Systems thinking and the food system

Systems thinking and the food system

As a concept, food systems are currently in vogue. The complexity and unintended consequences of our global supply chains are undeniable. Hardly a week goes by when there isn’t a news story about some unsavoury aspect of the food system that has been uncovered. Recently, there has been the deliberate mislabelling of food safety dates on chicken[1]. Despite these stories pointing to problems in the food system, many shoppers remain blithely unaware that items in their shopping basket may be a product of slavery, depress living standards, or contribute to habitat destruction and global warming. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Globally food is produced in sufficient quantities and variety to sustain 7.6 billion people[2] and their livestock. The system seems to work, at least for some, and for the time being.

If we try to wrap our heads around the concept of the global food system with its myriad inputs and outputs, people and organisations, it becomes clear that it’s a confounding landscape to navigate – hence the attraction to the idea of a food system – that there might be some way of mapping out, ordering and dealing with this complexity. But what does the term food system actually mean, and how can we make it useful for addressing some of the problems mentioned above? This is where systems thinking can help.

At a very simple level, a system can be thought of as a collection of parts, and the relationships between these parts. It must also have at least one function or purpose, i.e. it must do something. This distinguishes a system from just a collection of parts.

parts + relationships + function(s) = system

When beginning to think about a food system we might start intuitively with the idea of supply chains. Food travels from farm to fork, and changes many hands along the way. If we pay greater attention to this process we might be able to improve some food system outcomes, for example reducing food waste, improving food safety, affordability, or worker livelihoods. However, food system activities such as food production, processing, transport and consumption have effects that range far wider than the supply chain. Collectively, producing and consuming food affects habitats, our atmosphere, our oceans, other species, our health, economies and culture. As the diagram below shows, if we try to think about all the different parts, relationships and functions of a food system, even generically, it quickly becomes challenging.