Joachim von Braun | PAS President & Alisher Mirzabaev

Resilient Food Systems


The world food system has drifted into a complex crisis and climate change is a main force among the causes. Climate change affects all the components of the food system, usually in ways that exacerbate already existing vulnerabilities and inequalities between social groups and regions of the world. Climate change also amplifies other risks to food systems resilience and may add unknown risks, that is, uncertainties. Numerous practices, food production and processing technologies, knowledge, collective actions, social capital, as well as market and trade policies, already exist for strengthening food systems resilience, with multiple synergies with other important sustainable development goals such as mitigating and adapting to climate change, conserving biodiversity, safeguarding ecosystem services, and reducing social and gender inequalities. Hence, a wide-scale proactive application of these resilience-building actions would create benefits well beyond food systems. Many of these actions are presently being applied at local scales worldwide, but need to be scaled up where they are already known and scaled out to new areas. Synergies and tradeoffs between these actions require in-depth and context specific research. Maintaining and strengthening food systems resilience under these conditions calls for going beyond usual risk management paradigms, incorporating approaches that help deal with uncertainties. Investment in science and innovation is critical for developing solutions that help strengthen food systems resilience against future climate change uncertainties.

Keywords: climate change, resilience, food systems, food security and nutrition

  1. Introduction: Food systems are losing resilience

The world food system is both significantly contributing to climate change, with about 30% of green-house gas emissions, and also suffering from climate change (IPCC 2019). Global and many national food systems are currently facing major crises with strong indications of increasingly limited resilience and even failures of resilience. These food systems crises are driven by multiple, often overlapping, reasons. Firstly, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted food production, food markets and trade. It has also reduced employment in many countries, reducing household incomes. Facing these challenges, most governments have expanded social protection expenditures, widening budget deficits and accumulating foreign and domestic debt. This now constrains the capacities to respond to further crises. Secondly, international food prices have become more volatile and have risen sharply, adding further hardship for the poor. The Food Price Index by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has risen to new highs (Figure 1).

Figure 1. FAO Food price index. Source: FAO. Note: 2014-2016=100.

Moreover, Russia’s military attack on Ukraine is further driving up food prices. Together the two countries account for 20% of global maize exports and 30% of global wheat exports (Kornher and von Braun, 2022). The hampered trade flows directly affect major importing countries, for instance in the Middle East and Africa, and indirectly poor people in many other countries too. This will increase hunger. The rise in food import bills and pandemic-related interventions have affected markets and value chains in food systems. Rising input prices (fertilizer and energy) and higher transport costs have made agricultural production significantly more expensive.

Figure 2. The number of severe climatic disasters with human life losses. Source: EM-DAT.

Table 1. Past failures of food systems resilience: countries with major instances of famine and the number of people killed by famine between 1900-2020.

Time periods

Countries affected by famine

World Food Summits

Number of people killed by famine

Cereal yields,

tons per hectare


India, Cape Verde, Spain, China, Lebanon, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Iran, Turkey




        8 million



Kazakhstan (2), Russia, China (2), Rwanda (2), Ukraine




       28.2 million



Cape Verde (2), Morocco, Russia (2), Greece, Ukraine, China (2), Iran, India, Rwanda, Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Netherlands, Germany, Malawi, Ethiopia. 






       27.5 million



China, Nigeria, the Sahel region, Ethiopia, India*, Bangladesh, Cambodia



        20 million



Mozambique, Ethiopia, Sudan (3), Somalia, North Korea, Afghanistan, Ethiopia 



        2.8 million



Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Somalia (2), West Africa, Yemen, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Madagascar





        3.1 million


Source: compiled from various sources. *Refers to the situations in Bihar (1966-67) and Maharashtra (1970-73), see e.g., Dyson and Maharatna (1992), Hazell and Rozer (2013).

Food prices are not expected to fall to pre-crisis levels anytime soon. In the context of increasing climate risks and rising number of extreme weather events, which are projected to exacerbate global and regional food security (Figure 2), these market and price risks are here to stay with us into the foreseeable future, and also present serious threats to political stability. Many countries already have unsustainable levels of foreign indebtedness and lack domestic fiscal space to finance social protection in order to alleviate these negative effects for the most vulnerable. As a consequence, a significant part of the progress that the world has achieved in terms of reducing instances and impacts of famines (Table 1) may be undermined in the future.

