Dear All,

One of the things that I notice about this discussion is that people are using "resilience” rather loosely to convey a general idea about being able to recover from disaster, or be more adaptable to climate change. We use the word “sustainability” in the same general way. This is good for general discussions but we need something more focused for food security projects and policies. For example the Resilience Alliance, a group of scientists that does research on resilience in social-ecological systems uses this definition: 

“The capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change so as to still retain essentially the same function, structure and feedbacks, and therefore identity, that is, the capacity to change in order to maintain the same identity.”

And a social-ecological systems is defined as:

“Integrated system of ecosystems and human society with reciprocal feedback and interdependence. The concept emphasizes the humans-in-nature perspective.”

There are a number of other key definitions in the same paper:

Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin, and J. Rockström. 2010. Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecology and Society 15(4): 20. [online] URL:

The paper discusses the relationship between resilience, adaptability and transformability, which are three key concepts for understanding the management of change processes in any social-ecological system.

Practical application of resilience theory is described in relation to a farming system in western Australia where poor soil and water management practice led to a major salination problem and decline in wheat production: Walker, B. H., N. Abel, J. M. Anderies, and P. Ryan. 2009. Resilience, adaptability, and transformability in the Goulburn-Broken Catchment, Australia. Ecology and Society 14(1): 12. [online] URL: http://www.

A couple of points about assessing resilience:

1. Social-ecological systems are open systems and influenced by both their sub-systems and the larger systems of which they are a part. A family farm is a subsystem of a rural village, which is a subsystem of a landscape, which is a subsystem of … These open sub-systems are continually evolving over time and the resilience of any one of these subsystems will increase or decrease as a consequence of the multiple feed-back interactions that occur between them. For management purposes, one has to be clear about the boundaries of the system being managed and the primary feedbacks that are either driving the system in a particular direction (reinforcing feedback) or balancing feedbacks that are returning a system to an earlier condition. This assessment is about resilience of a specified system to specified shocks and enables managers to assess the risk that a system (a farm, or a farming community, or a agricultural landscape will suddenly change into an undesirable state. The Australian example shows how poor water management changed the farming landscape into an undesirable state.

2.  In addition to assessing the resilience of a system to specific socks and stressors, the status and trend of a number of attributes that enhance the potential of a system to change (either to adapt or to transform) can be assessed in what is know as an assessment of general resilience as opposed to specified resilience described about. An example of this kind of assessment is given in this paper: Nemec, K. T., J. Chan, C. Hoffman, T. L. Spanbauer, J. A. Hamm, C. R. Allen, T. Hefley, D. Pan, and P. Shrestha. 2013. Assessing resilience in stressed watersheds. Ecology and Society 19(1): 34.

The two kinds of assessment are complimentary.

There is a simple resilience assessment of a case in Tanzania where land use practice has undergone two major changes over the last fifty years in response to: firstly a development aid intervention to improve agricultural production that led desertification (an unforeseen and undesirable change); and secondly to a restoration effort that put local people and their knowledge back into the land use decision making process. The case description is available here:

There is a range of cases reporting resilience, loss of resilience and transformation in arctic communities that have been severely affected by climate change posted on the Stockholm Resilience website…. These include cases about communities whose livelihood strategies include fishing, herding and hunting.