Agent-based modelling to assess community food security and sustainable livelihoods

Authors Dobbie, S.; Schreckenberg, K.; Dyke, J.G.; Schaafsma, M.; Balbi, S.
Year of Publication 2018
Type of Publication Journal Article
Journal Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation
Volume 21
Issue 1
Open Access Yes


The aim of this paper is to develop a methodological approach to enable the construction of agent-based models of community food security in developing country contexts where regional (sub-national) data sets are available. Measurement of food security has tended to concentrate on either entire nations or individual households (Carletto et al. 2013; Pinstrup-Andersen 2009). However, rights-based approaches have prompted a renewed interest in community food security, an evolving concept that advocates long-term systemic approaches to address food insecurity in an equitable and sustainable manner (Jarosz 2014). Community food security can be defined as “a situation in which all community residents obtain a safe, culturally acceptable, nutritionally adequate diet through a sustainable food system that maximizes self-reliance and social justice” (Hamm & Bellows 2003, p. 37). It differs from household or national food security, as it emphasises the complex nature of food systems, which are embedded within dynamic social, ecological and economic processes (Kaiser 2011; Thompson & Scoones 2009). Community food security pays attention to interactions between system components such as households, institutions and the environment and the emergence of diverse food systems and food security outcomes (Hamm & Bellows 2003; McCullum et al. 2005). We present a methodological approach for constructing an agent-based model to assess community food security and variation among livelihood trajectories, using rural Malawi as a case study. The approach integrates both quantitative and qualitative data to explore how interactions between households and the environment lead to the emergence of community food availability, access, utilisation and stability over time. Results suggest that livelihoods based upon either non-agricultural work or farming are most stable over time, but agricultural labourers, dependent upon the availability of casual work, demonstrate limited capacity to ‘step-up’ livelihood activities. The scenario results suggest that population growth and increased rainfall variability are linked to significant declines in food utilisation and stability by 2050. Taking a systems approach may help to enhance the sustainability of livelihoods, target efforts and promote community food security. We discuss transferability of the methodological approach to other case studies and scenarios.