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What are food systems?

Many social, economic, moral, and environmental concerns are interconnected and interact with each other through food, and do so in complex ways. In order to understand this, we need to apply a 'systems thinking' approach to food.

This building block explains what is meant by the term 'food system' and provides a brief introduction to the food systems approach. 

Last update: 15 Dec, 2017

A system. A set of independent parts that interact with each other as part of a mechanism or an interacting network of things. Taken together, these make up an identifiable whole that exists within certain spatial boundaries, and which can recognisably come into existence, change, and be dismantled. Examples include machines or the human body.

A complex system. A type of system whose parts are highly interdependent, and so are continuously changing and influencing one other, creating an infinite circularity of cause and effect. Overall, this leads to a distinct whole that is more than the sum of its parts, characterised by particular types of outcomes and behaviour, and whose functioning often hard to model or predict. Examples include cities, ecosystems, and the climate.

The food system. A general term, referring to the global web of interconnections and the continuous process of interactions  – spanning time and geographic space – between food, natural resources, people, organisations, government, organisms, the climate, and more. In other words, everything food influences and is influenced by. The food system is an example of a complex system.

A food system (or food systems). A specific term which denotes a particular set of interconnections and interactions between things, within the wider food system, that has been defined and focussed upon for some particular purpose. Examples might be urban or organic food systems. They can be thought of as parts or sub-systems of 'the food system'.

A food systems approach. The application of a 'systems thinking' approach to the subject of food. This includes different ways of breaking down and representing 'the food system' and specific food systems. And also includes a variety of thinking tools and research methods, through which all systems can be investigated and understood.

1. Why food systems?

2. The food system is complex

3. The food system: actors and activities

4. Characteristics of food systems

5. Food systems in practice

1. Why food systems?

Many social, economic, moral, and environmental concerns are interconnected and interact with each other through food, and the roles it plays in human lives and humanity's collective activity.

Fully understanding the causes and solutions to these concerns is not possible when thinking about them in isolation from one another, and from the whole of which they are a part. The conceptual tools that enable us to overcome this siloed thinking are collectively known as 'systems thinking'.1 ,2 ,3

The goal of this approach, and also its main benefit, lies in trying to understand causation:

  • How do things fit together?
  • What influences what?
  • And how do complex (and often unexpected) things happen as they do?

This provides a way to understand how things can change, and what the outcomes of a particular change might be.

2. The food system is complex

The global food system includes all thing that affect and are affected by food. Mapping out these interconnections reveals the enormous breadth and complexity of what is included in this concept in its broadest sense (Figure 1).

Figure 1: a comprehensive representation of the global food system. 4

To help think about this complexity, various simplifications are used when representing food systems. Nevertheless, a food systems approach is one that pays attention to how whatever is being focussed upon, affects, and is affected by, the whole of which it is a part.

3. The food system: actors and activities

All food undergoes a journey from its point of production, through to its ultimate consumption or disposal (often called a product 'life cycle ').

Reflecting this, a common and useful way of representing food systems is as a linear set of stages along this journey where particular types of 'activities' take place, undertaken by particular types of people or organisations (known as 'actors') (Figure 2).

At each stage, particular actors (e.g. farmers) perform processes (e.g. harvesting); inputs are used (e.g. energy or water); outputs are produced, some desirable (e.g. food) and others undesirable (e.g. pollution); and as a consequence, various issues are affected, such as climate change, or food security, or livelihoods.1

Figure 2: a representation of the food system showing the relation between activities at different stages, actors involved, inputs and outputs, and outcomes.5

4. Characteristics of food systems

Feedback loops

An important drawback of Figure 2, is that it represents the food system as being linear. One thing leads to the next, and so on, in an unbroken chain of cause and effect, eventually leading to an outcome.

However, core to a systems thinking approach is a recognition that causation can often be circular in nature (Figure 3). For example:

  1. food system activities lead to the release of greenhouse gas emissions; which
  2. drives climate change; that then in turn
  3. affects greenhouse gas emissions from the food system;
  4. and so back to step 1.

