Sustainable Agri-Food Systems

The world’s agri-food systems face and reproduce a number of interlinked and persistent challenges, such as climate change and carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, obesity and malnutrition, soil degradation and immense socio-economic inequalities. It is evident that there is an urgent need to transform agri-food systems across the globe.

My empirical work mostly focuses on agri-food systems. I am intrigued by these systems, as they are highly complex systems that comprise of ecological, geological, material, technological and socio-economic dimensions. It is in these systems that the fundamental entanglement between the ‘natural’ and the ‘human’ worlds (or rather: the debunking of their ontological ‘Modernist separation’, see the work of Bruno Latour) becomes particularly manifest.

There is a need to further explore avenues that sustainability transitions research could pursue in order to foster fundamental change in agri-food systems [1]. These include focusing on (i) Cross-scale dynamics between coupled social, technical and ecological systems; (ii) Social justice, equity & inclusion in agri-food systems; (iii) Sustainability transitions of agri-food systems in low- and middle-income countries; and (iv) Cross-sectoral agri-food governance and system integration.

In recent studies, we have explored the relation and multi-system interactions between agri-food systems and so called Research and Innovation (R&I) systems. In order to understand the relation between R&I sytems and agri-food systems we have proposed a coupled-systems perspective, where both systems are both separate in terms of functional and structural properties, yet strongly entangled [2]. We observe that R&I systems coupled to agri-food systems are often fragmented in terms of disciplinary and policy silos, their funding structures do not sufficiently support transdisciplinary and transformative research and innovation efforts, and collaborative cultures are still lacking. R&I systems need to be transformed so that they embrace pluralities of knowledge and values that are required in transformative and transdisciplinary R&I. In that way, R&I could serve as a catalyst for food system transformation [3].

In particular, in light of the emerging work on “mission-oriented” innovation systems that could serve as such catalysts, we have recently argued that this brings along the urgent need to address the politics of such Mission-oriented Agricultural Innovation Systems (MAIS). This for instance, could be done through the lens of the 4D framework, by interrogating questions on the directionality, diversity, distribution and democracy of MAIS [4].

Selected publications

[1] Hebinck, A., Klerkx, L., Elzen, B, Kok, K. P. W., et al. (2021). Beyond food for thought: directing sustainability transitions research to address fundamental change in agri-food systems. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions, 41, 81-85. LINK

[2] Kok, K. P. W., Den Boer, A. C. L., Cesuroglu, T., et al., (2019). Transforming Research and Innovation for Sustainable Food Systems: A Coupled-Systems Perspective. Sustainability, 11(24), 7176. LINK

[3] Den Boer, A. C. L., Kok, K. P. W., Gill, M. et al., (2021). Research and innovation as a catalyst for food system transformation. Trends in Food Science & Technology, 107, 150-156. LINK

[4] Kok, K. P. W. & Klerkx, L. (2023). Addressing the politics of mission-oriented agricultural innovation systems. Agricultural Systems, 211, 103747. LINK