Food resilience: A local catalyst for accelerating biodiversity conservation and sustainable development

Photo by: UNDP | GEF SGP | Anesu Freddy

Food production exists at the nexus of social and ecological sustainability, and is an essential dimension of work to achieve both the Aichi Biodiversity Targets and Sustainable Development Goals. Over the next two decades, the global population will grow by more than 1.2 billion people, the demand for food will increase by 35 percent and the demand for water by 40 percent 1.

Food security is a so-called ‘wicked problem’, or a problem that lacks a clear solution because it is linked to diverse other problems, a fact that makes it difficult to characterize or to solve2. The proximate and ultimate causes of food insecurity span social, ecological, political, and economic sectors and are interlinked with environmental degradation, climate change, socioeconomic inequality, and lack of political representation, among other factors.

At core, food security is an issue of resilience in complex social-ecological systems. When we look at food security through a resilience lens, it is clear that a ‘green revolution’ model based on monocultures and high chemical inputs that dismisses the complex roots of food insecurity will not be sufficient to sustain the world’s growing population. Instead, context-specific approaches to food security that address the roots of food security in complex social-ecological systems are emerging as a key mechanism to provide diverse solutions to global food production.

The Stockholm Resilience Centre, drawing on the work of Biggs and colleagues3, has highlighted seven principles of resilience crucial to building resilience in social-ecological systems. These principles can be used to understand how communities around the globe are working towards food security.

Using the seven resilience principles, the UNDP Equator Initiative created a framework identifying 32 subtypes of actions that can contribute to food security. We then used this framework to analyze our database of 208 Equator Prize winners, asking:

What concrete strategies are working on the ground to enhance system resilience and ensure food security?

Among the 78 Equator Prize winners working to address food security in terrestrial systems, we identified 313 distinct food security strategies, weaving a rich story of how communities are building food resilience around the world.

To understand this story, let’s turn to one thread – Abrha Weatsbha Community in Ethiopia. Once on the brink of resettlement due to desertification, soil degradation, overexploitation of forest resources, and lack of water, Abrha Weatsbha Community has embarked on a multi-pronged approach to enhance food resilience. Their strategies include reforestation, construction of water catchments and wells, planting of high-value and drought-resistant crops and trees, and the promotion of apiculture as an alternative livelihood strategy. These tactics have changed the lives of the local population. Abrha Weatsbha Community has planted 40 million tree seedlings (56 percent survival rate), constructed 180 wells that provided needed access to potable water and irrigation water, increased honey production from 13 to 31 tons, and made possible agricultural production during the dry season. For the average well user, food self-sufficiency is now possible for over nine months of the year; for 27 percent of well users, food self-sufficiency is possible year-round.

How do we break down this case to understand it through a resilience lens? We used our framework to classify the strategies used by the group. In this case, we identified four strategies. The extensive reforestation campaign maintained and increased ecological diversity; we classified this as Resilience Principle 1 – Maintain Diversity and Redundancy. Within Resilience Principle 1, this fell under the ‘Ecological diversity’ subtype. The planting of high-value and drought-resistant crops and trees also fell under Resilience Principle 1, but the ‘Production system diversity’ subtype. The construction of water catchments is a mechanism to manage connectivity, in this case regulating the flow of water. We classified this strategy as Resilience Principle 2 – Manage Connectivity – and the subtype ‘Infrastructure’. Finally, promotion of apiculture also fell under Resilience Principle 1, but under the ‘Livelihood diversity’ subtype.

We took this approach to analyze all 78 Equator Prize winners working on food security, weaving these diverse threads together to create a tapestry that depicts how communities are meeting their food security needs. We found that, like Abrha Weatsbha Community, the vast majority of groups (98 percent) used multiple strategies to achieve food security. Also like Abrha Weatsbha, the majority of strategies worked to maintain system diversity and redundancy (Resilience Principle 1, 43 percent), followed by work to manage system connectivity (Resilience Principle 2, 16 percent). If we look at the subtypes themselves, Abrha Weatsbha also highlights some common threads: production system diversity, ecological diversity, soil fertility, market access, and livelihood diversity were the primary contributors to food security, together accounting for 58 percent of the total. The high number of strategies falling under the five most common subtypes suggests that these types of strategies offer strong potential for replication and scaling to promote food security at broader scales.

But this is not the whole story. Looking at food security solutions across 78 groups also enabled us to understand other subtleties. Although many strategies did fall within these prominent subtypes, the whole showed us that food security strategies were highly diversified and context-specific – 26 of the 32 types of actions were each represented by less than three percent of the solutions. Context-specific types of action provide an important complement to the more common subtypes, enabling strategies to be tailored to each case.

Creating and applying this simple framework allowed us to efficiently identify that successful food security initiatives use tactics encompassing all seven resilience principles. It enabled us to tell the story of food security and resilience at the local level. Food resilience is an issue at the nexus of the biodiversity, development, and climate goals set by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. As we look to deliver on this ambitious agenda, we will need action at the local, national, and international scales. The results from this study confirm that analyzing local approaches food security from a resilience lens can help to identify simple, localized, and highly impactful strategies to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.


Literature cited.
1National Intelligence Council. 2012. Global Trends 2030.
2Rittel & Webber. 1973. ‘Dilemmas in a general theory of planning.’ Policy Sciences 4: 155-169.
3Biggs et al. 2012. ‘Towards principles for enhancing the resilience of ecosystem services.’ Annual Review of Environment and Resources 37: 421-448.


About the author

Annie Virnig is  a Knowledge Management and Capacity Building Specialist for the Global Programme on Nature for Development in UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support in New York.

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To find more posts, visit the Equator Blog.


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