A Systems Thinking Approach

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity for Agriculture and Food (TEEBAgriFood) is evaluating the reality of today’s highly complex “eco-agri-food” systems. Diverse agricultural production systems grow our crops and livestock and employ more people than any other economic sector. They are underpinned by complex biological and climatic feedback loops at local, regional and global level. Overlaying these natural systems are social and economic systems which transform agricultural production to food and deliver it to people based on market infrastructure and forces, government policies, and corporate strategies interacting with consumer and societal preferences. Furthermore, technologies, information and culture are continually re-shaping production, distribution and consumption, as well as the interactions among them. In the end, the state of many dimensions of human wellbeing, including the health of people and the planet, are determined by these diverse interlinked food systems and consumer choices made within these systems.

Most scientific research focusses on components or subsystems of these eco-agri-food systems. There is, however, too little attention paid to connecting the pieces of this jigsaw to achieve a comprehensive understanding of reality. Social and environmental impacts along value-chains are not sufficiently considered or valued, especially if they are economically invisible. Economists and market champions place monetary value only on the pieces that can be readily identified, traded and monetized. Political decision makers place faith in best estimates, expert knowledge and hearsay. Even the so called “evidence-based” decisions often consider only some of the pieces of this vast systems puzzle that are well researched, generally ignoring linkages and feedback loops. This leads to an increasing number of policies, programs and strategies designed to address specific problems with ‘silo’ solutions but with consequences, trade-offs and impacts far beyond their intended effects.

To be clear, we have no objection to highly specialized science. However, when decision-making uses research organized in silos and focuses on maximizing only sectoral or silo performance, it tends to ignore side effects on other sectors and tradeoffs.

TEEBAgriFood provides a critical way of thinking regarding the overarching problem created by this disciplinary / sectoral approach for both research and policy making. Unless cross-sectoral connections are recognized and accounted for, policies will continue to be evaluated based on singular performance indicators, risking possibly greater harm than benefit to society as a whole.

Understanding eco-agri-food systems and their importance for the sustainable future of humanity requires systemic analysis based on a comprehensive framework. Systems thinking can contribute to a better understanding of this complexity, including the interactions and trade-offs between different sub-systems which the current disciplinary / sectoral approach for research and policy making is ill-equipped to address. TEEBAgriFood, based on systems thinking, can provide new and better insights into a complex reality and thus provide improved guidance for decision making.

TEEBAgriFood draws from the best existing knowledge in different disciplines, and uses a systemic lens to evaluate the results, paying special attention to linkages and feedback loops. TEEBAgriFood will present a study using an evaluation framework that allows us to bring together all available knowledge to improve our understanding of the systems that are vital for all. The framework does not merely add up values. Instead, it distinguishes intermediate from final values, and capitals from their contributions to eco-agri-food systems. Moreover, it enables us to include social, cultural and behavioral issues as well as resilience concerns in the analysis, considering both monetary and non-monetary values.

Furthermore, to promote cross-sectoral and integrated decision-making, we need to go beyond “research” to act on our knowledge about how institutions can better enable people to work more collaboratively and towards overarching goals. TEEBAgriFood provides insights, through the design and use of its evaluation framework, on how systematic cooperation and cross-cutting research based on evaluation can be utilized for improved decision making.

Recognizing the necessity of a ‘whole-system’ approach to research, analysis and policy decision-making, and noting the usefulness of a universal and comprehensive evaluation framework to inform us of economically invisible impacts – the so-called “externalities” – we have embarked on an important journey: to discover the complex reality of the world’s eco-agri-food systems and to see how they may be genuinely improved in the interest of present and future generations.

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