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Bee hives near Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland by The Co-op Group / CC BY 2.0

Introducing the food systems concept

This article explains the food systems approach, the rationale for using it, and the benefits of applying a food systems lens for improving natural resource management.

For many years, discussions about how to make the food system more sustainable have focused on food production. While this is important, a focus on production alone does not adequately address food security or the sustainable management of natural resources. A food systems approach puts food chain activities in their social and environmental context, and allows us to think about the different actors involved, their interests, and their behaviour.

A food system includes all the interdependent enterprises, institutions, activities and relationships that collectively develop and deliver inputs to the farming sector, produce primary commodities, and subsequently handle, process, transport, market and distribute food and other agro-based products to consumers. Food systems differ regionally in terms of actors involved, their relationships and activities.

The food system concept is not new; driven by social and political concerns, some sociologists have promoted versions of this approach since the 1990s. Over time, the food system concept has come to be understood as a combination of activities (“what we do”) and the outcomes of these activities (“what we get”). As all the activities interact with natural resources, this allows for a better analysis of the links between food security and natural resources, while also considering the socio-economic context.

Major food system activities and their outcomes Major food system activities and their outcomes (UNEP 2016).

One of the advantages of a “food system lens” is that it allows us to consider the system’s multiple objectives. Food security is essential, but food systems also provide livelihoods for many people, and they contribute to other socio-economic goals, such as building social capital and maintaining peace. They can also address environmental objectives, such as storing carbon. Often there is a trade-off between the social, economic and environmental goals. A food system lens is thus very compatible with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are designed to address all dimensions of sustainable development in an integrated, coherent package.

A food system lens can also help us deal with complexity. The many different actors in a food system act and influence one another in ways that may not be predictable. They decide and behave in response to what they perceive as incentives (opportunities, challenges and risks) and constraints (environmental, institutional and financial) in a particular context. These perceptions are continuously reshaped by their interactions with other parts of the food system as well as changes in the socio-economic context.

This has two implications: First, the dynamics and feedbacks in food systems need to be analysed as the result of a mix of factors, such as actors’ relations, access to information, regulations, markets, market demand, etc. Second, we need to recognize that the feedbacks are not linear, so even a small change may have unexpected effects across the food system, positive or negative.

Related to this is the ability of a food system lens to help us consider a range of perspectives and issues. Food systems face many challenges right now. We need to increase the food supply to feed a growing population, address inequalities, and manage natural resources better. We need to adapt to changes in the climate, water availability, biodiversity and other critical environmental factors. We need to make the entire “food chain” (production, processing, packaging, distributing, retailing and consuming) more resource-efficient. A wide range of public- and private-sector actors have a keen interest in the outcome.

Notably, many businesses are now striving to improve how they manage natural resources, both to ensure their supply chains, and to appeal to sustainability-conscious consumers. This is important, because often it is resource managers and others “on the ground”, not policy-makers, who have the best chance to effect positive change. The food system lens can help us all to understand what interventions are likely to have the best impact, and to avoid unintended negative consequences.


UNEP (2016). Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.

Image Source: “Unique bee hives supporting The Co-operative’s Plan Bee campaign” by The Co-op Group / CC BY 2.0

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This article is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute