When consumers
want quinoa instead
of potatoes

Reading time: 3 minutes


BY Marion de Boo

November 2018

To cope with global population growth, food production needs to go up by 70 percent. That increase requires quite a bit of resilience in the food system.

Failed harvests, countries that close their borders, people who start hoarding supplies, price hiking. Many different causes can lie behind threats to a food system’s resilience. A resilient food systems holds its ground and can withstand a few shocks. But if the system should collapse, food shortages occur. The question is whether you can see warning signs in advance that a food system is threatened with collapse.

Work on a large scale

According to WUR researcher George van Voorn, biologist and mathematician, describing the resilience of a food system quantitatively is quite complicated. “This is about work on a large scale, not at the level of the individual farmer but of the entire food supply. That kind of system includes not just various natural components such as crops and soil types, but also numerous human parties such as farmers, fishers, consumers and governments. They all have their different goals, wishes and insights, and they influence each other and the system, which influences them in turn.

A Quinoa plantation in southern Spain (left) and Bolivian farmers harvesting quinoa (right). PHOTOS Alamy

To get a good understanding of the resilience of food systems, you need to include these human actors in models that describe food systems. We used agent-based modelling for this, which is simulation modelling in which you programme behaviours of all these actors. Then you use the model to see how the food system develops if you give it a shock.”

There are many tomato growers and just a few retailers who dictate the prices. This makes the growers extremely vulnerable

In a theoretical study, different network structures of farmers, traders and consumers were compared and subjected to different kinds of shocks. Some structures turned out to be very sensitive. The tomato sector, for instance, uses a kind of ‘hourglass model’. There are very many tomato growers, very many consumers both at home and abroad, and only a few retailers. This gives the retailers a lot of power, and they dictate the prices. The growers are extremely vulnerable. Models in which the retail sector is more diverse are much more robust. Van Voorn: “Policymakers should be aware of this and should see to good legislation to expand that middle sector. And all the players should be aware that this kind of hourglass model is not very sustainable.”

To get a good understanding of the resilience of food systems, you need to include human actors in models that describe food systems.

The shocks a food system has to endure can be divided into various levels. Drought, for example, affects the farm level, and the farmer will need to make sure there is good irrigation in place. Shocks at the middle level – retail – are rare in western countries. A major power failure or IT crash could cause a hitch in supply but this is rare in practice. Shocks that occur on the consumer side of things seem to have a much bigger impact,
show the models. An example would be when consumers have to cut spending due to an economic crisis, and their buying behaviour changes. Or when their lifestyle changes and they want quinoa from now on instead of potatoes.

Measuring the resilience of a food system is even more complicated because the actors’ behaviour changes over time. They might have been through an economic crisis, for instance, and learned from the experience. So in a subsequent economic crisis, they will behave differently. “Their behaviour is evolving all the time and you need to take those changes into account in your modelling,” says Van Voorn.

‘Focus less on maximizing your own profits and keep an eye on the bigger picture and the interests of all parties’

Creating the agent-based model was primarily a theoretical exercise. Van Voorn and his colleagues would now like to sit down with parties from the sector. “We want to look at whether we can collect figures with which to further refine our models and to study policy interventions that could contribute to increasing resilience.

“As a next step, we would like to extend the system to more countries. We want to link up different food systems such as agriculture and fisheries, because these are components that affect each other. If fisheries are weakened by overfishing, another food sector has to compensate for that. Ultimately we would love to come up with an early warning system that indicates when a food system is at risk of crashing.”


George van Voorn PhD


Researcher, assistant professor, biologist and mathematician at Wageningen University & Research

Resilience research

Making models to gain insights into the resilience of food systems


George van Voorn works on this research with a team of WUR scientists in the fields of agricultural technology and the quantification of biological processes

A greenhouse full of tomato plants. PHOTO Shutterstock

To feed the world population in 2050 without expanding the area of land used for farming, we would have to increase current food production by 70 percent. Van Voorn: “That is quite feasible but to make the food system more resilient we shall have to focus largely on changing behaviour. Parties in the supply chain will have to concentrate less on maximizing their own profits and think more in terms of the interests of the larger whole.”

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