SS14. Social metabolism and agrarian and food transitions: articulating analysis and social transformation

To transition towards sustainable socio-ecological systems, it is necessary to analyze the issues generated by each economic sector and explore existing and emerging alternatives. This field has been analyzed from various perspectives, such as ecological economics, political ecology, and agroecology, although not always in an integrated manner. In this case, the session aims to create a space for discussion between metabolic analyses and those related to the transition towards an alternative food system, taking into account their specificities. To achieve this, the goal is to foster an inter/transdisciplinary dialogue based on research advancements within the framework of social metabolism (González de Molina and Toledo, 2014), but incorporating theoretical and methodological innovations resulting from this integration with other approaches, such as agroecology (González de Molina, Petersen, Garrido-Peña, 2019). These synergies will allow us to clarify the negative socio-environmental impacts of industrial agriculture, livestock, aquaculture, fishery, forestry and food globalization, as well as highlight the actions deployed by different social actors towards socio-ecological change.

  • Expected proposals format: conventional panel contributions
  • Keywords: MFA, Social Metabolism, Food transition, Water-energy-food nexus, Agroecology, Agri-food system
  • Related track(s): 8. Energy, resources, and energy/matter flow analyses / 11. Enabling radical change and institutional transformation
  • Organizers: Salazar-Galán, Sergio (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Sevilla, España); Sanjuán-Ruiz, Ángel (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Sevilla, España); Saralegui-Díez, Pablo (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Sevilla, España); Saura-Gargallo, Laura (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Sevilla, España); Ivorra-Cano, Adrià (Universidad Pablo de Olavide, Sevilla, España)

Full description

The current agri-food system stands out as one of the major sources of unsustainability on a global scale, attributed to its contribution to climate change and its impacts on population health and ecosystems (Cheng, 2023; Crippa et al., 2021). This is why this topic is indispensable in any discussion about degrowth. Mitigating its negative impacts not only demands in-depth integrated analyses of its material, energy, and information flows but also underscores the need to highlight and disseminate sustainable agroecological practices harmonizing with the environment, safeguarding ecosystem health, enhancing the quality of life for citizens, and ensuring income for the farming population.

Analyses of energy and material flows (MEFA) have been useful in specifying the sources of unsustainability and identifying key areas where metabolic reduction is necessary, such as decreasing dependence on external inputs and above all those derived from fossil fuels. The study of material, energy, and water requirements at different scales sheds light on the dynamics of the current agri-food regime, providing insights for the redesign of agroecosystems and the entire transformation-circulation-consumption chain, thus opening avenues for transitioning to a sustainable model. Additionally, the interaction of these flows with the natural environment requires approaches that consider not only the comparability of environmental impact studies but also the imperative to sustain the foundational resources of agroecosystems for genuine sustainability (Guzmán and González de Molina, 2017).

In this regard, the agroecological approach stands as a viable and just alternative to conventional management and the corporate agri-food regime, taking into account such considerations (Aguilera and Rivera-Ferré, 2022; Guzmán et al., 2018). There is a growing body of case studies illustrating how these practices promote the seasonality of food consumption, the reterritorialization of production, the relocalization of food circulation, and improvements in economic outcomes and health for both producers and consumers. However, we identify a gap between metabolic analyses and the identification of necessary lock-ins for transitioning to sustainable food systems. Therefore, this track aims to bridge the gap between ecological economics and other disciplines such as agroecology, as well as political ecology, which has been questioning power relations in the food system for decades. The need for dialogue across these domains motivates the creation of a session designed as a meeting ground for the ecological paradigm, the methodology of social metabolism, and the technical and political proposal of agroecology, stimulating discussion on their role in the degrowth strategy.

The objective is to promote the exchange of different research endeavors falling within the realm of metabolic analyses, quantifying material and energy flows, stocks, fund elements, and/or their interrelations. More specifically, we invite discussions on advancements related to agricultural and food-related issues, such as analyses focused on agrarian and water metabolism, the relationship between rural and urban areas, food circulation, the impacts of changes in consumption patterns and diet, and so forth.

