Integrating social vulnerability into research on food
systems and global change
Dr Thomas E. Downing
NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology
SEI Oxford Office
Summary of Project
Researcher Contact Details
Annual progress report
- 2003 (pdf format)
There is a need for more effective
research on the vulnerability of human food systems to global environmental change
(GEC). This project aims to enhance understanding of how concepts of vulnerability
of social aspects of food systems to GEC can be integrated with vulnerability
concepts from natural science. The proposed research will undertake a review of
methodologies of four major approaches (ecosystems dynamics; ecological economics;
vulnerability assessment and mapping; and multi-agent modelling) to determining
vulnerability of socioeconomic systems to GEC. The project will contribute significantly
to preparing a research agenda for further developing and applying methodologies
aimed at integrating socioeconomic and biophysical approaches to vulnerability.
The work provides underpinning research for two major projects of the international
global change research community: "Global Environmental Change and Food Systems"
(GECAFS; www.gecafs.org) and "Global Environmental
Change and Human Security" (GECHS; www.gechs.org).
Strategies for adapting food systems to GEC need to be developed so
as to reduce social vulnerability to the added problems GEC will bring. Adaptation
includes modifications in practices such as land management and diversification,
and in structures such as institutions regulating access to credit and land tenure.
However, not all individuals and sections of society are equally vulnerable to
global change. Their capacity to cope with existing variability in biophysical
and socioeconomic systems, and their ability to perceive global change and adapt
food systems accordingly vary considerably.
GEC "impacts" research has dealt with biophysical assessments based on long-term
scenarios of environmental change. A contrasting stream of research, more applicable
to GEC vulnerability assessments, begins with current vulnerability of socioeconomic
systems such as agri-food. There is now a need to integrate human behaviour into
environmental paradigms, work which can be based on four main "families" of methodologies:
dynamics, as underlying the concept of ecosystem resilience.
Ecological economics, which spans a range of approaches from coupling human and
environmental models, game theoretic analyses of environmental behaviour and more
assessment and mapping, well developed in famine early warning systems, which
uses indicators to overlay relative risks to regions and populations.
modelling, which seeks to characterise the behaviour of representative stakeholders.
the natural and social sciences orientations need to be integrated if environmentally
sound development is to proceed, but there are three main challenges: First, scales
vary from the local to global, and linkages across scales are essential to understanding
environment-human interactions. Second, environment-human systems are complex
in the nature of interactions and their evolution over time. Third, our ability
to predict the future is patently limited, raising issues regarding scientific
foresight and stakeholder participation.
The research aim is to enhance understanding of
how concepts of vulnerability of social aspects of food systems to GEC can be
integrated with concepts from natural science to provide a more holistic approach
to vulnerability studies. Specific research questions include: * What are the
conceptual underpinnings of various approaches to integrating human and natural
vulnerability to global environmental change? * What criteria should be used to
evaluate different paradigms in order to develop an integrated social/natural
science research framework? * What case-examples provide archetypical illustrations
of the strengths and weaknesses of different vulnerability paradigms?
Working closely with the
Stockholm Environment Institute-Oxford Office (www.sei.se/oxford/), the project
Evaluate and refine a synthesis framework for a literature review.
Use this revised framework to review methodologies for determining present vulnerability
of socioeconomic systems to GEC.
the prospects for using existing methods for assessing current vulnerability (from
Point 2) for assessing future vulnerabilities based on integrated scenarios of
on the framework, review and an expert workshop, develop a research agenda for
further developing and applying methodologies aimed at integrating socioeconomic
and biophysical approaches to vulnerability.
The main outcome will be a better understanding of how social
science concepts (and specifically those relating to human behaviour) can be integrated
with natural science concepts (such as resilience) to improve understanding of
food system vulnerability to GEC. Specific envisaged outputs include:
- A new research agenda based on
an integrated social/natural sciences approach.
A synthesis article that summarises the review (for submission to a major international
journal, e.g. Global Environmental Change).
A synopsis from an Expert Workshop (submitted for publication in relevant global
change newsletters and electronic fora).
technical report to be published on the internet
BSc in Chemistry (London University) and a MSc in Soil Chemistry (University of
Reading) John Ingram's early career was as a soil scientist on agricultural and
forestry projects in Swaziland and Nepal. He then became involved in managing
international research projects, first related to soil ecology (based in Zimbabwe
and Kenya) and then dealing with global change and agroecology (based in NERC's
Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in Wallingford). Still based in CEH-Wallingford,
he is now the Executive Officer for a new international research effort "Global
Environmental Change and Food Systems" (GECAFS). His current work centres on establishing
research agendas for social/natural science interdisciplinary studies on vulnerability
of food systems to Global Environmental Change, adaptation options and feedbacks.
Thomas E. Downing
Dr Thomas E. Downing is the executive
director of the SEI Oxford Office. With a background in psychology (BA, University
of Colorado), natural hazards (MA, Colorado) and geography (PhD, Clark University),
he contributes to research on vulnerability and adaptation to climatic risks.
Recent projects evaluated stakeholder and institutional capacity to adapt to changing
climatic hazards, a vulnerability and adaptation training course, vulnerable food
systems in India, and the use of seasonal climate forecasting to promote sustainable
livelihoods in southern Africa. Within the genre of integrated assessment, he
specializes in stakeholder participation and multi-agent social simulation. His
appointments range from a member of the Sustainability Panel for the Vale of White
Horse District Council in Oxfordshire, senior research fellow in the University
of Oxford's Queen Elizabeth House (the centre for developing studies) and a fellow
of Linacre College, to expert advisor to the UK House of Commons International
Development Committee's enquiry into climate change and development and coordinator
of the International Geographical Union's Task Force on Vulnerability.
GECAFS Executive Officer NERC
Centre for Ecology
Wallingford, OX10 8BB
SEI Oxford Office
Oxford OX1 1QT