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Transformations towards food sustainability using the participatory Food Sustainability Assessment Framework (FoodSAF)

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We are facing a global food crisis: the percentage of people with malnutrition are increasing, along with devastating results for the social-ecological environments, showing the unsustainability of the currently dominant food systems. The complex set of foodrelated problems requires multidimensional perspectives, using inter- and transdisciplinary methodologies, to address social-ecological aspects over a mere focus on productivity. This article introduces a hands-on Food Sustainability Assessment Framework (FoodSAF) that allows non-academic actors to identify pathways for making food systems more sustainable through collective transformations in a “spiral of change”. The emphasis is on making the concept of “food sustainability” operational and applicable, by exploring transdisciplinary methodologies, encourage genuine participation of actors at the local level, and elevate their solutions in the direction of decision-making spaces, where policy makers have a key role in supporting change. The results provide evidence-based scientific knowledge for the promotion of innovation strategies and policy options that improve the sustainability of food systems with the specific aim of strengthening local food systems in a long-term process to co-create transformations
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Transformations towards food sustainability using the participatory Food
Sustainability Assessment Framework (FoodSAF)
By Aymara Llanque, Johanna Jacobi, Theresa Tribaldos, Stellah Mukhovi, Carlos Silvestre,
Andreia Tecchio, Lidiane Fernandez, Freddy Delgado, Boniface Kiteme, Renato Maluf,
Adriana Bessa, Chinwe Ifejika Speranza, and Stephan Rist.
We are facing a global food crisis: the percentage of people with malnutrition are
increasing, along with devastating results for the social-ecological environments, showing
the unsustainability of the currently dominant food systems. The complex set of food-
related problems requires multidimensional perspectives, using inter- and transdisciplinary
methodologies, to address social-ecological aspects over a mere focus on productivity. This
article introduces a hands-on Food Sustainability Assessment Framework (FoodSAF) that
allows non-academic actors to identify pathways for making food systems more sustainable
through collective transformations in a “spiral of change”. The emphasis is on making the
concept of “food sustainability” operational and applicable, by exploring transdisciplinary
methodologies, encourage genuine participation of actors at the local level, and elevate
their solutions in the direction of decision-making spaces, where policy makers have a key
role in supporting change. The results provide evidence-based scientific knowledge for the
promotion of innovation strategies and policy options that improve the sustainability of
food systems with the specific aim of strengthening local food systems in a long-term
process to co-create transformations.
Description: Workshop for the analysis of the food and productive
memory, in Melancía community, Casa Nova Municipality, 2019.
Photo: Aymara Llanque
A social-ecological food system crisis
The currently widespread agribusiness-dominated food systems have failed (De Schutter,
2014), as an exclusive model, which produces unsustainable externalities (James et al.,
2021). Agribusiness is causing environmental problems and is depleting the world's natural
resources (Chowdhury et al., 2017, EAT-Lancet Commission, 2019). The proportion of the
world population that suffers from hunger and malnourishment remains alarmingly high.
The 2020 UN report on the state of food security and nutrition shows that the world is not
on track to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 2 (Zero Hunger). On the contrary,
hunger has been rising since 2014, as well as overnutrition. The report also finds that a
healthy diet is 4-5 times more expensive – on a global average - than an unhealthy diet.
These findings point to the complexity and multiple crises of the social-ecological food
system (FAO, 2020).
Approaches in sustainability science recognize the interactions between natural and social
sciences as necessary for supporting sustainability transformations (Kates, 2011;
Mårtensson, et al., 2016; Hessels & Van Lente, 2008). Scientific disciplines use different
concepts, which need to be combined to address complex social-ecological systems such as
food systems (Ostrom, 2009).
Furthermore, there is a scientific community that questions the transformative capacity of
science, when it is not directly connected to local problems. Possibilities of transformation
depend on the knowledge exchange between science and societal actors (Clark et al., 2016).
Furthermore, the heterogeneous needs of different societal actors require to contextualize
sustainable practices (Navarrete & Gallopín, 2012). The outcome of these interactions can
help to clarify responsibilities, design mediating compensations, reduce conflicts and
anticipate future trends (Van Kerkhoff, 2014).
