Food Systems Hold the Key to Eating More Ethically

young girl carrying harvest of strawberries in a greenhouse

Call to mind the last meal that you consumed. How many different ingredients went into it? How did they get to you? Where and how were they grown? If your meal wasn’t entirely grown in your own personal garden, it was a part of a larger food system. Food systems refer to how we organize the production, distribution, and consumption of food, and they are hugely important parts of our societies. While some food systems put a strain on the planet, others have a smaller impact. 

What Is a Food System?

A food system is a complex web of activities including the production, processing, transport, and consumption of food. Smaller systems can also exist within the larger system, like economic, social, energy, marketing, and financing systems. Food systems have also been categorized as traditional, modern, or intermediate. Modern food systems like that in the U.S. “use a wide range of external inputs to maximize production, as well as high-tech systems for storing, transporting, processing and selling food. Farms, firms and traders are typically specialized and operate at large scales.”

The American Public Health Association currently defines a “sustainable” food system as one that “provides healthy food to meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come with minimal negative impact to the environment. A sustainable food system also encourages local production and distribution infrastructures and makes nutritious food available, accessible, and affordable to all. Further, it is humane and just, protecting farmers and other workers, consumers, and communities.”

So, is the food system that you operate within (by choice or circumstance) sustainable? Let’s take a closer look.

Environmentally Sound

Environmentally sound food systems are ones that aim to work in harmony with the earth to cause as little harm as possible. They support diverse, complex, and balanced biological systems. 


A humane food system is one in which natural resources and living beings are not exploited, including human and nonhuman animals. Humane food systems and practices can be hard to find. Much modern food depends on large-scale factory farms that exploit animals for their flesh and secretions and violate workers’ rights, all while harming the earth. Farms advertised as more humane, and small animal farms, do little to address many of animal agriculture’s most pressing problems. 

Economically Viable

An economically viable food system is one in which food producers and growers are able to cover their production costs while making enough money to earn a living and keep food production flowing smoothly.

Socially Just

A socially just food system keeps humans, plants, animals, the planet, and local communities in mind as decisions are made about how food should be organized. Such systems keep their production methods as cruelty-free as possible and respect workers’ rights while aiming to create access to healthy food available to all.

What Are the Types of Food Systems?

As we mentioned above, there are many different types of food systems that can be categorized in multiple ways. But there is a lot of conversation about one particular division—that between conventional and alternative food systems. 

Conventional Food Systems

The U.S. follows a conventional food system as a whole, but micro-communities and individuals are choosing to live differently and adopt alternative food systems. These systems often include local, organic, cooperative, and fair trade systems, as well as other features.

Alternative Food Systems

Does your community or home operate under an alternative food system? As concerns for the planet, animal welfare, and human rights grow, alternative food systems are becoming more popular.

Local Food Systems

Local food systems do their best to keep everything about food production local, from the farms to the processing plants, retail at grocery stores, and consumers. Keeping everything local, or within a set community, keeps wealth in that specific community and uplifts its businesses and farmers. When people work within a local food system, they automatically cut down on the amount of packaging, waste, and transportation that is required to produce, store, and get food to where it is sold. In addition to saving on waste and gas for transportation, local food systems must only consume what is in season. A great demonstration of a local food system in action is a farmer’s market. Here, local farmers and businesses sell or trade their goods that came from their specific area. People are able to go and buy fresh, recently farmed food.

Organic Food Systems

Organic food systems are ones that rely on organic foods, or food that is produced without using conventional pesticides, fertilizers made with sewage sludge or synthetic ingredients, bioengineering, or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled as “organic,” a certifier approved by the government must inspect the farm.

Cooperatives in Food Systems

A food co-op is a grocery store that is owned by people who shop and work there. Members get to decide what foods and products are stocked, where those items are purchased, and what quality standards vendors must meet. Co-ops usually aim to provide high-quality food at fair prices.

Fair Trade

A fair trade product comes with some guarantee to consumers that it has been traded in a more ethical way than other products, supporting better working conditions, protecting the planet, and improving livelihoods. 

