Skip main navigation

A food systems approach

Dr. Tara Garnett and Dr. John Ingram of the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, introduce the food systems approach.
Increasingly people are starting to talk about the food system or perhaps more accurately food systems. A systems approach is a way of thinking not just about a specific issue or a specific thing, but the interrelationships among different parts and the very complex interactions that take place. And this is particularly relevant and important when thinking about something as multifaceted as food. If you think about food, it encapsulates such a range of human concerns around what sorts of foods we’re eating, the nutritional value of the foods we’re eating, people’s access to food. But it also encapsulates a whole range of environmental concerns to do with how food is produced and distributed and consumed.
As well as a whole ethical and moral dimension around equity and justice and animal welfare and animal issues. So food is so multifaceted that we can’t think about one aspect of concern in isolation from all the others. It’s really important that we take a systemic approach to thinking about the challenges that are faced by, and generated by, the food system, and the options as to the way forward. Because if we don’t, we risk solving one problem while making another problem much, much worse.
So if you take, for example, a simple instance of trying to address food security and hunger through the production of more food, if you do that in ways that cause further environmental damage, you’re not only undermining your environmental goals, but you may well be undermining the food security of present and future generations by damaging the farmland and the context within which current and future food production takes place. So we need to think about how action in one area or upon one issue impacts upon other areas concern. When people start thinking about a food system there are various aspects that they tend to take into account. One is the concept of the food chain.
And that’s all the stages associated and entailed in the production, distribution, consumption, and disposal of food. From the processes of agricultural production, including the inputs to production such as nitrogen fertilisers or farm machinery, seed production, and so forth. The process of farming, and then what happens after the farm stage. And that could be storage of grain, slaughter of animals, trucking distribution, cold storage, the manufacture and processing of food into very complex components, very complex sorts of foods. And then you taking your food home, cooking it, storing it, throwing it away, and then subsequent waste disposal. And all that has a range of different impacts associated with it. So environmental, social, and economic.
So that’s one way of thinking about food that’s very linear. Another way of thinking about it which you have to layer onto it is thinking about the actors in the supply chain. So those are the farmers, the producers, the distributors, civil society, the governance structure, the institutions that manage and govern food, and ultimately you as the consumer. So all these institutions and individuals and groups have a stake in the food system and impact and are impacted by it. And then thirdly, we have to think about the consequences of food. And that includes the environmental impacts which are huge, as well as the social and the ethical impacts to do with equity and justice and animal welfare and so forth.
But I think there’s also, increasingly people are starting to think not just about those three components, but also about the values and the ideas that we bring to the food system. Our ideas about what a sustainable food system looks like, what it means to have are a securely fed population. So that is increasingly emerging as another kind of layer that you have to add on to one’s understanding of a food system. So adopting a food system approach helps from a variety of ways. It helps us understand the range of actors and activities that are involved in the system. It helps us understand the pressures or the drivers that are affecting the way they undertake their activities.
It helps us understand the outcomes of their activities, both for socioeconomic gain and environmental impact. And it allows us to organise a conversation about trade-offs and how we can better position the food system actors and help them deliver better food security outcomes at lower environmental cost. Overall it helps organise the thinking, it helps organise the conversation in a way which is hard to do, because without a clear conceptual framework, there are so many factors involved, and so many motivations for getting involved in the conversation, that it’s useful to have a clear balance. It’s a map to help organise our thinking.
Dr. Tara Garnett and Dr. John Ingram, both of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, explain how to think about food production and consumption as part of a larger food system, or systems, and describe an integrated approach to food systems analysis.
As we heard previously, complex systems thinking focuses not just on a single aspect or issue, but on how all the elements of a system come together and interact with one another. The food on our plates is the product of multiple actions, relationships and processes that make up a food system – and we, as consumers, are part of the system, too. But to be sustainable, food systems don’t just need to keep people well nourished; they also have to use natural resources in a way that won’t deplete or degrade them. Food systems today have many negative environmental impacts.


As John explains, a food systems approach helps us organise our thinking about how the different food system actors can come together to improve food security and health outcomes at a reduced natural resource and environmental cost.
In the comment box below tell us, what role(s) do you see yourself playing in food systems? Are you a food producer, a food processor or seller? A consumer? A policy-maker? An active citizen trying to bring about change? What other actors do you usually interact with, and how?
This article is from the free online

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education