Participation of diverse actors through the transdisciplinary co-creation of knowledge opens
new possibilities for transformation (Liu et al., 2015), if such processes are understood as
complex and adaptive innovation that depends on capacities to mobilize usable knowledge
through social learning (Clark et al., 2016:1). In the case of food systems, the question
arises how science can use participatory approaches for transformations towards food
sustainability. With this article we want first, to contribute to academic debates around food
sustainability. Second, we introduce a “Food Sustainability Assessment Framework”
for food system transformations in specific local contexts.
Participatory food system transformation
Theoretical Framework: We see food systems as a circle of activities, institutions,
resources, and related actors, which goes from production to processing, distribution and
consumption to waste management and nutrient recycling (Colonna et al. 2013; Rist and
Jacobi 2016). The transformation of food systems towards sustainability demands a process
of reflection and co-creation of knowledge (Pohl, & Hadorn, 2007), it implies dealing with
relevant and legitimate rationales in an inter-scientific knowledge dialogue (Delgado and
Rist, 2016).
The integration of different types of knowledge implies a mutual openness (Gargallo,
2019), an academic commitment to engage with diverse actors, to accept the
interdependence of problems, and the need to address them together (Liu et al., 2015).
Transdisciplinary research is a co-production process (Binder, 2015; Mauser et al., 2013;
Schuck-Zöller et al., 2017) based on the dialogue among key actors, who develop
knowledge and practice science at different levels (Pohl and Hadorn, 2007).
Transdisciplinary methodologies can encourage researchers to engage with other actors,
and to bring their solutions to decision-making spaces. Accordingly, the FoodSAF-tool is
embedded into the transdisciplinary co-creation of knowledge and transformation in a
“spiral of change” (Rist and Herweg, 2016). The spiral of change starts with (a) a
participatory problem definition, followed by (b) the integration of natural and social
sciences, (c) the integration of non-academic actors and their knowledge, (d) a social
learning process that reflects on the meaning of "development" and (e) collective action.
According to this concept, the application of the co-created knowledge happens from the
moment when integration starts (Jahn et al., 2012; Jacobi et al., 2020).
The Food Sustainability Assessment Framework
The composition of food systems, and their sustainability outcomes (in each of the
dimensions that are described below) can be optimized with a knowledge co-creation
process involving multiple perspectives, such as the voices of women who are responsible
for feeding their families. For defining food sustainability, we consider five dimensions and
15 indicators that can be applied in different cultural, ecological and political contexts, and
to different types of food systems:
1) The Right to food refers to fulfillment and protection of the access to all the necessary
conditions to feed ourselves. Countries and their regulations must guarantee at least the
following indicators: 1) non-discrimination, 2) access to information, and 3) access to
spaces of effective participation in decision-making.
2) Food security is the access to safe, nutritious and permanent food supply. It implies at
least: 1) food security at the household level, 2) the capacity to store and process food for
times of scarcity and to assure diversity, and 3) transparent and equal power relations.
3) Poverty reduction and inequality are economic conditions of food systems that can
produce changes in poverty and inequality from production to consumption, granted: 1) a
livable income that exceeds expenditures, 2) access to adequate infrastructure and
technologies, and 3) access to functioning and fair agri-food value chains.
4) Environmental Performance is the ability of the food system to preserve or enhance the
natural environment, when 1) landscapes that are influenced by the food system are diverse
and managed in a sustainable way, 2) a low amount of carbon and other harmful
greenhouse gases are emitted, and 3) where there are positive effects of the food system on
human, animal and plant health.
5) Social-ecological resilience refers to the capacity of a food system to withstand shocks
and trends, to reorganize, to learn and to adapt with: 1) bio-cultural diversity, 2) social self-
organization, and 3) learning and adaptation through a rich knowledge legacy and identity.
Figure 1: Pentagon of food sustainability, five dimensions of evaluation.
Photo: Probioma, 2016.
From Participatory Assessments to Transformative Action
FoodSAF is a multidimensional tool for sustainability assessments of food systems, based
on the experiences of eight application examples in Africa and South America in the frame
of a transdisciplinary action-research project (Rist et al. 2016). The assessment allows us to
know the current state of the food system from the perspective of the actors involved. It is
also a tool for planning transformation processes, monitoring the process and analyzing the
scope of the plans.