Likewise, researchers working to identify the lock-ins present in the food chain are encouraged to participate, encompassing agricultural, livestock, fishery and forestry production, as well as distribution and consumption, whether these lock-ins are of a technological, political, cultural, etc., nature. This is to capture the complexity of the issue. Analyses of conflicts arising from the systemic rejection of alternatives are also welcome. Furthermore, participants are encouraged to propose and reflect on ways to unlock these barriers through alternative forms of organization. We expect diverse geographical representation, with case analyses from both the Global South and North. Additionally, analyses from various historical periods and scales—whether at the plot, landscape, regional, national, or global level—are accepted.

The contribution to the degrowth debate is twofold. Firstly, rigorous diagnoses will be presented on socio-ecological transitions toward an industrial metabolic regime in agri-food systems, analyzing the causes and consequences of biophysical growth. Secondly, proposals and innovations attempting to reverse these trends will be examined, emphasizing technologies and infrastructures tailored to specific territories, sustainable production practices such as agroecology, pastoralism, artisanal fishing, forest community management, etc.; short marketing channels, new institutional frameworks, and/or alternative forms of collective action. This is all grounded in knowledge generated by academia, including analyses such as metabolic studies. It also draws from organizations and social movements that, guided by ethics of social and environmental justice, forge alliances between broad sectors of rural and urban populations, constructing a praxis that enables continued progress toward socio-ecological change and locally based agroecological food systems.

The proposal is presented as an open session in a conventional format. Each session will adhere to the recommended duration of 90 minutes by the Congress. The panel will consist of a minimum of 4 participants per session and a maximum of 5, but up to 3 sessions may be considered. Nevertheless, a mandatory requirement to fit their presentation within 15 minutes in the case of sessions with 4 participants, or 12 minutes in the case of sessions with 5 participants will be requested to the selected authors of the Abstracts. 

Following the selection of the Abstracts, the coordination of this panel will request the participants a one page document in which they resume the main outcomes of their study exclusively regarding the lock-ins for the food transition and the possibilities to overcome these lock-ins. These inputs would be systematized and prepared for the panel. During the presentations, a member of the panel coordination will have the role of rapporteur, working with the systematization from the inputs sent by the authors, and complementing it with information presented in each communication, while another member would be moderating the roundtables. All this information would be presented in a MIRO during the last 20-25 minutes of each session as a way to promote the discussion and the generation of a consensus on possible actions and guidelines. Finally, every aspect regarding the discussion would be collected with the willing to write a collaborative paper on the nexus between social metabolism analysis and the identification of lock-ins and overcomes to sustainable food transitions.


  • Aguilera, Eduardo, y Marta G. Rivera-Ferré, La urgencia de una transición agroecológica en España. Análisis de escenarios, estrategias e impactos ambientales de la transformación del sistema agroalimentario español (Madrid: Amigos de la Tierra, 2022)
  • Cheng, Danyang, «Footprint of agri-food systems», Nature Climate Change, 13.9 (2023), 896 <https://doi. org/10.1038/s41558-023-01805-2>
  • Crippa, M, E Solazzo, D Guizzardi, F N Tubiello, y A Leip, «Food systems are responsible for a third of global anthropogenic GHG emissions», Nature Food, 2 (2021) https://doi. org/10.1038/s43016-021-00225-9 
  • González de Molina, Manuel, Paulo Frederico Petersen, Francisco Garrido Peña, y Francisco Roberto Caporal, Political Agroecology (Boca Ratón: CRC Press, 2019) <https://doi. org/10.1007/978-94-024-1179-9_301251>
  • González de Molina, Manuel, y Víctor M. Toledo, The Social Metabolism. A Socio-Ecological Theory of Historical Change (London: Springer, 2014) <https://doi. org/10.1007/978-3-319-06358-4>
  • Guzmán, Gloria I., Eduardo Aguilera, Roberto García-Ruiz, Eva Torremocha, David Soto-Fernández, Juan Infante Amate, et al., «The agrarian metabolism as a tool for assessing agrarian sustainability, and its application to Spanish agriculture (1960-2008)», Ecology and Society, 23.1:2 (2018) <https://doi. org/10.5751/ES-09773-230102>
  • Guzmán, Gloria I., y Manuel González de Molina, Energy in Agroecosystems. A tool for Assessing Sustainability (Boca Ratón: CRC Press, 2017)