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14.2.3: Food Shortages, Chronic Malnutrition, and Famine- Coupled Human-Natural Systems Aspects

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  • Food Crises and Interacting Elements of the Natural and Human Systems

    This section employs the framework of Coupled Natural-Human Systems (CHNS) in order to illustrate the interacting elements of natural and human systems that can combine to produce severe food shortages, chronic malnutrition, and famine food systems around the world. These CHNS concepts build on the diagrams and concepts in module 10 and 11.1. You will also apply these concepts in the summative assessment on the next page.

    As you read this brief description consult figure 11.2.2 below. It depicts that interacting conditions within the human and natural systems, combined with driving forces and feedbacks, are at the core of many cases of severe food shortages, chronic malnutrition, and famine in agri-food systems.

    The best place to begin interpreting Figure 11.2.2 is by focusing on the driving forces emanating out of both the human and natural systems. Human system drivers often involve political and military instability and/or market failures and volatility (such as prices). Most cases of famine, as well as many instances of severe food shortages and chronic malnutrition, involve these human drivers. In addition, human drivers not only drive vulnerability in natural systems but may act first and foremost on human systems, reducing the adaptive capacity of consumers and producers, for example by reducing the purchasing power of poor populations during price spikes.

    Figure 11.2.2 also shows that drivers emanate from the natural system. Climate change and variation, such as drought and flooding, often contribute to cases of famine, as well as severe food shortages and chronic malnutrition.

    These drivers, however, are only PART of the causal linkages of severe food shortages, chronic malnutrition, and famine. Similarly important are the conditions of poor resilience (potentially arising as result of weak social infrastructure), low levels of adaptive capacity and poverty. Poverty is tragically involved as a cause of nearly all cases of severe food shortages, chronic malnutrition, and famine. For Mark Bittman, the author of the required reading on the previous page, the link between poverty and failures of food systems, rather than a failure of any other human or natural factors such as food production, food distribution, or overpopulation, is the central thesis he advances in his short opinion piece. You may want to glance again at this reading in order to remind yourself of why poverty is so deeply implicated in the failures of agri-food systems.

    Weak or inadequate resilience (R) and adaptive capacity (AC), along with vulnerability (V), are also symptomatic of natural systems prone to severe food shortages, chronic malnutrition, and famine. For example, cropping and livestock systems unable to tolerate extreme conditions illustrate a low level of adaptive capacity (AC) that can contribute significantly to the failure of agri-food systems.

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    Figure 11.2.2.: Anatomy of severe food shortages, chronic malnutrition, and famine in agri-food systems based on the framework of Coupled Natural-Numan Systems (CNHS). Many of the resilience, adaptive capacity, and vulnerability (RACV) concepts introduced in module 11.2 are depicted here in the negative, e.g. a lack of agroecosystem resilience. Acute food insecurity and famine often involves a "perfect storm" or coming together of more than one of the RACV factors shown here. We note that some of the shocks are generated internal to the human system (large blue circular arrow at center left), with political and economic instability, and other negative human system drivers, fostering vulnerability of farmers and consumers in the human system as well as negative impacts on biodiversity and productivity of ecosystems. Credit: Karl Zimmerer and Steven Vanek