  1. Concept of Food Systems and Theory of Resilience

Before analyzing food systems resilience in this context, the concept of food system needs to be introduced, and theory of resilience discussed.

Food systems embrace the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal incl. loss or waste (von Braun et al. 2020) of food products that originate from agriculture (including livestock), forestry, fisheries, and food industries, and the broader economic, societal, and natural environments in which they are embedded (von Braun et al., 2021). A sustainable food system is one that contributes to food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social, cultural, and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are safeguarded while preventing any losses to biodiversity (von Braun et al., 2021). Food systems are connected to other systems such as health, ecology and climate, economy and governance, and science and innovation (Figure 3). A conceptual framework of food and nutrition systems should capture delivery of health and well-being while being embedded in the transformation towards a sustainable circular bioeconomy. Science and innovation impact the functioning of the system as a whole and within its building blocks and the interconnections among them. While addressing climate stress for food systems, our main focus in this paper is on people and communities, and their resilience.

Figure 3. Food systems conceptual framework. Source: adapted from von Braun et al. (2021).

Resilience is defined as “the ability of a social or ecological system to absorb disturbances while retaining the same basic structure and ways of functioning, the capacity of self-organization, and the capacity to adapt to stress and change” (IPCC, 2018).

The concept of resilience has been primarily associated with the idea of successfully dealing with emerging risks, i.e., when we know all potential outcomes of these risks and their likelihoods of occurrence, and based on that knowledge can elaborate policies that provide optimal responses to these risks. However, this concept of resilience now needs a revision through integrating uncertainties. Uncertainty means that we are dealing with situations when we don’t have the knowledge of what will happen and with which likelihood. Climate change will increasingly result in unprecedented impacts, also with cascading and compounding factors playing together for which there is little past knowledge enabling us to deal with them in a business-as-usual way. Maintaining and strengthening food systems resilience under these conditions requires going beyond usual risk management paradigms.

Economic models of expected utility cannot fully account for human decision-making in the context of emerging climate change risk which also involve intertemporal choices. Climate change risks are different from standard risks because there are uncertainties associated with them and available knowledge is not sufficient to attach reliable probabilities for their occurrence. Human decision-making when faced with uncertainties can fall back to intuitive risk judgments, i.e., perceptions, rather than rational expected utility maximization (Kahneman, 2011; Tversky and Kahneman, 1986). With climate change risks, involving unprecedented changes in the frequencies, severity and magnitudes of extreme weather events due to climate change, heuristic decision-making can lead to sub-optimal outcomes. As a result, required changes in institutions and technological adoptions may often happen only ex post as a response to shocks, rather than ex ante for the prevention of shocks or building resilience to shocks (Zilberman et al., 2011), which is inefficient and would involve much higher social costs. To avoid this, human decision-making under climate change risks would need to be informed by precautionary approaches and the Prospect theory (Kahneman, 2011; Tversky and Kahneman, 1986), i.e., models of economic behavior that account for both risks and uncertainties. However, there has been limited applied research using these rich elements of behavioral economics to explain human decisions in the context of climate change adaptation and resilience building.

The concept of resilience is multifaceted and highly interdisciplinary; hence, it is challenging to quantitatively measure food systems resilience. The analysis of three quantitative indicators of resilience that are currently widely used found that it is “unclear what these measures capture and what value they add” (Upton, Constenla-Villoslada, and Barret, 2022). Quite often, qualitative descriptions are used for food systems resilience. Resilience assessments and conceptualization have so far been primarily conducted – at the household level – separately from analyses or conceptualisations of systems level resilience. Ideally, the measurement of people’s resilience needs to be embedded inside the measurement of resilience of systems, accounting for whole system functioning.

Resilience is also understood as a desirable capability of people to deal with shocks without significant loss of livelihood, health, and nutrition (von Braun and Thorat, 2014). This means that resilience is the capacity of individuals and groups to anticipate, prevent, adapt to, cope with, and recover from shocks and stressors. Resilient individuals, groups, or communities tend to share the characteristics of having sufficient physical, financial, human, and social capitals to absorb, adapt to, and transform shocks (von Braun and Thorat, 2014).

