Transformation archetypes in global food systems

Research output: Journal contributionsJournal articlesResearchpeer-review


  • André Zuanazzi Dornelles
  • Wiebren J. Boonstra
  • Izabela Delabre
  • J. Michael Denney
  • Richard J. Nunes
  • Anke Jentsch
  • Kimberly A. Nicholas
  • Matthias Schröter
  • Ralf Seppelt
  • Josef Settele
  • Nancy Shackelford
  • Rachel J. Standish
  • Tom H. Oliver

Food systems are primary drivers of human and environmental health, but the understanding of their diverse and dynamic co-transformation remains limited. We use a data-driven approach to disentangle different development pathways of national food systems (i.e. ‘transformation archetypes’) based on historical, intertwined trends of food system structure (agricultural inputs and outputs and food trade), and social and environmental outcomes (malnutrition, biosphere integrity, and greenhouse gases emissions) for 161 countries, from 1995 to 2015. We found that whilst agricultural total factor productivity has consistently increased globally, a closer analysis suggests a typology of three transformation archetypes across countries: rapidly expansionist, expansionist, and consolidative. Expansionist and rapidly expansionist archetypes increased in agricultural area, synthetic fertilizer use, and gross agricultural output, which was accompanied by malnutrition, environmental pressures, and lasting socioeconomic disadvantages. The lowest rates of change in key structure metrics were found in the consolidative archetype. Across all transformation archetypes, agricultural greenhouse gases emissions, synthetic fertilizer use, and ecological footprint of consumption increased faster than the expansion of agricultural area, and obesity levels increased more rapidly than undernourishment decreased. The persistence of these unsustainable trajectories occurred independently of improvements in productivity. Our results underscore the importance of quantifying the multiple human and environmental dimensions of food systems transformations and can serve as a starting point to identify potential leverage points for sustainability transformations. More attention is thus warranted to alternative development pathways able of delivering equitable benefits to both productivity and to human and environmental health.

Original languageEnglish
JournalSustainability Science
Issue number5
Pages (from-to)1827-1840
Number of pages14
Publication statusPublished - 01.09.2022

Bibliographical note

This paper is a result of the working group ‘‘sOcioLock-in”, kindly supported by sDiv, the Synthesis Centre of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) Halle-Jena-Leipzig (DFG FZT 118). We thank all the organizers, participants and administrative staff involved in the sDiv working group sOcioLock-in. This study was financed in part by the Coordenação de Aperfeiçoamento de Pessoal de Nível Superior—Brazil (CAPES)—Finance Code 001. André Dornelles is funded by a Brazilian CAPES scholarship.

    Research areas

  • Agricultural productivity, Food systems, Sustainable development, Systemic efficiency, Transformations