Novel Agriculture Technologies

In order to feed an expanding global population but still do our best to fight climate change and other environmental problems, many novel agriculture technologies have been developed. Farming innovations, alternative plant proteins, and packing materials used to reduce the carbon footprint of products are on the rise, to name a few.  

How Does the Food System Work?

Each food system works differently, but most have some form of the same basic processes of production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management. 

The Benefits of Food Systems

No two communities in the world have the same exact food system, but more and more people are participating in conventional food systems, and many will have in common that they don’t realize the harm being done to themselves and those around them through the way their food reaches them. 

Food System Effects on Climate Change

For better or worse, each food system has an impact on climate change. Some, like a conventional food system that relies heavily on imported food and has a focus on animal flesh and secretions, have a negative impact on the world around them and speed up climate change.

Researchers looking at the effects of diet have estimated that conforming to global dietary guidelines would cut food system emissions by 29 percent, but: “To seriously fight climate change, more plant-based diets will be needed. Our analysis shows if the world went vegetarian that cut in food-related emissions would rise to 63 percent. And if everyone turned vegan? A huge 70 percent.”

Food System Effects on Animal Welfare

A food system that relies on animal agriculture to produce meat, eggs, and dairy products harms and slaughters billions of animals per year; more than 70 billion land animals, to be exact. Whether on a small family farm or a large-scale Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO), animals are subjected to inhumane treatment, living conditions, and ultimately slaughter. 

Food System Effects on Societies and Economies

Our fast-moving and high-production conventional food system massively contributes to the violation of most planetary boundaries, harming locals who live in affected areas. CAFOs in the U.S. are also often worked by undocumented people, and “hired farm laborers face particularly difficult working conditions and experience a quality of life that is well below that of most others in the U.S. population.” Additionally, “the insecure citizenship and immigration status of many farm workers often results in a lack of economic and political power and leaves them vulnerable to exploitation.”

Food System Effects on Human Health

A conventional food system that relies on animal flesh and secretions for food has negative effects on human health. A diet that includes meat, eggs, and dairy products (the standard American diet) is filled with pro-inflammatory foods laced with artificial ingredients that research suggests can impair brain function, as well as increase the risk of physical and mental health issues. By contrast, eating a plant-based diet can promote better heart health, lower your risk of cancer, improve kidney function, lower the risk of type 2 diabetes, and more

Food System Effects on the Environment 

A conventional food system, such as the one that we largely rely on in the U.S., causes large-scale environmental degradation. For example, monocropped fields require manufactured fertilizers and pesticides that run off into soil and waterways. CAFOs produce excess animal waste that pollutes the air, water, and soil. Our methods of food production use finite resources without replenishing them. In addition, the way that we produce and consume food contributes directly to global climate change.

Food System Problems and Barriers 

Some people are living under a conventional food system and would like to transition to an alternative food system to live healthier, keep wealth in their local community, lessen the suffering that animals go through when used for food, and tread lighter on the planet. There are barriers that people face when trying to do so, such as food deserts. Food deserts are places where people have little to no access to healthy and affordable foods, such as fruits and vegetables. It is important to note that food deserts are disproportionately located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. People living in food deserts may live far from grocery stores, have individual barriers to accessing food, or lack reliable personal or public transportation. In addition, some people living with caregivers are not able to make decisions about what food to buy and consume.

Conventional food systems that are harmful to the planet, people, and animals are often supported and even subsidized by the government. The U.S. government spends around $38 billion in tax money each year to subsidize and prop up the dairy, meat, and egg industries. They only spend $17 million each year to subsidize fruits and vegetables. A $5 Big Mac would cost $13 if the retail price included all the hidden costs that meat producers offload onto society, and a pound of hamburger would cost $30 without subsidies.

Current government subsidies ultimately make it easier for people to get their hands on unhealthy and processed food, and harder for folks to get healthy and fresh food. 

What’s Next

Conventional food systems that rely heavily on meat, dairy, and eggs as well as monocrops and large-scale produce or animal farming harm humans, nonhuman animals, and the planet. Transitioning to alternative food systems where we support fair trade practices, co-ops, farmers’ markets, plant-based foods and protein, organic farming and local practices will lead us to a brighter future.