Figure 4. Food system resilience framework. Source: modified from the IPCC risk framework in Abram et al. (2019).

In this paper, we combine these lines of thought and conceptualize food systems resilience as a function of hazard, exposure and vulnerability (Figure 4). Increasing food systems resilience means reducing risks to food systems and being prepared for successfully dealing with uncertainties. Actions to reduce food system vulnerabilities, lower exposure to food systems risks, and reduce climate change-induced hazards to food systems help strengthen food systems resilience. These actions to build food system resilience could target individual components of hazard, exposure, and vulnerability, but could also have cross-cutting effects across two or three dimensions, e.g., sustainable management of natural vegetation, soils and land.

Figure 5. Vulnerable vs. resilient food systems. Source: adapted from von Braun and Thorat (2014).

Actions to reduce hazards mean measures that help mitigate climate change and also, whenever possible, reduce extreme weather events under the current climate.

In practice, actions to reduce vulnerabilities mean measures to build up five capitals: human, financial, social, natural, and physical. Food systems resilience involves maintaining and developing social (e.g., collective action, social protection, human rights and dignity), human (e.g., education, skills), natural (e.g., preserved ecosystems and healthy soils), physical (e.g., water infrastructures) and economic capitals with the help of enabling policies and institutions. This “five capitals” framework is currently emerging as a major analytical framework in the sustainability sciences (Hendriks et al., 2021 for food systems; Dasgupta 2021 for biodiversity). Household- and community-level studies from across diverse settings found that building up these five capitals is the essential approach to strengthen resilience against uncertain future shocks, both climatic and non-climatic (Mirzabaev, 2013 – Central Asia; Rakib, 2015 – Bangladesh; Ngigi, 2017 – Kenya; Boansi, 2019 – Ghana; Kankwanba 2020 – Malawi).

Actions to reduce exposure to food system risks involve all measures that help reduce exposure to both climatic and non-climatic risks to food systems resilience, such as conflicts, pandemics, trade barriers and food export bans, and others. These measures need to be taken proactively. Resilience is a forward-looking notion; it is about facing future shocks. Proactive measures for strengthening food systems resilience increase the ability to absorb future shocks without losing the long-term potential for development (Figure 5). Households that are below some normative threshold, e.g., poverty line, or food security line, are not considered resilient even if their position is stable with regard to this normative line (Barret and Constas, 2014). This means that households which are trapped in poverty and food insecurity cannot be considered resilient even if their poverty and food insecurity levels do not increase following a shock (Barret and Constas, 2014). Proactive measures to strengthen resilience are also less costly than reactive disaster relief measures (Gerber and Mirzabaev, 2017).

3.     Impacts of climate change on food systems resilience

Climate change-induced extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, heatwaves, extreme precipitation, hurricanes, and cyclones, are projected to pose severe risks to the resilience of food systems globally, but particularly more so locally, especially in developing countries (O’Neill et al., 2022). Climate change usually works as a risk amplifier, exposing already existing underlying weaknesses of local to global food systems, and interacts with other sources of risks to the resilience of food systems, such as conflicts (FAO et al., 2021), global pandemics, or more chronic underlying factors shaping food systems resilience such as social inequality and marginalization, bad governance, cultural attitudes, public policies, and others.  

The effects of climate change on food systems resilience are mediated through a complex web of mechanisms (Mirzabaev et al., 2021; Figure 6). Impacts of climate change on food systems occur through changes in water availability and quality, in pests and disease environment (Mbow et al., 2019; Bezner Kerr et al., 2022), harvest failures and infrastructure damage. Heatwaves, droughts, and floods harm food security, health and nutrition, and lower labour productivity affecting livelihoods and incomes, especially for those engaged in climate-sensitive sectors or working outdoors. This exposure can strongly affect more vulnerable low- and middle-income countries and particular social and economic groups, e.g., smallholder farmers and farmworkers, low-income households, the elderly, women, and children.

Figure 6. Climate change impacts on the food systems. Source: Adapted from Mirzabaev et al. (2021) and von Braun (2020).

