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Industrial food systems

Katrien Ghoos from the UN World Food Programme (WFP) talks through the characteristics and challenges of industrial food systems
I would like to go a bit into detail with regards to the industrial food systems, because industrial food systems really rely very much on industrial farming. And industrial farming really has a couple of characteristics. For example, farmers really produce large quantities of homogeneous foods to the food industry and are no longer in direct contact with their consumers. Other elements of this food system and this industrial farming include, for example, degradation of land, because production really increased significantly but with a lot of inputs which are very costly, which can also produce problems with farmers that may not be able to have sufficient revenue from industrial farming.
In addition to degradation of land, industrial farming also leads to biodiversity losses, as I mentioned. These industrial farming systems they contribute to the same types of food at a very large scale at the expenses of different crops that are no longer wished in this kind of systems, maybe more difficult to produce or maybe very localised acceptability of these foods. So biodiversity losses in this industrial farming system as well. And as we mentioned, these systems also are very nutrient-poor, because these systems are also designed to make large amounts of foods available at low costs. So looking at how to try to address this problem of industrial farming related to industrial food systems, it seems quite difficult.
There are a couple of lock-in elements that come into play. Again, these systems have the objective to make cheap food very widely available, and they are also characterised by important consolidation, both horizontal, vertical, and also global, which leaves them with problems in terms of redirecting investments. The industrial food systems are characterised by focus on specific crops that come with specific research and development, with specific transport, etc. Which means that the path that is defined is really difficult to change, very difficult to include other types of food systems there. These food systems are very, very much export-oriented.
And as we saw earlier as well, when we move to industrial food systems, there is a real expectation of the consumer to access cheap food that is, unfortunately, less nutrient-rich. Other elements that characterise the lock-in are very much related to the focus on production– production, which is very much present in the different measures of success of this food system. When we look at the “Feed the World” narrative, we also see that refocusing on the kilocalories and less so on the nutrient value of the foods. And then again, with the high consolidation in this food system, there is a high concentration of power.
Between the producer and the consumer, maybe we only have one company that is in charge of making sure that the food is produced, processed, and then going through the retail shop. Really concentrating power in the food industry. Given the large scale at which this is happening, these food industries are also close to political power, which makes it more difficult to make policy changes to further increase nutrient-rich foods through other food systems than the industrial food systems. So we need to find ways to try to unlock this problem of industrial food systems.
While there may be a role for them to play, we need to make sure that more nutrient-rich foods can indeed be made available parallel to the industrialised, highly processed foods currently inundating the markets.
We have just learnt about the different food systems types and their characteristics. In this video, Katrien Ghoos, of the World Food Programme (WFP) Regional Bureau of Asia and the Pacific, explains why it is important to address the negative impacts of industrial – or modern – food systems in particular.
Katrien refers to industrial food systems as per the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition food system typology (Nugent and Grafton, 2015).
As you can see in the figures below from a 2016 IPES-Food report, industrial farming systems pose significant social and environmental challenges in places where they are establishing and growing quickly. Katrien talks us through these impacts, and the challenges we face to improving them.
A timeline of disease outbreak in highly-specialized systems A timeline of disease outbreak in highly-specialized systems (IPES-Food, 2016).
Vicious cycles of soil and water degradation in industrial systems Vicious cycles of soil and water degradation in industrial systems (IPES-Food, 2016).


  • How have you felt the impacts of industrial food systems in your country?
  • Katrien mentions the distancing of people from their food production in industrial systems. What is the impact of this distance? What is lost? What is gained?
  • Sources

    IPES-Food (2016). From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food systems.
    Nugent, R. and Grafton, D. (2015). Investments for Healthy Food Systems UN Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN). Discussion paper 2.
    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 Sources: “Pivot with Drops” by Gene Alexander, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons and “Wei Wei Premium Beef Instant Noodles” (CC-BY-SA-2.0), by Daniel Go
    The views expressed in this video are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Food Programme (WFP).
    This article is from the free online

    Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

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