Future visions of the Swedish food system support agroecological farming

New publication about future visions of carbon sequestration in Swedish farmland through ‘carbon farming’, read it here.

The agricultural sector and food system face multiple challenges – soils across the globe are deteriorating, jeopardising environmental values as well as long-term productivity in farmlands. To turn the negative trends, the system is in need of a transformation. In order to spark a larger transformation of food systems, we need to envision what a new food system, and society, should look like in the future. We need to paint a picture of where we want to go, and then identify concrete actions for getting there. 

To build future visions, I ran two future vision-making workshops together with Svensk Kolinlagring. The methods for the workshops build on the concept “Seeds of a Good Anthropocene” and the “Three Horizons” framework. The first workshop focused on the farm-level system, while the second workshop zoomed out to focus on the whole food system.

Workshop 1: Seeds of a Good Anthropocene – Visualising the future farm

The first workshop took place online in January 2021. During two half-days, participants from eight of the pilot farms in Svensk Kolinlagring developed scenarios of what a sustainable carbon storing agriculture can look like in 2030. The time frame of 10 years was deemed suitable for planning and taking action on the farm level. 

The workshop started with identifying existing seeds in the food system. Seeds are innovations and experiments, taking place in the margins, that have the potential to contribute towards creating a sustainable future. The participants were then divided into two groups, and each group chose three of these seeds as their basis to generate a narrative of desirable potential futures. 

One group selected ‘collaboration between farms’, and ‘soil health knowledge in education and consultation’ while the other group selected ‘keyline design’ and ‘online farmers market’. Both groups selected ‘Increased use of perennials’. Thereafter, the participants explored what a farm could look like and how it would operate if a combination of these seeds would become the norm in the future and we asked the question: What do we want agriculture to look like in a world where we have managed to curb  greenhouse gas emissions and instead store carbon in agricultural land? What is grown, how are the animals kept and integrated, what do we eat? 

Interestingly, the two groups came up with fairly similar future visions, even though the starting points of their discussions were based on different seeds. The carbon farming futures are argo-ecological futures, where farmers engage in practices that create living soils, contribute to biodiversity, and minimise the use of agro-chemicals. In such futures, the farmers are also better off since yields are high, production is more climate resilient, costs for inputs are low, and more direct producer-consumer relationships improve farmers’ income. The picture below summarises some of the key features of the two groups’ future visions.

Illustration from Johansson, Brogaard & Brodin (Environmental Science and Policy, 2022) based on the outcome of the first workshop. The illustration is a collection of ideas and principles of what a sustainable future farm can engage with to sequester more carbon, create vital ecosystems, and also create positive effects on farmers’ health and income. Farmers can choose different sets of suggested methods represented in the visualisation, but key ideas are to create green landscapes by keeping soils covered all year by an increased use of perennials, bushes and trees, and that animals are increasingly integrated to the farm landscape. 

Workshop 2: Zooming out – A food system based on carbon sequestering agriculture

The second workshop was held on one of the pilot farms, Öråkers gård, outside of Stockholm, during two days in December 2021. This workshop included not only farmers and the team from Svensk Kolinlagring, but also farming consultants and food industry representatives. 

This time, we zoomed out from the farm level to discuss a food system based on carbon sequestering agriculture on a broader level. Using the three horizons framework, we started by identifying the key characteristics of the current system, why it is unsustainable and what components that are worth keeping. Secondly, we discussed the future vision, and its key characteristics. What are the barriers to reach the vision and how do we break unsustainable patterns? What innovations, initiatives and collaborations are required and what critical changes are needed to enable our vision for the future? For example shifts in behaviours, policies, actions or support. And lastly, how do we ensure that the momentum of change is realised and not captured into “business as usual”?

Some of the takeaways from the second workshop was the importance of sharing experiences and networking, increasing knowledge and education – in all parts of society, and using all the good examples around to share a positive story about agriculture. The participants shared a positive feeling that the project we have together is contributing to a shift in the right direction, moving us closer to our vision of the future food system. 

Conclusions from workshops and the next step

Transforming the food system is not a small or easy feat. However, during the workshops, participants highlighted many positive aspects that could be part of a transformed future farm and food system. The future visions were not only focusing on carbon sequestration per se, but rather highlighted the many indirect positive effects on soil carbon from keeping soils covered and undisturbed, improving soil health, and creating healthy ecosystems. We also touched upon topics like social changes related to reduced stress and improved health for farmers, how changes in food production can contribute to new nutritious and diverse diets that improve health in society overall, and how economic changes relate to improved farmer income due to reduced need and use of fossil fuels and chemical inputs on the future farms.

Participants highlighted that many actors need to be part of the farm- and food system transformation. Carbon sequestering food systems need to come about through close connection and interaction between producers and consumers, and need to be supported by policies, and food industries. The creation of a vision doesn’t mean that the job is done, but it is an important step for understanding what actions are needed. The illustration of the alternative farm system is a compilation of many practices that farmers who wish to sequester more carbon can engage in, and is also a tool to communicate the possibilities that lie ahead. The next step is to invite a larger group of actors from the Swedish Carbon Sequestration platform to discuss and come up with what concrete actions and policies are needed to reach the future vision. The concrete action plan will thereafter be communicated to decision makers as a policy brief.  