Growing competition for land and water resources due to climate change impacts can also lead to deforestation and loss of biodiversity. The ways food systems operate are already inflicting a heavy toll on biodiversity. Loss of biodiversity is by itself a significant threat to the resilience of food systems, e.g., through the loss of genetic diversity enabling resistance to climate change impacts on agricultural production or loss of marine fisheries (Bezner Kerr et al., 2022).

Although in this paper we emphasize climate change-induced risks to food systems resilience, it is important to bear in mind that, in reality, we usually need to deal with a number of risks occurring at the same time, compounding each other or cascading from each other, such as political and conflict risks (e.g., the consequences of the war in Ukraine), unsustainable land management and soil fertility loss, or changes in food and agricultural policies.

4.     Strengthening food system resilience

Actions for strengthening food system resilience can be classified into those which 1) reduce food system vulnerabilities, 2) lower the exposure to food systems risks, and 3) reduce climate change-induced hazards to food systems (Table 2). Specific actions building food systems resilience can fall under more than one of these categories at the same time. The key purpose of these actions is to transform food systems towards climate-resilient development pathways (Zurek et al., 2022). Below, we discuss some of the examples of these resilience-strengthening measures for illustration. We also emphasize that these three categories of measures not only help to be resilient against known risks, but also increase resilience to uncertain impacts of climate change.

Sustainable land management (SLM), including sustainable water management, safeguards and nurtures ecosystem health, raises agricultural productivity, supports climate change adaptation and mitigation, and also contributes to the protection of biodiversity (Mirzabaev et al., 2019; Olsson et al., 2019). For these reasons, SLM needs to be widely promoted by providing incentives, such as payments for ecosystem services (Daily and Polasky, 2019). Boosting nature-based solutions (Jensen et al., 2020) and nature-positive production calls for a wider application of agroecological and livestock management practices that are economically viable and environmentally sustainable (Neufeld et al., 2021; van Zonneveld et al., 2021). Nature-positive food systems will contribute to climate-resilient development (Schipper et al., 2022) through implementing greenhouse gas mitigation and adaptation options in the food systems in order to support sustainable development (Danso, 2015).

Efficient social protection programs that include job creation and a variety of nutrition programs including school feeding programs strengthen resilience (Bundy et al., 2018). To mitigate the risks of poverty and hunger, low- and middle-income countries should be supported to strengthen crisis-resistant and flexible social protection programs and, where such programs do not exist, to build them up, e.g. cash transfer programs and employment programs, as well as nutrition programs through school and health systems.

Trade and market policies. Ensuring free and open food trade will require a reinvigoration of multilateral trade negotiations. In addition, to avoid panic-induced world price spikes, transparent information on production, stocks and government interventions around the world is critical and must be made publicly available, e.g., through the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) (Zimmermann et al., 2021). Investment in trade facilitation, e.g., through improved infrastructures and also (digital) technology for managing customs systems, is increasingly important. Availability of market and trade facilitating hard and soft infrastructures was found to significantly reduce food insecurity in Malawi (Kankwamba, 2020) and increase farmer incomes in Georgia and Armenia (Pkhikidze, 2021).  

Diversification. Diversification of agricultural production, diversification of incomes (including through rural-urban migration), and diversification of food supply sources are some of the most widely used and recommended options for building food systems resilience. At the same time, diversification is not free: it has costs, such as reduced opportunities for specialization, economies of scale, and related transaction costs. A key part of the definition of resilience is not only to withstand shocks, but also to maintain the capacity for future development. If diversification helps withstand shocks, but limits future development opportunities, it will not be fully conducive to resilience building.

Insurance. Another widely-used tool to strengthen food system resilience is insurance. Insurance helps spread the risks of negative shocks and the costs of damages among a larger pool of people, thus building resilience at the level of individuals. At the same time, insurance does not reduce and remove climate change risks to food systems. In the worst cases, it can be seen as a maladaptation to climate change, if insurance incentivizes the continuation of activities and practices that are not resilient to climate change impacts. Insurance works particularly well with idiosyncratic shocks, but works much less with covariate shocks (such as extreme weather events).