Workshops for participatory assessments of food sustainability take place in groups with
strategic characteristics (e.g. gender and/or institution, places in value chain e.g. farmers'
and consumer groups). Also the food systems are defined geographically and can connect
different scales, depending on the scope of the food system. Boundaries are fuzzy, there are
connections between scales e.g. agro-industrial food systems generally reach different
scales, or agro ecological food systems scale up, but by the sum of many small initiatives.
The assessment starts with a participatory mapping of the food system. This gives an idea
of the actors' participation in value chains. We then assess collectively conceptualized
indicators and assign them values on a scale of five values. We use a scale from 0 to 4,
where 0 means ("undesirable", “0%”, "very bad" or "very low") to 4 ("ideal", "100%",
"very good" or "very high"). A description and discussion, and possible contextualization
of each indicator is important to assure their relevance.
After jointly assigning values to each indicator, the participants develop possible solutions
for solving the problems identified – or also to strengthen indicators with high values as a
potential for further advancement – and agree upon specific actions. The experiences
presented here took place over a period of six to nine months and include assigning specific
responsibilities to local actors and researchers. Establishing a management and monitoring
process is crucial to identify moments of follow-up actions and achievements during the
process, as well as possibilities for re-orientation. The actions can be a combination of
economic support for local initiatives and a social learning process, and can also be linked
to regional and global socio-political movements.
Description of case studies
So far, the FoodSAF methodology has been applied in eight food systems in total in
Bolivia, Colombia, Brazil, Kenya and Zambia (Table 1).
Table 1. Eight food systems where a FoodSAF assessment was conducted and a collective
action process has been taking place.
Local food System
Collective action
Local conventional
and organic
production of
vegetables and
fruits, for self-
consumption and
sale to the regional
Capacity of
the system to
store and
process food.
Water management
for sustainable
food production.
production, with
mostly organic
vegetable tents, for
in local market and
Access to
Capacity building
for sustainable
food production.
production, focused
in local and
traditional self-
consumption, and
sale in local markets.
power and
access to
adaptation and
innovation of
knowledge of
Casa Nova
Traditional diverse
productive system
based on the
management of soil
and water, for
breeding goats and
Source of
income and
Capacity building
and brand, for
participating in
Management of a
small area of land
for full use,
including animals
and plants, for own
consumption and
raw milk cheese, by
informal paid in cut
local circuits.
Promote the debate
for the legalization
of cheese made
from raw milk
from their farms.
– Zambia
Traditional local
food system
combined with the
sugarcane agro
industrial system
from the Zambian
company Sugar
Low food
quality –
right to food.
Infrastructure for
water access and
seeds distribution.
in Nanyuki –
Mixed farming
keeping livestock,
poultry and growing
a vegetables variety
to local markets.
of the value
Organize to
improve its
participation in the
value chain, with
new infrastructure.
in Kenya.
farming of
vegetables, with
market high
demand, integrating
crop production with
Levels of
income and
Capacity building
and infrastructure
for local
Food sustainability analysis
We conducted a comparative analysis of the eight food systems evaluated with FoodSAF,
and obtained a median value for each indicator. Overall stronger indicators include
effective participation for the right to food, especially in production and consumption at the
local level and food security at the household level, because the systems produce food for
the households’ own consumption. Environmental performance indicators such as health
impacts and social-ecological resilience in terms of self-organization, diversity and local
knowledge also tend to have high values, because local actors perceive their food systems
to make positive contributions to the larger ecosystems.
In contrast, indicators associated with food collection, transformation and
commercialization, such as the capacity to store food, tend to be low. Access to
infrastructure, income levels and participation in value chains associated with poverty and
inequality are also low (Figure 2), demonstrating that socio-economic factors are
determining the continuity of initiatives with a high potential to increase food
Figure 2: Ratings of eight food system case studies per indicator during FoodSAF-
Similarities between the case studies concern the importance of food production for self-
consumption, while surplus can be sold or bartered. The amount of food produced is not the
central problem but instead, the concentration of profits: The majority of families do not
receive sufficient income and mention challenges in participating in value chains. Both of
these factors combined cause severe weaknesses in the evaluated food systems, e.g. in self-
organization to participate in markets.
