On The Application Of Computational Modeling To Complex Food Systems Issues

Serge William Wiltshire, University of Vermont


Transdisciplinary food systems research aims to merge insights from multiple fields, often revealing confounding, complex interactions. Computational modeling offers a means to discover patterns and formulate novel solutions to such systems-level problems. The best models serve as hubs—or boundary objects—which ground and unify a collaborative, iterative, and transdisciplinary process of stakeholder engagement. This dissertation demonstrates the application of agent-based modeling, network analytics, and evolutionary computational optimization to the pressing food systems problem areas of livestock epidemiology and global food security. It is comprised of a methodological introduction, an executive summary, three journal-article formatted chapters, and an overarching discussion section.

Chapter One employs an agent-based computer model (RUSH-PNBM v.1.1) developed to study the potential impact of the trend toward increased producer specialization on resilience to catastrophic epidemics within livestock production chains. In each run, an infection is introduced and may spread according to probabilities associated with the various modes of contact between hog producer, feed mill, and slaughter plant agents. Experimental data reveal that more-specialized systems are vulnerable to outbreaks at lower spatial densities, have more abrupt percolation transitions, and are characterized by less-predictable outcomes; suggesting that reworking network structures may represent a viable means to increase biosecurity.

Chapter Two uses a calibrated, spatially-explicit version of RUSH-PNBM (v.1.2) to model the hog production chains within three U.S. states. Key metrics are calculated after each run, some of which pertain to overall network structures, while others describe each actor’s positionality within the network. A genetic programming algorithm is then employed to search for mathematical relationships between multiple individual indicators that effectively predict each node’s vulnerability. This “meta-metric” approach could be applied to aid livestock epidemiologists in the targeting of biosecurity interventions and may also be useful to study a wide range of complex network phenomena.

Chapter Three focuses on food insecurity resulting from the projected gap between global food supply and demand over the coming decades. While no single solution has been identified, scholars suggest that investments into multiple interventions may stack together to solve the problem. However, formulating an effective plan of action requires knowledge about the level of change resulting from a given investment into each wedge, the time before that effect unfolds, the expected baseline change, and the maximum possible level of change. This chapter details an evolutionary-computational algorithm to optimize investment schedules according to the twin goals of maximizing global food security and minimizing cost. Future work will involve parameterizing the model through an expert informant advisory process to develop the existing framework into a practicable food policy decision-support tool.