Review article about futures thinking in the African context

I wonder how many review articles that have been written since the Covid-19 pandemic started? Since my new postdoc project started about the same time as the pandemic, it “forced” me to stay at home and browse the field of research that has been conducted in the context I am interested in. So, instead of just waiting to go to Tanzania, I did two things: I wrote a review article about “Participatory futures thinking in the African context of sustainability challenges and socio-environmental change“, and I tried the futures thinking method to develop and visualize just and sustainable futures in the Swedish context of carbon farming (more about this in a future post once the study is published).

Futures thinking is a key competency in sustainability studies, and the field is currently experiencing a strong surge in participatory scenario development and visioning approaches. Sub-Saharan Africa has a particularly long history of participatory approaches to development; however, the same participatory approaches have often faced critique for lacking the potential to stimulate empowerment and social change. To explore these contradictions, I systematically reviewed the use of participatory scenario development and visioning in sustainability and socio-environmental change research in the region between 2011 and 2021.

The analysis of the review article is structured around three key questions: Who participates, in what, and for whose benefit? Of the 23 reviewed studies, most focused on exploratory scenarios and aimed to understand trade-offs and future risks to identify sustainable pathways to alternative futures. Fewer scenarios were normative and aimed to imagine futures beyond current societal structures and values, and thereby radically challenge the status quo (e.g., business as usual, current socioeconomic systems) by including solutions to power imbalances and injustice. Most scenario development processes engaged a wide range of participants (in terms of power and agency) because this strategy was meant to facilitate knowledge co-production and understanding between (sometimes) conflicting stakeholders. In the end, most scenario development processes strived for consensus and compromise regarding which futures were wanted and which futures were to be avoided.

The figure below summarizes what types of participation was offered in the futures thinking and scenario development process of the reviewed articles.

Figure 2 in Johansson (2021). Assigned participation typologies for each reviewed paper based on typology features provided by Pretty (1995) and White (1996). Colors indicate the geographical location of the study in sub-Saharan Africa, and labels are based on the first author’s name. Dashed lines on specific points indicate that those studies are categorized in two typologies (e.g., Lemenih used both consultational and functional participation, but not participation for material incentives). The dashed circle encloses a cluster of studies that are all classified as interactive and representative.

Based on this review, I challenge what is often considered “best practice” in sustainability discussions by raising some limitations of mixing a wide range of stakeholders in the futures thinking process. Although such mixing is considered to enhance mutual understanding and conflict resolution, it might also limit the potential to stimulate radically different futures that would benefit the vulnerable and marginalized through challenging the status quo. My findings provide guidance for researchers and other actors who intend to use or develop methods for exploring innovative solutions for more just and sustainable futures in different areas and contexts of sustainable development.

For a closer look, read the article here (fully accessible and free of charge for everyone)

Virtual carbon exports from Cambodia

I just published a paper entitled “Foreign demands for agricultural commodities drive virtual carbonexports from Cambodia” in Environmental Research Letters, together with my colleagues Stefan Olin and Jonathan Seaquist. The paper is published under Open Access license, so it’s available for everyone who wants to read and learn about the topic (which I think is crucial for science, and in particular sustainability science if we want to create awareness and spurr societal change towards sustainability).

During the last year I’ve been working on a short (1 year) research project in Cambodia. It’s a very interesting country from a historical, geo-political, and socio-environmetal perspective. It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, also with one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. Much forest has been cut down for the purpose of establishing large-scale rubber plantations, but there are also large areas with cassava and sugarce. The research we did was mainly an attempt to quantify how much carbon (stored in vegetation) that has been lost over the past 30 years, and we quantified this with land cover classifications (from annual satellite images) and modelling of carbon pools. The maps of annual carbon pools could then be used to see trends over time, and also what type of land cover changes that have contributed with losses or gains in carbon. We used spatial data of protected areas (nature reserves, wildlife sanctuaries, etc) and land grabs (or economic land concessions as they are called in the Cambodian context) to see the changes in carbon in these specific areas (sometimes protected and exploited areas are overlapping). We found that areas with economic land concessions have higher carbon loss rates than other areas in Cambodia.

The image shows clear-cuts for large-scale rubber plantations within Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary. Image taken during fieldwork November 2018.

Here is the abstract for an overview of the paper:

Rapid deforestation is a major sustainability challenge, partly as the loss of carbon sinks exacerbates global climate change. In Cambodia, more than 13% of the total land area has been contracted out to foreign and domestic agribusinesses in the form of economic land concessions, causing rapid large-scale land use change and deforestation. Additionally, the distant drivers of local and global environmental change often remain invisible. Here, we identify hotspots of carbon loss between 1987-2017 using the dynamic global vegetation model LPJ-GUESS and bycomparing past and present land use and land cover. We also link global consumption and production patterns to their environmental effects in Cambodia by mapping the countries to which land-use embedded carbon are exported. We find that natural forests have decreased from 54 to 21% between 1987 and 2017, mainly for the expansion of farmland and orchards, translating into 300 million tons of carbon lost, with loss rates over twice as high within economic land concessions. China is the largest importer of embedded carbon, mainly for rubber and sugarcane from Chinese agribusinesses. Cambodian investors have also negatively affected carbon pools through export-oriented products like rubber. The combined understanding of environmental change and trade flows makes it possible to identify distant drivers of deforestation, which is important for crafting more environmentally and socially responsible policies on national and transnational scales.

