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# A new agri-food systems sustainability approach to identify shared transformation pathways towards sustainability

### Journal Contribution - Journal Article

Today both external and internal changes put increasing pressure on the sustainability of one of themost important production systems that shape our society, the agri-food system. External pressures on this system result from demographic, economic and environmental changes such as globalisation, climate change, and scarcity of resources (Dicks et al., 2013; Foresight, 2011). Internal pressures arise from asymmetric price transmission, changes in market relations and internal trends such as upstream (e.g. input suppliers) and downstream (e.g. retail) concentration and market integration. Furthermore, increasing complexity and changing consumer demands also affect the internal organization of the agri-food chain (Campbell, 2005; Potter and Tilzey, 2005). As a result, the agri-food systemis urged to react and transformtowards sustainability.

Agri-food systems are shaped through the interaction of different systems such as natural systems (e.g. land,water), institutional systems (e.g. sector federation of farmers, food manufacturers, etailers), and social systems (e.g. social movements, consumer groups) (Francis et al., 2003; Lamine, 2011). However existing sustainability studies focus mostly on only one aspect of sustainability with a strong emphasis on the ecological aspect (Binder et al., 2010; Ness et al., 2007; Von Wirén-Lehr, 2001), such as resource use efficiency (Duru et al., 2015; Francis et al., 2003) and lack to embed the agri-food system in the wider socio-ecological environment (Francis et al., 2003; Hammond and Dubé, 2012; Lamine, 2011). Therefore,we need a systems approach to apply holistic system thinking since it allows multilevel, multiscale and multi-actor approaches to understand the dynamics of the agrifood system and its interdependencies with other systems (Binder et al., 2010; Darnhofer et al., 2010b; Haberl et al., 2009; Lamine, 2011; Sutherland et al., 2015). Recent literature discusses scientific theories on systems approaches, such as socio-technical transitions (Grin et al., 2010) and agri-ecological principles (Holt-Giménez and Altieri, 2013). Nonetheless, upscaling of new alternative food systems and adaptation of the mainstream agri-food system is lacking as case studies are only found for small but promising initiatives such as transition towns (Hopkins, 2008), urban agriculture (Mougeot, 2006), and short food supply chains (Renting et al., 2003). Therefore, we aim to develop a systems approach that overcomes this limitation by focussing on the transformation of the mainstream agri-food system.

Moreover, research projects often strugglewith the implementation of scientific theory into practice and effective realisations of actions are lacking. This well-known observed knowledge-action gap (O'Brien, 2012; Schwilch et al., 2012; VonWirén-Lehr, 2001) could be prevented by combining scientificwith local knowledge and capturing different visions and perceptions of various stakeholders. Hence, a transdisciplinary process that focuses on action is required (Brandt et al., 2013; Jahn et al., 2012; Lang et al., 2012; Mobjörk, 2010). Moreover, since sustainability is a normative, subjective and evolving concept (Grosskurth and Rotmans, 2005; Hermans et al., 2011; Jahn et al., 2012; Pope et al., 2004; Pretty, 1995), there is not one possible pathway nor one “sustainable” system state of the agri-food system (Fischer et al., 2012; Foley et al., 2011; Schiefer et al., 2015). Also, a sustainable agri-food system is a complex adaptive system evolving through time, i.e. a self-organizing
system that has to be analysed as a whole and is formed by various actors (Folke et al., 2005; Klerkx et al., 2010; Liu et al., 2007). Therefore, co-creation of system, target and transformation knowledge between researchers and societal actors is indispensable (Grosskurth and Rotmans, 2005; Hermans et al., 2011; Lang et al., 2012; Mobjörk, 2010; Pretty, 1995). Co-creation of knowledge is a collaborative process of knowledge production between academic and societal actors. System knowledge encompasses the concepts, i.e. the indicators that allow to understand the system. Target knowledge represents the transformative direction for the agri-food system by combining expectations, and transformation knowledge describes how to transform fromthe current systemto the targeted system by including the identification of possible pathwayswhile taking established regulations, practices and power relations into account (Hirsch Hadorn et al., 2008; Pohl and Hirsch Hadorn, 2007;Wiek et al., 2006). Although multiple frameworks exist to study sustainable development (Binder et al., 2013; Duru et al., 2015; Kulig et al., 2010; Ness et al., 2007; Singh et al., 2012) including composite indicators (Alam et al., 2016; Cobb, 1989; Gómez-Limón and Sanchez-Fernandez, 2010; Hueting, 1974; Pearce and Atkinson, 1993; Wackernagel and Rees, 1996) and indicator sets (Bélanger et al., 2012; CSD, 2001; EEA, 1999; Garrigues et al., 2012; Labuschagne et al., 2005; Lawn, 2003; OECD, 1993, 1998), most sustainability frameworks focus solely on system and target knowledge, and rarely address transformation knowledge (Binder et al., 2010). Moreover, a primary focus of sustainability frameworks is to assess sustainability, to study a posteriori transitions or to
formulate a long termvision. A framework that combines systemthinking and a transdisciplinary co-creation of system, target and transformation knowledge focussing on the agri-food system level is lacking. To address this scientific challenge, we develop and validate a conceptual and methodological framework to guide a transformation towards a more sustainable agri-food system focussing on dynamic transformation pathways without defining sustainable end points.

Therefore, this paper proposes and applies the agri-food systems sustainability approach (AFSSA), an approach that combines factual knowledge with various stakeholders' perceptions to identify shared transformation pathways towards sustainability and develop a strategic and action plan. Section 2 describes AFSSA, consisting of two segments, i.e. the AFSSA framework and AFSSA implementation. Section 3 embodies an in-depth case study to validate AFSSA. Our focus area is Flanders, the northern region of Belgium, where the Flemish research, policy and food industry actors all acknowledge the need to transform. Section 4 discusses the main lessons learned of AFSSA and Section 5 concludes.

Journal: Ecological Economics
ISSN: 0921-8009
Issue: 131
Pages: 52–63
Number of pages: 12
Publication year:2017
• Scopus Id: 84989931448