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Systems Thinking Empowers Us

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This interview was first published by FoodTank, and the original post can be accessed here

Dr. Wei Zhang is an economist, focusing on ecosystem services, agriculture, and the environment. She is the coordinating lead author of Chapter 2, titled “Systems thinking: an approach for understanding eco-agri-food systems,” of a new, ground-breaking report from the Economics of Ecosystems & Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEB AgriFood). This report, launching on June 5 on World Environment Day, addresses how to evaluate our agriculture and food systems while considering a range of social, human, and environmental dimensions across the value chain.

The goal of TEEB AgriFood is to more comprehensively determine the costs, benefits, and dependencies of agriculture and food production. What makes some produce less expensive in most supermarkets is in part the use of cheap—often subsidized—fertilizers and pesticides, but that retail price does not take into account hidden costs like environmental damage from runoff or human impacts on health and livelihood. Conversely, these prices do not recognize the positive benefits created by more sustainable forms of agriculture. To ensure the sustainability of agriculture and food systems, an important step is to account for the side effects, or externalities, through market mechanisms. TEEB AgriFood is creating a framework for looking at all the impacts of the ‘eco-agri-food’ value chain, from farm to fork to disposal, including effects on livelihoods, the environment, and health. This can help farmers, decision makers, and businesses more explicitly look at the impacts of different practices and policies. 

Dr. Wei Zhang earned a Ph.D. in Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University. She worked at the World Bank in the Environment Department for two years before joining the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in 2008. In the Environment and Production Technology Division, Zhang leads the research program on ecosystem services and researches the intersection between agriculture, development, and the environment. She has led multidisciplinary research projects in Africa and Asia and is most interested in studying natural resources and ecosystem services management for sustainable agriculture and livelihoods.

Food Tank had the opportunity to discuss with Dr. Wei Zhang the need for systems thinking when examining our food system and why the new TEEB AgriFood report is important.

Food Tank (FT): What is the most interesting thing you learned from working with TEEB AgriFood?

Wei Zhang (WZ): How important ‘worldview’ is to how you conceptualize issues and develop or choose tools to address those issues. Using systems thinking requires a shift in fundamental beliefs and assumptions that constitute our worldviews. These are the intellectual and moral foundations for the way we view and interpret reality, as well as our beliefs about the nature of knowledge and the processes of knowing. Systems thinking can help by changing the dominant mindset and by addressing resistance to more integrated approaches.

FT: What is the most significant unintended consequence of our current food system that policymakers, funders, and donors ignore?

WZ: It is hard to say which one is the most significant, as it depends on what you believe is relatively more important and to whom—human health? Planetary boundary? Wildlife? Social equity?—and how you measure an unintended consequence. Partly, these become ‘unintended consequences’ due exactly to the fact that they are difficult to measure, or they do not have market values. For example, how do you put an economic value on equity, human life, or the loss of another 1,000 species? Do you even want to put a value on it? Nevertheless, there are ample examples of policies aimed at addressing some objectives inducing a negative impact on other objectives. Tradeoffs always exist, but with a systematic approach, we can better identify them and work to minimize negative unintended impacts and capture synergies, and we can better understand who the winners and losers are in those tradeoffs.

FT: How is a ‘systems approach’ used in your research at IFPRI and why is this a good framework for TEEB AgriFood?

WZ: I am not trained as a system scientist but as we increasingly learn about the importance of systems thinking, we increasingly use it as a guiding concept. Our work portfolio across divisions and programs show an attempt to address multiple dimensions of sustainable development, inspired by system-level thinking. A project called ‘Bridge Collaborative,’ a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, IFPRI, Duke University, and the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH), aims to improve cross-sectoral collaboration and promote integrated approaches to addressing today’s challenges, which in my view aligns with the systems approach even though it wasn’t explicitly used as a conceptual or analytical framework.

Our chapter in the TEEB AgriFood report makes the case for why systems thinking is needed, looking at the nature of the eco-agri-food system and the challenges it faces, as well as the limitations of the current conceptualization and analytical tools.

FT: What factors other than food production need to be taken into consideration in evaluating the eco-agri-food system?

WZ: Food production is only one stage of the value chain. What goes into the production—ecosystem services and biodiversity, land, water, etcetera on the natural system side, and labor, skill and knowledge, man-made input, etcetera on the social system side—how food is processed, distributed, and consumed, and all the associated impacts of the choices made at each stage, are other considerations in the evaluation. Temporal and spatial scales are important considerations when it comes to impacts.

FT: How can research institutions create incentives for systems-based strategies?

WZ: Systems thinking as a principle or guiding concept needs to be adopted at the institutional level. Hiring systems approach experts would help to increase in-house capacity. Incentives for cross-sectoral collaboration are needed. The systems approach both enables and requires cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary collaboration.

FT: What do you want people to know most about the TEEB AgriFood report?

WZ: What I want people to know most about the report is its daring ambition of calling for people to consider EVERYTHING about the food system: all inputs and outputs—intermediate or final, natural or man-made, or mixed—linkages and impacts, dynamics, across all stages of the value chain, for all players, stakeholders, and decision-makers, across spatial and temporal scales, for all human and planetary well-being indicators. One can argue that you won’t achieve anything if you try to achieve everything, but I want to say that you must try and understand the ‘entirety’ of the system you are dealing with and start to tackle the problems in a more integrated way. Incremental improvement, at both the individual researcher level and institutional level, is the key here.

How you define ‘everything’ or what is important that needs to be considered, the analytical boundary, depends on your worldview. So here I think by pushing for systems thinking, TEEB has a positive role to play by influencing cultural narratives regarding inclusive and integrated development approaches. That is, systems thinking empowers us to think beyond technical analysis and decision-tool development.

The TEEB AgriFood report launches on World Environment Day, June 5, 2018. Thrive blog is a space for independent thought and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Fund Donors, including: ACIARDFIDDGISSDC, and others.