Resilience and alternative food networks. Learning from COVID-19, fire, and other stressors on local fisheries and agriculture to build resilience to future challenges

Loring, Philip A. | $88,329

Ontario University of Guelph 2021 SSHRC

Food systems around the world face myriad chronic and stochastic threats, not the least of which has been the COVID‑19 pandemic, which has exacerbated food insecurity, increased food wastage, interrupted international trade, and threatened the livelihoods of many in the agricultural and fisheries sectors. Amidst these diverse challenges, however, Alternative Agrifood Networks (AANs) and Alternative Seafood Networks (ASNs), which deliver locally harvested products to local and regional communities, emerged as notable bright spots due to their resilience and adaptability during this challenging time.

This project aims to advance food system resilience, both in theory and practice, by exploring how AANs and ASNs (Alternative Food Networks or AFNs) respond in the face of change and surprise. We will identify factors and conditions that enable these networks to be adaptive and shock-tolerant to disruptions caused by the COVID‑19 pandemic or other challenges such as wildfire. Our proposal is unique in that we will link research on fisheries systems and agriculture, which have been chronically siloed in food systems research. Our team is diverse, and includes partners from industry organizations, food policy councils, and non-profit organizations from multiple locales in Canada and US. The project will achieve social impact via a collaborative Knowledge Mobilization (KMb) strategy that emphasizes industry- and policy-facing insights for improving food value chain resilience.

By building transformative theory and knowledge about food systems resilience to shocks, this project has the potential to help global food systems from the ground up, by communicating results and connecting food producers and harvesters to one another so they can share experiences and resources. We will also support change from the top down by giving policymakers and international bodies concrete policy tools for improving how local food systems actors can respond to shocks. This project will also identify opportunities to “bounce forward” and take advantage of shock and disruption to make transformative improvements to food systems. Broadly, this project contributes to multiple UN sustainable development goals, including reducing hunger, ensuring decent work, and sustaining communities.

We will focus on both AANs and ASNs; the latter is a relatively nascent segment of the seafood system, having emerged in the last decade or so, while the former networks are more well established. Both comprise a heterogeneous category of business models that link small-scale farmers, fishers, and other harvesters directly to their communities and to institutional buyers such as schools and hospitals through relational supply chains. Our methods include new ethnographic research and qualitative network analysis with partners from both sectors, including Indigenous partners with whom our team has established relationships. Cases will include AFNs in multiple regions, including the watersheds of the Columbia and Fraser Rivers (British Columbia), the Great Lakes (Ontario) and the Gulf of Maine (Maine). We will also host “resilience dialogues:” a collaborative research and visioning activity where participants from both sectors convene to identify challenges and lessons learned, discuss the feasibility of solutions, and craft scenarios for the future of their region.

Collectively, our research activities will advance three key objectives: 1) identify common factors and strategies for resilience in AFNs across multiple cases studies and networks; 2) identify common challenges and strategies across time, through multiple shocks; and 3) use KMb to identify and pilot-test transferable lessons of success stories that can contribute toward resilience elsewhere in the world.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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