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Food System Transformation

The term "food system" has become increasingly relevant in recent years due to the growing recognition of the complex and interconnected nature of food production, distribution, and consumption. The term encompasses the physical components of the food supply chain and the social, economic, and environmental factors that influence food access and consumption patterns. The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the importance of a resilient and equitable food system that can adapt to disruptions and meet the nutritional needs of all individuals. As climate change, food waste, and food insecurity continue to gain attention, a sustainable and inclusive food system has become central to discussions on global development and public health.

How information is shared nowadays makes it very convenient for a new term to diffuse into society's common knowledge without a clear understanding of its meaning. For the term "food system" - two words - if such an exercise should be taken, the word "system" might be where our attention should be. Indeed, the term "food" is well known for its essential role in survival as a fundamental ingredient to our daily activities, health, income, and what have you. However, the word "system" brings another layer of interrogations. What is a system? What is a food system? What is a food system transformation, why, and what do we need to transform therein? This blog post is about the abovementioned questions.

What is a food system?

Based on the Cambridge dictionary, a system is "a set of connected things or devices that operate together." The Collins dictionary provides several definitions of the word "system" depending on the context; one considers a system as "a network of things linked together so that people or things can travel from one place to another or communicate." Finally, the Oxford dictionary defines a system as "a group of things, pieces of equipment, etc., that are connected or work together." Based on the above three definitions, a system could be seen as a group of interdependent elements interacting with a cause and effect, action and reaction relationship - one of the foundational aspects of an interaction. When considering a food system, one can think of a complex and interconnected network of activities, processes, and actors involved in food production, distribution, and consumption. It considers all the stages involved in bringing food from farms and fisheries to consumers' plates, including inputs such as land, water, seeds, and fertilizers, production practices such as farming and fishing, processing, packaging, transportation, marketing, and retailing. The food system also includes the social, economic, and environmental factors influencing food access and consumption patterns, such as food policies, regulations, cultural practices, and consumer behavior. A food system can be local, regional, national, or global in scale, and it can have different goals, values, and outcomes depending on the context and stakeholders involved.

Based on the definitions above, what is new in the debate about the food system is not its nature as a web of interconnected elements that operate together and influence one another but the better understanding and recognition of the food system as a system when dealing with strategic questions in the field of development, in other words, the use of a holistic approach when tackling our most pressing issues at the nexus of climate change, conflicts, outbreaks, among other shocks, instead of a partly sequential process.

The complexity of such a task requires defining a framework where the food system elements can be represented disentangled, even though it is somehow contradictory with the idea of a system. But the idea is not to describe it with silos but to group the elements of the food system in clusters with similar activities. There are several representations of a food system in the literature. I am particularly interested in the framework proposed by Ingram and Thornton 2022 (see figure 1) due to its simplicity, the action types that could be taken in each cluster, and the feedback loop from the outcomes to any change in the food system policies.

Food system representation
Figure 1. Food system representation in Ingram, J.J., & Thornton, P.K. (2022). What does transforming food systems actually mean? Nature Food, 3, 881 - 882.

From a food system policy, a signal of opportunities or threats is transmitted to the food system activities that are the engine of the food system. The activities are expected to provide socioeconomic, food security, and environmental outcomes. The signal is, in turn, looped to the food system policies cluster within the context of social, economic, political, science and technology, and biophysical agents. Decisions and policymakers can add value to those inputs to reassess the policies in place. Such a procedure reflects the iterative nature of transforming a food system.

What is a food system transformation about?

First, we need to understand why the food system needs a transformation. There are several reasons why we need to transform the food system:

  • Environmental sustainability - The current food system significantly contributes to climate change, deforestation, water pollution, and biodiversity loss.

  • Social justice - The current food system often leaves small-scale farmers and food workers with low wages and poor working conditions. In addition, many people lack access to nutritious and culturally appropriate food.

  • Public health - The current food system is linked to the rise of diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • Resilience - The current food system is vulnerable to climate change, pandemics, and political instability.

Food system transformation is a process of redesigning how food is produced, processed, distributed, and consumed to create a more sustainable, equitable, and resilient food system. It involves addressing the complex interconnections between food production, climate change, environmental degradation, social inequalities, and public health, among other factors. The food system transformation seeks to move away from the current food system, which is often criticized for being environmentally unsustainable, socially unjust, and unhealthy. The goal is to create a food system that is regenerative, circular, and equitable and that provides nutritious and culturally appropriate food to all people while respecting the ecological limits of the planet. Therefore, the transformation must happen at the activity level (figure 1) and expect an impact on the outcomes that should solve the reasons why a transformed food system was needed in the first place. However, without clear metrics and their effective use in the decision-making process, the iterative loop will be broken and won't lead to the overarching goal of transformation. Therefore, every stakeholder in the system (links in the chain) must play its part consolidated with an accountability process. There, we have a working system with its interdependencies.

In summary, a range of strategies is needed to transform food systems, such as promoting agroecology, supporting local and regional food systems, reducing food waste, improving food access and affordability, and reducing the carbon footprint of food production and distribution. Policy and institutional changes at local, national, and global levels are also critical to driving the transition toward a more sustainable food system.

Racine Ly

Opinions are my own.


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