The dimension of poverty and inequality has particularities to be analyzed in more detail.
For example, income levels are comparatively high in the case of Seara, Brazil, but in most
other cases, they are low. The Umande cooperative in Kenya increased their rating
regarding access to infrastructure, after the transformative action had taken place and a
considerable infrastructure for milk collection was constructed after the group had gained
the attention of policy-makers. The example shows that organizing and investing in
infrastructure can strengthen the overall food system.
All cases show that there is no justice in market access, neither for producers nor
consumers. FoodSAF-assessments are often conducted by and with local producers, who
are often the consumers of their own food systems, but also the providers of raw material
for agribusiness value chains. While in the case study in Zambia, people depend almost
entirely on food from outside of their production system, in other cases such as Sucre,
Bolivia, Velez, Colombia and Casa Nova, Brazil, the locally produced diversity of food is
insufficient in terms of grains and cereals, which are then consumed from agro-industrial
food systems.
Innovative communities
Indicators on power relations in food security and social-ecological resilience suggest that
actors from science, policy and practice in transformation processes towards sustainable
food systems have an important role in strengthening the participation of marginal actors.
The innovation related to FoodSAF consisted of opening spaces for negotiation on a
specific transformative, local collective action for one or more indicators in the food
system. Rural communities, farmers' and women's groups played a leading role in assessing
sustainability and co-creating collective action. The outcomes relate to a vision of more
sustainable food systems, setting up action plans for more equitable access to productive
resources and better ecological practices.
Transformations resulted from strategic networks of the diversity of actors involved in the
FoodSAF processes. Through their networks, they reached consumer groups, local
government and administration representatives, the media, the church, credit cooperatives,
national research companies, and other key actors. The participation of politicians in these
processes is relevant, because public funding sources can contribute substantially to
innovations. Local governments for example are sometimes participating in technical
courses (Samaipata, Bolivia case study), co-financing infrastructure projects (Umande,
Kenya case study), or offering spaces for marketing agricultural products (Sucre, Bolivia
case study). However, there are different perspectives about the value of local food systems
within local governments, which is why collective action is often linked to a demand of
being heard.
The FoodSAF evaluation in eight case studies shows that the co-creation of transformation
as a negotiation process with non-academic actors can enable collective actions based on a
consensus. The actors involved in our case studies are often cooperatives, consumer groups,
representatives of NGOs and local governments, and in some cases governmental entities.
Furthermore, injustice in food systems is a serious problem and relates to topics such as
discrimination, lack of diversity, dependence on an export market, contamination of the
environment, labor exploitation, or unfair regulatory frameworks.
Challenges in shaping participatory processes mainly relate to enabling marginalized food
system actors in a supportive and coordinated way to take part in decision-making.
Negotiation processes among stakeholders that challenge established configurations, e.g.
when a greater diversity of stakeholders can decide on budgets, also poses challenges.
Another determining factor for the advancement of transformation is funding. We had
allocated funding of between USD 12,000 and 18,000 available for each case study as part
of the overall project budget. These budgets were managed by local communities and
cooperatives for the implementation of the jointly identified collective actions. The
experiences showed that changes are possible in a period of up to one year even with a
small budget, if this can be integrated into local resources such as work force, local inputs
or finding additional funding. However, the opposite can also happen, for instance when
food system activities depend on external funding that governments are not or no longer
willing to provide. We based all activities in our case studies on previous experiences or
local initiatives, arguing that innovations linked to broader societal change are more likely
to be successful.
Finally, the initiative also involved the creation of a global food sustainability network,
composed of various academic and social actors, called the GLOCAL network2, as a
strategy to scale up meaningful case study messages in different contexts. It is an
organizing process that influence decision-making spaces.
The experience of applying the FoodSAF tool both in assessment and in the creation of
transformative collective action are opportunities to identify the current state of a food
system and its proximity to sustainability. It is useful when it enables participatory dialogue
with non-academic actors to support sustainable development. The FoodSAF approach
addresses the need to optimize the outcomes of the complex interactions between food
production, environmental impacts and social justice. Applying an inclusive concept of
food sustainability can guide the identification of comprehensive innovations.
