Georgina Smith/CIAT

E-learning for systems thinking in food, land and water

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

A series of e-learning modules from Agro Landscapes aims to promote the systems thinking needed to transform how our agriculture and food systems interact with the environment and contribute to human wellbeing.

Climate change has highlighted the urgent need to transform the way we manage our land and water resources to sustain ourselves, and the COVID-19 pandemic has hammered home the truth of how closely linked people, nature and their livelihoods are. Our food and agricultural systems cause huge biodiversity losses, account for one third of greenhouse gas emissions, and are actually failing to feed us properly – two billion people live on unhealthy diets and 40% of all food produced goes to waste. Yet the nexus of food, land and water systems offers a fertile solutions space for a sustainable and inclusive future.

Agro Landscapes, a project funded by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems, has created a space to show us how we can replicate and scale up solutions. Through a recently launched series of six interactive learning modules that brings together the insights of over 40 international experts, "Synergies and tradeoffs in food, land and water systems" provides insights and tools for systems thinking. Fundamentally, it seeks to support researchers, students, practitioners and policymakers in imagining an agricultural future that moves beyond an ecologically destructive focus on maximizing yields to maximizing the synergies and reducing tradeoffs between outcomes for nature and people in the long term.

The holistic approach offered by the learning modules is non-linear. Represented by an interactive flower with six petals, the series recognizes that a social-ecological systems discourse is best fostered by allowing users from diverse walks of life to access content from an equally diverse set of contributors. Users are encouraged to "choose their own adventure" by clicking on whichever module appeals to them to start with – Introduction, Scales of Assessment, Synergies and Tradeoffs, Tools and Methods, Using Assessment Results, or Looking Ahead – at whatever scale is most relevant to their interests: farm/plot level, national level, or global/transboundary level.

Naturally, many will gravitate towards the introductory module, which sets the scene for systems thinking by drawing on a rich tradition of social-ecological thinking. For anyone looking to recalibrate how they approach food, land and water, the module provides an impressive range of out-of-the-box visualizations of these intersecting systems, including from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, the Global Land Project and a sustainability science approach for water systems.

The modules are supported by multimedia contributions by systems, biophysical and social science researchers affiliated with universities and CGIAR centers across the world. They include concrete examples from the field, innovative tools and methods, and insights to uncover more equitable, holistic and resilient pathways for the transformation of our food and agricultural systems. In embracing the complexity of systems thinking, the common objective is to provide us with flexible and relevant toolkits to actively strengthen co-benefits (synergies) while better managing the conflicting objectives and negative consequences (tradeoffs) of the interactions between land, water and food systems.

These synergies and tradeoffs underline the fact that agriculture has multiple roles – social, economic and environmental. If the agricultural system sits at the intersection of our water, land and food systems, then we cannot afford to ignore the impacts it has on every aspect of our lives. We must therefore adopt the notion of a multifunctional, regenerative agriculture that can offer solutions to the multiple challenges we face today, be it food and nutrition insecurity, poverty, ecological damage or climate change.

The e-learning modules bring to bear combined expertise and experience from transdisciplinary perspectives, illustrated with real-world case studies from Asia, Africa and Latin America. They intend to not only show researchers and policymakers what is possible, but also how innovative approaches can contribute to positive change. Systems analysis and simulation tools are described, and nested within the participatory, inclusive frameworks that are so crucial to ensuring that good ideas work. And herein lies the key to unlocking the potential of systems thinking – they are committed to a diversity of solutions co-developed by a diversity of users.

Explore the e-learning modules at https://agrolandscapes.org/tosa-page/home