Table 2. Actions for strengthening food system resilience (inter alia)

Actions to reduce hazards

Actions to reduce vulnerability

Actions to reduce exposure

  • Sustainable soil, land, and water management
  • Avoiding deforestation
  • Climate change mitigation
  • Social protection
  • Protect (agro)-biodiversity
  • Insurance
  • Reduce loss and waste of food
  • Market information
  • Livelihood diversification
  • Collective action
  • Regional grain reserves
  • Reducing poverty and social inequality
  • Education, capacity building, agricultural services, local and indigenous knowledge
  • Early warning systems
  • Sustainable soil, land, and water management
  • Rural-urban labor mobility
  • Migration
  • Open and equitable international food trade
  • Infrastructure development
  • Irrigation expansion
  • Diversification of food import sources
  • Conflict prevention and resolution
  • Good governance
  • Early warning systems
  • Migration



Source: Hertel et al. (2021), Mirzabaev et al. (2021).

Migration is both a response to climate change and to its outcome. In some cases, migration can be regarded as a form of livelihood diversification (Mirzabaev et al., 2019), with remittances sent by migrant workers contributing to household resilience. However, in other cases, climate change impacts may lead to involuntary migration by making certain areas uninhabitable, such as through sea level rise and inundation of small islands. Conflicts, also resulting in forced migration, are one of the key reasons for current increases in the number of food insecure people in the world. There is a need to coordinate migration processes and policies in both sending and receiving countries, so that migration strengthens individual and system resilience to climatic and other shocks.

A science agenda for resilient food systems

There have been tremendous advances in a better understanding of the interactions between climate change and food systems in recent decades (IPCC, 2019; Wheeler and von Braun, 2013). Investments in research and science need to be expanded into the future to better understand diverse risks to adaptation, particularly in the food systems (Magnan et al., 2022). The UN Food Systems Scientific Group recommends the following seven priority action areas for science and research for the transformation and resilience of food systems (von Braun et al., 2021):

  1. Context-specific policy and institutional innovations to end hunger and increase availability and affordability of healthy diets and nutritious foods
  2. De-risking food systems and strengthening resilience, in particular for climate-neutral, climate-positive, and climate-resilient food systems
  3. Innovations for efficient and fair land, credit, and labor arrangements
  4. Bioscience innovations for peoples’ health, systems productivity, and ecological wellbeing
  5. Technology-based and policy innovations for productive soils, land and water, and to protect the agricultural genetic base and biodiversity
  6. Innovations for sustainable fisheries, aquaculture, and protection of coastal areas and oceans
  7. Digital innovations for efficiency and inclusiveness of food systems and rural communities.

Rigorous implementation research on these themes is needed to strengthen the fit-to-context design and delivery of policies and programs to strengthen the resilience of food systems, especially for chronically vulnerable communities. Improved qualitative and quantitative data collection on resilience to climate change and the efficacies of adaptation interventions needs to become part of priority actions.


Climate change is projected to pose serious challenges to the resilience of food systems both globally and locally, by also amplifying other non-climatic risks to food systems resilience. Numerous practices, technologies, knowledge, and social capital already exist for strengthening food systems resilience, such as sustainable land management, safeguarding biodiversity, social protection, early warning mechanisms, traditional and local knowledge, agricultural services and extensions, diversification and insurance, food waste and loss reduction, and many others. These actions boosting food system resilience are often also synergic with other climate-resilient development goals. However, many of these actions are presently being applied selectively at the local scale, but need to be scaled up where they are already known, and scaled out to new areas worldwide. Some of these actions require further research and development investments. Especially because climate change will also increasingly result in unprecedented impacts, with cascading and compounding factors playing together for which there is little past knowledge enabling us to deal with them in a business-as-usual way. A widescale proactive application of these resilience-building measures in food systems would create sustainable development benefits well beyond them.

Designing relevant, cost-effective policies for strengthening food systems resilience requires significantly more research on more sustainable food systems technologies, socio-economic research on risks and uncertainty faced by food systems, as well as on synergies and tradeoffs between numerous resilience-building measures and technological solutions. Unprecedented climate change impacts and associated uncertainties in combination with strong economic interests make independent and trustworthy science an essential requisite for achieving resilient food systems.

Science provides options and solutions, but science alone, without strong political support and integration of the food systems resilience agenda into related international processes, will not be sufficient. It is critical that considerations for food systems resilience are made an integral and institutionalized part of global efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change under the UN Climate Change Convention, land degradation neutrality and land restoration under the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, and global and national biodiversity frameworks under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.   


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