An agenda for integrated system-wide interdisciplinary agri-food research
This paper outlines the development of an integrated interdisciplinary approach to agri-food research, designed to address the ‘grand challenge’ of global food security. Rather than meeting this challenge by working in separate domains or via single-disciplinary perspectives, we chart the development of a system-wide approach to the food supply chain. In this approach, social and environmental questions are simultaneously addressed. Firstly, we provide a holistic model of the agri-food system, which depicts the processes involved, the principal inputs and outputs, the actors and the external influences, emphasising the system’s interactions, feedbacks and complexities. Secondly, we show how this model necessitates a research programme that includes the study of land-use, crop production and protection, food processing, storage and distribution, retailing and consumption, nutrition and public health. Acknowledging the methodological and epistemological challenges involved in developing this approach, we propose two specific ways forward. Firstly, we propose a method for analysing and modelling agri-food systems in their totality, which enables the complexity to be reduced to essential components of the whole system to allow tractable quantitative analysis using LCA and related methods. This initial analysis allows for more detailed quantification of total system resource efficiency, environmental impact and waste. Secondly, we propose a method to analyse the ethical, legal and political tensions that characterise such systems via the use of deliberative fora. We conclude by proposing an agenda for agri-food research which combines these two approaches into a rational programme for identifying, testing and implementing the new agri-technologies and agri-food policies, advocating the critical application of nexus thinking to meet the global food security challenge.
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