Social-ecological traps link food systems to nutritional outcomes

Publication Name

Global Food Security


Recognized as an emerging global crisis in the mid-1990s, the “nutrition transition” is marked by a shift to Western diets, dominated by highly processed, sugar-sweetened, and high caloric foods. Occurring in parallel to these health transitions are dramatic shifts in the natural systems that underlie food availability and access. Traditionally, environmental degradation and ecosystem change, and processes of nutritional transition, though often collinear and potentially causally linked, have been addressed in isolation. Food systems represent an emblematic social-ecological system, as both cultivated and wild foods are directly reliant on natural ecosystems and their processes. While healthy ecosystems are a necessary precondition of food production, they are not themselves sufficient to ensure continued benefits from local food systems. Mediating between food production and nutritional security are myriad governance and market institutions that shape differential access to food resources. Moreover, globalization and urbanization may shift communities from non-market to market-based economies, with profound implications for local environments and food systems. Specifically, we argue that it is this feedback between coupled socioeconomic and natural dynamics within food systems that reinforces specific nutritional outcomes, and may result in a social-ecological trap. Here, we use the case of reef-based food systems globally, paying particular attention to the Pacific to showcase social-ecological traps present in global food systems, and to illustrate how such traps lead to the acceleration of the nutrition transition. Improving both nutritional and environmental outcomes of food systems requires understanding the underlying drivers of each, and how they interact and reinforce each other. Only in recognizing these interactions and coupled dynamics will economic, governance, and environmental policies be positioned to address these food system challenges in an integrated fashion.

Open Access Status

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Funding Number


Funding Sponsor

National Science Foundation



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