These circular interactions between different parts of systems are known as feedback loops, of which there can be many in any system. Feedback loops can act to reinforce a change in the system (e.g. climate change), or alternatively may resist it, maintaining stability.

Figure 3: a representation of the food system showing its composition of intereacting sub-systems that create feedback loops.1

When systems and their feedback loops are poorly understood, this can sometimes lead to unanticipated extreme changes, that can be difficult or even impossible to reverse. Examples in food systems include fish stock collapses and desertification of farmland.6

Feedback can be the result of the interaction of physical processes (as in the climate example), or may result from the flow of information (e.g. changes in prices, regulation, or social norms) which can affect that way that individuals or organisations in food systems make decisions and behave.

Trade-offs and synergies

Many different issues of concern are interconnected via food systems, and so changes to food systems will inevitably affect multiple issues at once (and so any objectives that are related to these).

One potential outcome is a trade-off between objectives. For example, agricultural intensification may bring benefits for one issue (e.g. land use ), and at the same time, it may make others worse (e.g. environmental pollution).

Another potential outcome is a synergy between objectives. For example, a decrease in food loss and waste, can bring with it multiple benefits, such as reduced resource use, and an increase the amount of food available for consumption.

Both trade-offs and synergies are characteristics of systems in general. Identifying and understanding these is an important part of applying a food systems approach.

Drivers of change

Drivers of change are trends in specific bits of a system, or parts of the external environment which affect a system, that over-time, are able to affect the functioning and the outcomes related to the whole system. 

Taking the human body as an example, exposure to an increasingly cold environment can eventually drive changes in the body, which it cannot internally resist, leading to hypothermia. Alternatively, a change in a cell to form a cancer, may lead to failure of an organ, and ultimately the entire bodily system.

Drivers of change needn't lead to failure of the whole system, as above, but because they are capable of causing substantial changes to systems over-time, identifying and understanding the effects of these drivers of change is another important part of applying a food systems approach.

Examples in the context of food systems include climate change; resource scarcity; population growth and demographic change; technological innovation; social attitudes towards consumption; and more as shown in Figure 4.

Figure 4: a range of factors which can drive change in food systems.7

Scale effects

A consideration of the effects of scale is another important feature of food systems thinking. 

Systems such as the planetary system contain within them many sub-systems, such as ecosystems, which also contain subsystems such as animals, which are composed of cells, and so on. Interactions across these different scales, can lead to:

  • Local changes having globalised effects and vice versa; and changes in one geographic location causing changes in distant locations.
  • Changes taking place at one place or point in time, leading to impacts on the wider system across a range of timescales, and potentially being delayed by decades or more 

5. Food systems in practice

What is common to all applications of a food systems approach is the explanatory perspective that systems thinking brings, and an appreciation of how the different parts of a system, interrelate to each other, and to the bigger picture. 

But because the nature of food systems is that they are highly complex (Figure 1), a process of simplification is always necessary. This innevitably involves choice and selection, that makes each application of a food systems approach different in terms of:

  • What needs to be explained / understood
  • What parts, inteconnections, and interactions are considered important
  • How the system is conceptualised and represented; and
  • What disciplines, theories, and methods it brings to the task. 

Because of this, building a big picture understanding of food systems, necessarily involves integration of understanding gained from looking at many different parts of the system, produced from a particular perspective and for a particular purpose. To do this requires dialogue and collaboration across disciplines and sectors.



Download the PDF version of this explainer here.


Written by:

Samuel Lee-Gammage, FCRN, University of Oxford

Edited by:

Tara Garnett, FCRN, University of Oxford

Reviewed by:

Reviewers are currently being identified for this resource. Once reviewed, this resource will be updated to reflect feedback and their contributions to this resource. 

If you have specific feedback on how to improve the resource, please get in touch with the FCRN team.

Funded by:

The Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation

The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food

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