climate change, and increasing climate variability.

We’re more connected than ever, yet many still lack access to adequate, affordable and nutritious food.

The complex and interconnected set of issues requires a systems approach as the problems are multi-sectoral, transdisciplinary and the ideal solution to address one particular challenge frequently has trade offs elsewhere in the system that must be simultaneously considered.

Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

The “Green Revolution” was the first nearly global initiative to expand food production and bring more food to more people. It illustrated that with concerted effort and focused “packages” of agricultural interventions, yields could be dramatically increased. Over time, awareness grew regarding the challenges faced by smallholder farmers and with that awareness came a new understanding that the advances of the Green Revolution were only part of the solution set required to feed the world’s growing population.

With deeper understanding regarding the complexity, heterogeneity and needs of smallholder agriculture producers throughout the developing world, the CGIAR stood up to begin addressing these needs. It was a consortium of many of the centres that contributed to the research required to advance the Green Revolution. These centers not only had intimate knowledge of the Green Revolution itself, but also of the small-scale producer communities in which they worked.

With this understanding they quickly realised that no single solution or approach would ever be a “one size fits all” answer to the range of challenges faced with feeding the global population.

One of the key realizations in CGIAR research was that agricultural production did not occur in an isolated manner; even small scale producers were participating in – or influenced by – the global marketplace for both agricultural inputs and agricultural commodities. That smallholder farmers were key actors in the “agricultural value chain” led to the development of the LINK Methodology at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

While value chain approaches resulted in more inclusive engagement of smallholders in the business of agriculture, the focus was principally on linking farmer to market to reduce rural poverty. Many other factors affect the long term viability and efficacy of the food system and, as such, CIAT along with much of the agriculture research community began to take a more holistic approach that has come to be known as “Sustainable Food Systems” (SFS).

Is SFS research just agricultural research by another name?

Definitely not! Sustainable food systems research and policy take truly holistic approaches in order to harness both positive changes in the global agricultural landscape as well as to identify, address, and mitigate when possible the negative consequences of different agricultural production processes. But it is not just about agricultural production.

Sustainable Food Systems (SFS) approaches also consider the shift from feeding our population to both nourishing our population and protecting our planet.

The shift from traditional agricultural research toward SFS thus motivates both change in and integration across nearly all aspects of agriculture:



Breeding more productive staple crops remains at the core of global agricultural research. However, solving for productivity on its own without accounting for shifting consumer demands, climate change and the need for environmental sustainability substantially shift the conversation. Likewise, groundbreaking work on climate change and agriculture needs to expand beyond a production focus and examine how short-term weather variability and long term climate shifts affect production, distribution and consumption.

In addition, insights into the ecological underpinnings of the production system, while critical, should move to encompass the lifecycle of food taking into account water, energy, carbon and biodiversity effects from pre-production to post-consumption.

Credit: Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Finally, all of these elements need to converge in food systems that provide healthy diets for the majority in an efficient, inclusive and sustainable fashion. This shift embodies the challenge faced by international agricultural research.

CIAT is one of many contributors to the new and emerging research agenda in SFS. The CGIAR Research Program known as Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) is helping to pioneer research in sustainable food systems with its flagship research program on Food Systems for Healthier Diets.



Many of the CGIAR centres around the world are contributing to the SFS research agenda along with university research partners, the broader development community, municipal and national governments and the private sector.

Together we can tackle tough issues ranging from increased demand for dietary protein to managing pressure on the land base to creating equitable opportunities for youth and women to participate in the global agriculture system.

Agriculture is now one critical element in the food system that must not only nourish people, but also create market opportunities, and be responsive to changing global need and demand for healthy and sustainable diets. The Challenges of Our Era 2018 Summit presents us with the opportunity to look at agriculture with a new lens and to recognise and promote the innovation that will be required to achieve a truly sustainable food future.