Cassava plantations, and rubber plantations in the distance. Picture from Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary 2018.
Newly cleared area, only a few high trees have been left from the – previously dense – evergreen forest. Picture from Snoul Wildlife Sanctuary, 2018.


Lecture about art and science at Nässjö Konsthall

The 5th of February I will hold a lecture at Nässjö Konsthall, which will be about how to integrate climate science and art in order to communicate science.

Föreläsningen handlar om hur vi integrerar klimatvetenskap och konst och hur vi når ut till de samhällen som är mest utsatta

Hur mår invånare i byar i Tanzania som blivit utsatta för land grabbing, det vill säga när inhemska eller multinationella företag köper upp stora marker, oftast illegalt. Naturgeografen Emma-Li Johansson använde konsten i sin forskning för att komma närmre människors tankar, oro och framtidsdrömmar. Hur skulle de visualisera fenomenet? Vilka berättelser skulle de inkludera? Under kvällens föreläsning berättar Emma om hur hon gick tillväga för att använda konst i sin forskning, och vilka utmaningar och möjligheter hon upplevt.

Onsdagsforum är en föreläsningsserie i Nässjö konsthall, våren 2020 är temat konst och klimat.

Come and listen!

New paper out in Ambio mixing art and remote sensing

A paper I have been working on for a while with Hakim Abdi was recently published in Ambio under open access license. It compares what we can learn from linking participatory art and local experiences of land use change with remote sensing and land change detection. The paper is linked to fieldwork I did in Tanzania in 2015 and 2016 and is called “Mapping and quantifying perceptions of environmental change in Kilombero Valley, Tanzania”.

Comparing paintings of the past and the present with land change detection through remote sensing. Narratives and corresponding observations of environmental change are marked and highlighted in different colours. Green circles show the mountain forest as visualised in the paintings, and the corresponding area of the satellite image, mainly showing no change (white) and rainfed agriculture to forest (brown). Blue circles show forest loss in the valley as described in the paintings, and corresponding areas in the land cover classification (forest to rainfed, and forest to wetland). Pink circles show changes from wetland and rainfed farmland to irrigated farmland. Yellow circles show agricultural and pastoral activities expanding over the wetland area, which are seen as wetland to rainfed in the land change detection.

Virtual talk about land grabbing at Almedalsveckan

I will be having a virtual presentation at Almedalsveckan tomorrow, 4th of July. If you are there, I think it will be a very interesting session!

Sustainable Land Use? Synergies, Conflicts, and Solutions for Sweden and Beyond

Tid: 11:15 – 12:15
Plats: Hästgatan 13

Medverkande:

  • Genevieve Metson, Assistant Professor, Theoretical Biology IFM and Center for Climate Science and Policy Research, Linköping University
  • Emma Li Johansson, Researcher, Department of Physical Geography and Ecosystem Science, Lund University
  • Kimberly Nicholas, Associate Professor, Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies

How does Swedish farming and food consumption affect ecosystem services here and around the world? What role does agriculture in the EU, particularly the CAP, play in driving Agenda 2030? How can we sustain food, energy, biofuels, climate regulation, and thriving nature with limited land resources?

Chapter in telecoupling book

Me and Jonathan Seaquist just published a chapter in the book “Telecoupling: Exploring Land-Use Change in a Globalised World“. The chapter is entitled “Toolbox: Operationalising Telecoupling with Network Analysis” and demonstrates how network analysis can be used to clarify understandings about the effects of globalisation on land system change.

A simple network representation consisting of nodes (labelled A to E) and links (lines connecting the nodes). Nodes can represent people, institutions, states, or governance structures, whilst links depict connections between the nodes in terms of material, people, energy, or information.

Large-scale land acquisition affects farmers’ ability to produce their own food in Africa

“In order to avoid water conflicts and to stimulate food production in sub-Saharan Africa, large-scale land acquisition must be regulated and focus on food production. These are the conclusions of a new doctoral thesis from PhD Emma Johansson.”

Lund University Center for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS) writes a nice piece about my thesis, and also made a nice video illustration about some key points.

 

 

Freelancing as science illustrator

Do you need a compelling and clear figure for your grant proposal? Or do you need a better-looking figure for your publication?

I have a particular interest of visualizing science as graphs, maps, paintings, and even stop-motion movies (see some examples here). If I could choose, I would only make figures all day. A nice illustration is such a good and efficient way to catch someone’s attention and communicate your scientific results. 

I am currently part time freelancing as a science illustrator,  so if you need help with tables, charts, figures, maps, or other visualizations, don’t hesitate to contact me (emmalijohansson@gmail.com).

Conceptual model of networks and network analysis