Another determining factor has to do with institutional agreements to generate changes at
the local level and alliances of actor groups with an interest in transforming a food system.
The FoodSAF-tool opens space for discussing often overlooked components of a food
system, but it is insufficient if there are no sustained processes of social and political
movements for food sustainability and food justice, and related multi-stakeholder
negotiation processes addressing power asymmetries. The eight case studies underline the
need for co-creating transformation and that the problems often relate to socio-economic
aspects more than to productivity. In this sense, the transformation processes based on a
FoodSAF-assessment focus on the participation of local food system actors in decision-
making, especially those on the margins of food systems. This enables adaptability in the
planning and use of available resources, and demonstrates that negotiation and consensus
where actors participate, take over the process, and legitimize its results.
End Notes
The tool called FoodSAF guide, was developed in the six year research project "Towards
food sustainability: rebuilding the coexistence of different food systems in South America
and Africa" financed by the SNF, in a larger consortium (UNIBE, Switzerland, The
Graduate Institute of Geneva, Switzerland, COMPAS Bolivia, CETRAD Kenya, UFRRJ,
Brazil, UN, Colombia, Millar Institute for Transdisciplinary and Development Studies,
Ghana, and UZ, Zambia). Based on the experience gained, the project in its second phase
(2017-2020) implemented a series of pilot transformation actions (TPAs), engaging directly
with local communities, in order to improve the sustainability of their food systems.
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... First, scholarship on the sustainability of food systems emphasizes the importance of changing unsustainable and unfair structures and outcomes of food systems (e.g. Duncan, 2021;Gliessman, 2016;Llanque et al., 2021;Marsden, 2014). Contributions coming from this direction have included sustainability assessment methodologies relying on indicators in different sustainability domains to guide change (Chaudhary et al., 2018;Hebinck et al., 2021b;Jacobi et al., 2020). ...
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There are few widely acknowledged quality standards for research practice, and few definitions of what constitutes good research. The overall aim was therefore to describe what constitutes research, and then to use this description to develop a model of research practice and to define concepts related to its quality. The primary objective was to explore such a model and to create a multidisciplinary understanding of the generic dimensions of the quality of research practice. Eight concept modelling working seminars were conducted. A graphic representation of concepts and their relationships was developed to bridge the gap between different disciplines. A concept model of research as a phenomenon was created, which included a total of 18 defined concepts and their relationships. In a second phase four main areas were distilled, describing research practice in a multidisciplinary context: Credible, Contributory, Communicable, and Conforming. Each of these was further specified in a concept hierarchy together with a defined terminology. A comprehensive quality model including 32 concepts, based on the four main areas, was developed for describing quality issues of research practice, where the model of research as a phenomenon was used to define the quality concepts. The quality model may be used for further development of elements, weights and operationalizations related to the quality of research practice in different academic fields.
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This article discusses the role of knowledge governance arrangements in the mainstreaming of sustainable practices, in particular, in the creation, sharing and use of integrated and contextualized knowledge. That is, knowledge which accounts for the social, economic, institutional, and ecological dimensions of potentially sustainable practices, and which considers the need to adapt generic practices to the sustainability requirements of specific places. An actor-centered approach is proposed for the study of the historical evolution of knowledge governance arrangements in order to understand their role in the adoption of sustainable practices. The approach is applied to explain the rapid adoption of no-till agriculture in the Argentine Pampas. A radical knowledge governance transformation occurring in this region during the 1990s led to increasing knowledge exchange and pushing sustainability practices to the top of key actors’ agendas. This embracing of no-till agriculture illustrates the crucial role played by farmers’ associations as boundary organizations: linking farmers with actors specialized in the generation of scientific knowledge and technology. This case reveals that sustainability transitions can be fostered through knowledge governance arenas characterized by: (a) promoting public–private collaboration through boundary organizations, (b) assigning private actors a leading role in the adoption of sustainability practices at the production unit scale, (c) fostering the public sector competence in regional and socio-ecological research, and (d) addressing the heterogeneous needs of knowledge users. However, the case also shows that the success of no-till agriculture in the Pampas is pushing the agriculturization of surrounding areas where this practice is largely unsustainable. This finding suggests that present knowledge governance arrangements fail to contextualize practices that are potentially sustainable.
