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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds The food system is, in effect, a set of activities which are, in effect, a set of enterprises. And it’s very important to remember that many of the people who are engaged in the food system activities are there for a livelihood strategy. They’re not necessarily interested in food as a material, but they’re interested in having a job. There’s a wide range of actors involved in these activities, from the input suppliers, the seedsmiths, fertiliser, and the like, through to the agriculturalists or the fisherfolk the food processors, the people who are working on logistics and distribution systems, the retail sector, restauranteurs, and hospitality, of course and ourselves, and then people who are managing waste all along that chain.

Skip to 0 minutes and 58 seconds In some parts of the world, that assemblage of actors is different. There may be less emphasis on food processing or trade, it may be more local, it may be less intense. But by and large, that set of activities is worldwide. So when thinking about food systems, it’s helpful to think about the various elements that collectively go into conceptualising such a thing. And the first think to think about is the processes involved, and that’s the process of agricultural production, whether of crops or livestock, manufacture processing at differing levels of sophistication, from your basic processing of grain into flour, through to the production of something as elaborate as a ready meal.

Skip to 1 minute and 57 seconds And then of course transport at various differences of scale and different modes of transport. Different retailing formats, from local markets through to hypermarkets, which may be owned by a globally operating company, through to you taking your food home, storing it in some capacity, perhaps in a fridge, cooking it, and then disposing of it and all the waste disposal that goes with that. All of those actors are influenced by a wide range of factors or drivers, as they can be called. There’s obviously the climate and the soils. But also their activities are very largely governed by policy, by market opportunity, by social norms, by science and technology.

Skip to 2 minutes and 50 seconds And so as any actor in the food system is delivering their activity, they are influenced by this wide range of interacting forces or drivers. The outcomes of these activities for food security are, of course, very important. And food security is commonly broken down into a number of major components, food access, food utilisation, and food availability, all of which need to be stable over time. And we can see how the food system activities give rise to other socioeconomic outcomes, such as human capital, labour, enterprise opportunity, but also, of course, have an impact on the natural resource base.

Skip to 3 minutes and 46 seconds What we need to do is really think about these interactions in such a way that we understand how the drivers affect activities and how a change in the driver– more people, a changed climate, different market opportunity– will affect the way we undertake these activities. This means that there is a response by the food system of the drivers. And the response is normally to improve socioeconomic well-being, which is totally understandable. And the food system understanding allows us to appreciate the drivers that are causing the actors to act in the way they do and the feedbacks that are coming from the change in activity.

Food system activities

To understand the links between food systems and natural resources, we need to consider the different elements of food systems, and at what points and how they use natural resources. These elements are effectively a set of activities, each attributable to a specific set of actors.

Watch Dr. John Ingram and Dr. Tara Garnett, Environmental Change Institute University of Oxford, explain further as they talk us through the activities of these actors, from food production through to our consumption.

As we heard in Defining food security, ensuring that everyone has enough nutritious food is about more than food production – we need to get the right food to the people who need it, and ensure they can access it at an affordable price. This means that food security and nutrition outcomes are the result of a series of food system activities carried out by a range of actors, not just farmers and fishers.


Based on this video and the previous article on food system actors, which actors and activities do you think we need to focus on more to achieve more sustainable food systems? Are there other food systems actors and activities you can think of that we haven’t mentioned so far?

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This video is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute