Valuing Variability: How Pastoralists Can Inform Debates About Food Systems

A still from the video made by PASTRES researchers for the UNFSS counter-mobilization.

This past week has been a busy period for those involved in pastoralism as practice and research. PASTRES researchers were present at two events that ran alongside each other, each debating the future of food systems and the role of pastoralism.

PASTRES lead researcher Ian Scoones spoke at the event ‘Mobile Pastoralism Valuing Rangeland Variability’, a parallel session at the UN Food Systems pre-Summit. The event aimed to present a ‘game-changing idea’ for sustainable consumption and production from the livestock sector to the main Summit. It was organised in support of the International Year of Rangelands and Pastoralists (IYRP) 2026.

As part of his intervention, Ian argued that there is an urgent need for a new science of variability in agriculture and food systems. This should be rooted in mobility and flexibility, and centred on pastoralists’ own knowledge. His intervention focused on two themes: production and environment.

In terms of production, there is much debate about improving livestock systems, but this largely focuses on control, containment, intensification and management through a particular type of science. Yet pastoralists make use of variability as a productive resource through moving to exploit rangelands, supported by careful herding and animal breeding.

Alternative production approaches are urgently needed to support mobility, flexibility and responses to variable and uncertain conditions in areas where conventional agriculture is impossible. Being able to respond productively to variability is made even more important by the impacts of climate change.

On the environment, much of the debate misses an understanding of variability. Rather than causing degradation and desertification, as is commonly argued, mobile pastoralism in variable ecologies can improve the environment, enhance biodiversity and reduce climate impacts.

Pastoralists’ voices at the Counter-Mobilization

While the UNFSS pre-summit discussions took place, PASTRES was also involved in a counter-mobilization that aimed to challenge the corporate agenda on food systems.

PhD candidate Giulia Simula summarises the reasons for the counter-summit in the video below, and explains why PASTRES researchers responded to the call for ‘Food Systems 4 People’. The video also includes contributions from two pastoralists from our field sites.

Vibhabhai Sangaa Rabari, a pastoralist from Gujarat, explains how his community have been affected by falling wool prices and government indifference. Aop, from Amdo Tibet, explains the challenge pastoralists face in his area from tourism and industrial development.

The theme of variability in pastoral production and livelihoods is also central to a new United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) publication titled Pastoralism: Making Variability Work’. This report explains how pastoralism, by farming with nature, can address the global challenge of producing food sustainably in a context of increasing variability from climate change. Pastoralism can help address climate change, contribute to economic development, employment and food security, alongside enhancing water use efficiency, improving ecosystem services and contributing to landscape values and biodiversity conservation.

This document aims to engage FAO in the mainstreaming of pastoralism – promoting FAO’s vision by generating an understanding of pastoralism and systematically including pastoralism in FAO’s normal operations.

As discussed at the IYRP event, pastoralism is the future!

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