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The challenges formulated within the Future Earth framework set the orientation for research programmes in sustainability science for the next ten years. Scientific disciplines from natural and social science will collaborate both among each other and with relevant societal groups in order to define the important integrated research questions, and to explore together successful pathways towards global sustainability. Such collaboration will be based on transdisciplinarity and integrated research concepts. This paper analyses the relationship between scientific integration and transdisciplinarity, discusses the dimensions of integration of different knowledge and proposes a platform and a paradigm for research towards global sustainability that will be both designed and conducted in partnership between science and society. We argue that integration is an iterative process that involves reflection among all stakeholders. It consists of three stages: co-design, coproduction and co-dissemination.
Global sustainability challenges, from maintaining biodiversity to providing clean air and water, are closely interconnected yet often separately studied and managed. Systems integration—holistic approaches to integrating various components of coupled human and natural systems—is critical to understand socioeconomic and environmental interconnections and to create sustainability solutions. Recent advances include the development and quantification of integrated frameworks that incorporate ecosystem services, environmental footprints, planetary boundaries, human-nature nexuses, and telecoupling. Although systems integration has led to fundamental discoveries and practical applications, further efforts are needed to incorporate more human and natural components simultaneously, quantify spillover systems and feedbacks, integrate multiple spatial and temporal scales, develop new tools, and translate findings into policy and practice. Such efforts can help address important knowledge gaps, link seemingly unconnected challenges, and inform policy and management decisions. Copyright © 2015, American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The importance of taking an integrative approach to research has long been integral to sustainability science, and has recently been highlighted as fundamental to the co-design of research and co-production of knowledge. Just what this means, however, and how to implement such a broad notion has escaped effective methodological development. In order to become more than a generic descriptor, integrative research needs to be conceptualized and presented in ways that offer guidance to researchers designing and conducting integrative research projects, whilst remaining broad enough to be relevant to the breadth and depth of sustainability-related problems. Drawing on complexity theory and fundamental aspects of integrative research, I present a methodological framing that seeks to achieve this balance. Using a definition of integrative research as “research in the context of complexity, with an action imperative”, I draw from complexity theory that proposes minimal specifications, generative relationships, focusing on enablers and seeking diversity as core features of a complexity-based approach. On that basis I propose four principles that can be used by researchers to guide the design and implementation of their projects: embrace uncertainty; engage stakeholders; be transdisciplinary; and have a learning orientation. Each of these principles is explained, and their relationships to research design, methodological framing, choice of methods and project development are presented. Two integrative research project frameworks are presented as examples of how this principles-based approach can be implemented in research design. Using this approach offers a simple but powerful structure to guide integrative research for sustainability science at the project scale.
A major problem worldwide is the potential loss of fisheries, forests, and water resources. Understanding of the processes that lead to improvements in or deterioration of natural resources is limited, because scientific disciplines use different concepts and languages to describe and explain complex social-ecological systems (SESs). Without a common framework to organize findings, isolated knowledge does not cumulate. Until recently, accepted theory has assumed that resource users will never self-organize to maintain their resources and that governments must impose solutions. Research in multiple disciplines, however, has found that some government policies accelerate resource destruction, whereas some resource users have invested their time and energy to achieve sustainability. A general framework is used to identify 10 subsystem variables that affect the likelihood of self-organization in efforts to achieve a sustainable SES.
What kind of a science is sustainability science
  • Robert W Kates
Kates, Robert W. 2011. "What kind of a science is sustainability science?" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 108, n. 49, p. 19449-19450.
Towards Food Sustainability: Reshaping the Coexistence of Different Food Systems in South America and Africa
  • S Rist
  • C Golay
  • E Buergi-Bonanomi
  • F Delgado
  • B Kiteme
  • T Haller
  • C Ifejika Speranza
Rist, S., Golay, C., Buergi-Bonanomi, E., Delgado, F., Kiteme, B., Haller, T., Ifejika Speranza, C. 2016. Towards Food Sustainability: Reshaping the Coexistence of Different Food Systems in South America and Africa. Working Paper No. 1: Project Description. University of Bern.