What Do We Mean When We Talk About ‘Food Systems’?

Written by: Julia Bolotina, Editor of For All the Fish

It’s a term that comes up a lot in sustainability discourse – we talk about the sustainability of food systems or about the pressure they put on planetary boundaries. But what exactly are ‘food systems’? 

As the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food puts it, 

‘The food system … includes not only the basic elements of how we get our food from farm to fork, but also all of the processes and infrastructure involved in feeding a population. Systems can also exist within systems, for example, farming systems, agricultural ecosystems, economic systems, and social systems and within those are further subsets of water systems, energy systems, financing systems, marketing systems, policy systems, culinary systems, and so on.’

In short, food systems describe everything – both entities and practices – involved in food. 

This includes the plants and animals involved in food production; agricultural practices and actors; entities, structures and processes involved in the storage and transportation of the food; the distribution, manufacturing, packaging and marketing of food; and its consumption. It also includes the economic, social, and political factors involved at every step. The point of a food systems approach is that it highlights the interconnectedness of the actors and processes involved in food. 

Consider the milk in your coffee. That milk is the result of livestock holding, specifically dairy farming. Before making it to your cup, it was pasteurised, then transported in a refrigerated truck. It was packaged, then placed on a supermarket shelf where you bought it. 

But that’s not all: rearing cows necessitates land for grazing and the provision of feed. Feed is made out of foodstuffs like soya, which is grown on more land and irrigated with water. Cows are kept on grazing land and in a barn, and provided with antibiotics and other veterinary services. Local legislation impacts how and where they are kept, and how their milk is collected and stored. 

You then buy that milk at a supermarket, or maybe directly from a farmer, through a delivery service or at a market. Or you might enjoy your coffee at your office or at a family celebration – or at a cafe or restaurant. That restaurant purchases the milk from a supplier. How much milk they buy and what they use it for is determined by costs and the creativity of the chef, but also by food trends and preferences which are shaped by everything from culture to socioeconomic factors to social media. 

And you are part of food systems too. How often you buy milk and what kind of milk you buy might be influenced by where you live, your income, what kind of marketing or educational information you’re exposed to, whether or not you’re vegan and even your cultural background. Or it might be influenced by physiological factors like whether or not you’re lactose intolerant. When you buy your milk, you store it in a fridge – or in the cupboard if it is UHT milk – then add it to your coffee or cereal. Or maybe you use it to make pancakes. Or maybe you leave it sitting a little too long, and have to throw it out. 

No single factor is sufficient to explain all the ways in which food affects and is affected by the environment or human health.  The overuse of nitrogen fertilisers, the clearing of forests to grow soya for livestock feed, the carbon involved in pasteurising it and transporting it to your local supermarket, and the overproduction that’s necessary to compensate for the amount that is lost or spoilt at every step of these processes all put strain on the environment. The politics of subsidies and the negotiating power of big manufacturers affect both what the farmer earns for producing the milk and what you pay for it at the supermarket. And the healthiness of your diet is a product of both personal choices and socioeconomic factors. These include the proximity of supermarkets selling fresh food, the nutritional information you’ve been exposed to and whether your employment schedule allows you to prepare healthy food or only leaves time to order takeaways.

This inherent complexity is why studies on sustainable food often take a systems approach. The food system faces challenges related to food security, nutrition, sustainable resource use and livelihoods. Such complex problems require complex, multidimensional solutions. And while this can seem daunting, as Lawrence and Friel point out, this complexity also means that there are myriad areas where change is possible: ‘Interconnectedness within a system … results both in resistance to change and in the possibility of change occurring from different leverage points.’ 

Photo by Sangga Rima Roman Selia and Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Peer review declaration:  This article is an explainer. It was reviewed for accuracy by a researcher in the field. However, as it was written by a member of our editorial team, the review was not blind.

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