Getting to grips with a “super wicked” problem: the future of food and farming

“Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”.
Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming, 2011

The abundance of food lining our supermarket shelves and providing millions of people with an affordable and reliable food source is a small modern-day miracle. However beyond the glistening aisles of the supermarket, our food system causes an often untold destruction of the ecosystems we depend on. This is compromising our ability to achieve a secure food supply in the future1 – both in the near future and long-term. As we witness this destruction with heavy hearts, we are being called by leaders, scientists and other experts to rethink and reshape an entire industry, to help repair damaged ecosystems and avoid major societal collapse. What a mountain we have to climb! It’s tempting, as with climate change, to either look the other way and pretend everything’s okay, or adopt a philosophy which basically concludes that ultimately, we’re all doomed, collapse is inevitable and so let’s sit back and enjoy the ride while we can. To put it bluntly, both of these positions are nonsense and we must face up to the facts, get a grip and try to be part of a movement of change that’s collaborative, bold, honest and positive.

Representing the food system

Getting a strong grasp of the challenges is critical because implementing effective policy is a delicate affair. We don’t have the luxury of designing a new food system to replace the old one. We are stuck in the thick of a deeply complex system, made from a mostly self-organised set of interacting parts. Academics are constantly exploring different approaches to representing the food system, to support those trying to get to grips with it. Here’s one example of a representation:

Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)
Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)

One common problem is that almost everyone is a “specialist”. Yet the complexity of the challenge calls for us to take a broad view, stepping outside our narrow specialty to take stock of the bigger picture. We are fortunate to have a wealth of collaborative projects, publications and resources that help us make sense of the challenges in our food system and suggest approaches to improve its sustainability. The most relevant example in recent years is the comprehensive Foresight Future of Food and Farming Report (Foresight 2011) that involved around 400 leading experts and stakeholders, drawing on a breadth of scientific and other evidence. Here’s some very brief notes taken from this report that give a brief flavour of its overall messages:

Notes from the Foresight project: the Future of Food and Farming.
Notes from the Foresight project report on the Future of Food and Farming. Click here for a PDF version of this graphic.

This is a ‘super wicked’ problem

When thinking about the actions required to transform the food system, it’s useful to appreciate the type of problem we’re dealing with. Last year, I attended an IFSTAL lecture on food systems thinking by Dr. Alex Arnall at Reading University which introduced different categorisations of problems, drawing on a social science theory developed by Rittel and Webber (Rittel 1973). In brief, there are ‘tame‘ problems which are complicated but solvable (e.g. increasing drought resistance of a certain crop) and ‘wicked‘ problems which are complex and intractable, often transcending boundaries such as organisations, disciplines or geopolitical  (e.g. the problem of food waste). A relatively new category was suggested in 2012 called ‘super wicked‘ problems, defined as having the additional characteristics (Leven 2012):

  • “Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount the future irrationally.”

In Dr Arnall’s presentation, he describes overfishing, obesity and climate change as having the characteristics of ‘super wicked’ problems. Based on their definition, it feels reasonable to suggest the challenges facing future food production is also a ‘super wicked’ problem. When these features listed above combine, Leven et al. describe the result a policy-making “tragedy” where “traditional analytical techniques are ill-equipped to identify solutions, even when it is well recognised that actions must take place soon to avoid catastrophic future impacts” (Levin 2012).

Why a different approach to policy making is required

A conventional approach to policy often involves identifying single goals, such as efficiency, and applying a variation of cost-benefit policy analysis3. However this approach is unable to deal with the open, non-linear characteristics of the food system, where humans and organisations often interact in unpredictable ways. Levin et al. therefore suggest applying a “forward reasoning” approach that “identifies possible policy interventions and reasons forward to how the problem and interventions might unfold over time“. In short, the use of scenarios and futures tool. Their paper does not advocate discounting historical forces that shape politics and outcomes; rather they should be embraced and used to open up creative solutions to address “super wicked” problems. Progressive incremental trajectories are suggested as the best resolution for “super wicked” problems, rather than one-shot logical solutions, which often get trapped and fail in their ambition.

Levin et al. identified three helpful questions for policymakers that are designed to address the tragedy of super wicked problems:

  1. What can be done to create stickiness? This is the idea that makes reversibility of the policy immediately difficult. In this, it’s important that interventions do not legitimise low standards or worse, lock in lower standards (e.g. aiming to low in our targets).
  2. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to entrench policy interventions?
  3. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to expand policy interventions?

In exploring the above questions, Leven et al. go into much further detail, suggesting that analysts designing policy also pay greater attention to:

  • The role of coalitions;
  • Values and deeply held views about right and wrong by segments of society;
  • Fostering norms that define and regulate appropriate behaviour – this can trigger positive feedbacks.

Involving this type of approach in policy making feels appropriate for addressing “super wicked” problems, which demand a different type of analysis.

While much more could be said in this post, my intention is just a brief personal exploration. The challenge is enormous, frustratingly complex and as such, it’s clear that food cannot be treated like any other commodity, By finding ways to broadly understand food security and appreciate it as a “super wicked” problem, we have a much better chance to head on a positive trajectory, for the sake of future generations.


1. For in depth further (acedemic) reading on this, refer to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014).

2. An example of conventional analysis being applied to a “super wicked” problem is mentioned in the European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA)  which describes how existing environmental policies related to reactive nitrogen have been established in a fragmented way, separated by media (air, land, water, etc), by issue (climate, biodiversity, waste etc) and by form (Sutton 2011). While this specialisation has advanced understanding and helped achieve some progress, the ENA calls for a more comprehensive understanding of the nitrogen cycle to establish policy that ensures nitrogen management is addressed holistically.


Arnall, A.; Pope, H. (2015). What is systems thinking and how can we use it to confront the ‘wicked problem(s)’ of food? IFSTAL Lecture 2 Systems Thinking. Available at:

Foresight (2011). The Future of Food and Farming. Final Project Report: Executive Summary. The Government Office for Science, London.

IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, p. 13.

Levin, Kelly; Cashore, Benjamin; Bernstein, Steven; Auld, Graeme. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sciences. 45 (2): 123–152. doi:10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0. Available at:

Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730. Available at:

Sutton, Mark A., et al., 2011. The European Nitrogen Assessment: Summary for Policy Makers. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.