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Understanding complex systems in a food context

Dr. John Ingram and Dr. Tara Garnett of the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, explain complex adaptive systems in a food context.
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Systems thinking is the consideration of something in its totality, its interaction with a wide range of pressures and environments, while also considering the constituent parts and the outcomes of the interactions themselves. It could be applied to a wide range of circumstance, but for food systems, it’s particularly valuable, because it also includes a number of methods– the idea of concepts and frameworks, the methods that support our ability to systematically think about different aspects of the system. Food systems are a very good example of what’s called complex adaptive systems, and they have a number of characteristics. First of all, it’s a system of independent systems, so there are various subcomponents that are all interacting and helping to shape the overall outcomes.
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The dynamics within the system are non-linear, and there are feedbacks. There are emergent properties that happen. Small changes can have a very big effect. They can amplify through the system, and, indeed, large changes can ultimately have a smaller effect than imagined. There’s also an interplay with different parts of the system, and you have a situation, where for food security, we need to think about the time, the time scale from food security today to tomorrow for the decades and generations ahead.
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We also need to think about the spatial scale from local and here to, perhaps, national, or even to over there, because a lot of the food security discussion is about trade, which, of course, is the movement of material around the world, and it’s about change over time. There’s also the notion of tipping points involved, and this is a situation where one approaches effectively a cliff in a particular parameter so that when you pass that tipping point, you move into a different state, and it’s sometimes very hard to revert to the original. These are all very typical attributes of complex adaptive systems, and they’re all very pertinent for food systems.
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So doing systems thinking means capturing the diversity of actors, activities, pressures, and responses that we see in the system so that we can have a better understanding of how to manage that process and to appreciate that, yes, it’s complex, but not to be alarmed by the complexity, but to use the understanding of complexity to identify opportunity and where problems may lie. Another important thing to think about when conceptualising food systems is to emphasise the S on the end of food systems. We don’t have one homogeneous food system, but multiple and interacting food systems.
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So if you take a typical example of a, say, remote village somewhere, you may have very locally produced and distributed grains, but you may also have some of the products of international globalised supply chains, such as soft drinks or chewing gum, which operate on a very global level.
Food systems are an example of what scientists call complex adaptive systems. While understanding this concept may initially seem challenging, it’s important for understanding the food systems approach. Here, Dr. John Ingram and Dr. Tara Garnett both of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, give us an introduction to complex systems and the various known characteristics that define them.
A complex system does not lend itself well to abstract representation in graphics or diagrams. This infographic below, from shiftN, shows the myriad of connections that make up the global food system. At first glance this diagram is overwhelming, messy and not easy to understand. However, take time to read all the words within the diagram and follow some of the arrows.
What are your first impressions of this depiction of the global food system?
Global food system map Global food system map (shiftN)
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Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

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