Food systems are the networks for organizing food production and distribution — how your oranges and potatoes are grown and get from the field to your kitchen. These networks make your meals possible, but not all food systems are the same. Industrial food systems prioritize efficiency — producing massive amounts of food for cheap but often at the expense of the environment, workers and animals. Others aim to reduce harms by regulating pesticide use and animal welfare, while regional food systems focus on serving their local communities.
What Is a Food System?
A food system encompasses everything that goes into feeding a population. Seeds, fertilizer, farmed animals, trucks used for transportation, packaging operations and grocery stores are all parts of our food system. People are another key component of our food system. Workers grow and pick the food we eat. Some work at grocery stores. Without workers, large-scale food systems could not operate.
History of Food Systems
The first food systems date back to when humans first settled into communities and started growing crops and raising animals for food. Agriculture — or the cultivation of crops — provided people with the ability to produce surplus food products such as grain so that they could store them for later use. As populations increased and advances in storage technology enabled people to keep food fresh for longer, food systems became larger and more complex. In the 20th century, food systems became mechanized, using increased scale, better transport, closer attention to input costs, selective breeding and control of disease to keep down the cost of food.
What Are the Four Components of a Healthy Food System?
There are two major ways to break food systems down into component parts. The first is to look at the five parts of the food cycle: production, processing, distribution, retail and consumption. The other is to consider the aspects of food systems that can tell us whether they are good for people, animals and the planet. Four metrics that are often used for this are whether the system is environmentally sound, humane, economically viable and socially just.
To determine whether a food system is environmentally sound, experts look at a wide range of markers, including water and land use, water toxicity, soil health, wildlife and biodiversity.
A humane food system is one that minimizes suffering. The most dominant food system is responsible for vast amounts of human and animal suffering, which a wide range of food system advocates argue is not a humane system.
Food systems that are economically viable are those that provide financial benefits to all stakeholders, whether they are a wage worker, government or corporation.
A socially just food system is one that contributes to solving social and economic problems such as food insecurity and labor rights violations. Further, it operates in a manner considerate of populations with lower socioeconomic status due to their gender, sex, race or other social markers.
What Are the Types of Food Systems?
Contained within the larger global food system there are a variety of smaller food systems that can be grouped according to common traits. Some food systems will belong to more than one of these groups. Some of these systems have emerged as the result of policy, whereas others have sprouted from people’s desire to organize food in a better way.
Conventional Food Systems
Conventional food systems maximize efficiency. These systems rely heavily on intensive practices and large scales, using machinery, pesticides, fertilizers, genetic engineering, cheap labor and vertical integration to channel the bulk of profits to a few large companies. Though conventional food systems are able to produce a vast amount of food, they also contribute heavily to environmental degradation, and are fraught with social injustices and animal suffering.
Alternative Food Systems
There are numerous types of alternative food systems, ranging from organic production to cooperative farms. What these systems have in common is they all aim to remedy the issues perpetuated by conventional food systems.
Local Food Systems
Some food systems focus on keeping the entire system within one community, typically called a local food system. Many small-scale farms operate within local or regional food systems. Though local food systems can be beneficial for communities, small farms are not a simple fix for the planet. Research suggests eating local does little to minimize greenhouse gas emissions for example.
Organic Food Systems
Certified organic food systems are federally regulated in the U.S. By law, an organic farm may only use natural fertilizers and pesticides — though there are a few exceptions where synthetic pesticides are allowed — in addition to other restrictions forbidding antibiotics and bioengineered food ingredients. Organic farmers aim to reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.
Cooperatives in Food Systems
Cooperatives are characterized by direct community involvement. These systems emphasize participant ownership helping to ensure that they are both economically and socially just.
Fair trade seeks to balance environmental, social and economic standards in order to create a more just food system. You have likely seen the FairTrade emblem on everything from flowers to quinoa.
Novel Agricultural Technologies
Technology can be a powerful tool to improve food systems. This is the key idea behind novel farming systems that seek to apply technology to change farming in one or more areas. Examples include vertical farming indoors and indoor gardening kits that allow individuals to grow some of their own food, even in apartments.
How Does the Food System Work?
The global food system includes a variety of smaller food systems. Some food systems ship food items for thousands of miles, whereas others are as simple as visiting a community garden a block away from your house. Each food system is in turn made up of individual parts that allow food to be grown, shared and consumed by people around the world.
What Is an Example of a Food System?
Organic food production is an example of a food system, a specific set of institutions that work together to feed a population. Let’s look at a single product, for example, organic eggs. In order to produce organic eggs, an organic farm grows certified organic feed crops that are grown, harvested and delivered to the farm where the chickens are hatched and raised. Once the chickens have laid their eggs, the farmer collects them and they are packaged and shipped to stores where consumers purchase them. In addition to the processes necessary to get the eggs to the store, there are also marketing departments dedicated to devising packaging that will appeal to consumers and legislative bodies outlining guidelines for organic eggs, as well as inspectors who ensure the eggs meet those guidelines.
What Are the Benefits of Food Systems?
Food systems are by definition complex, each presenting different benefits and drawbacks. A combination of methods might be the best path for creating a truly just and sustainable global food system.
Food Systems’ Effects on Climate Change
Since animal agriculture is the largest contributor to food sector climate emissions, any food system that prioritizes a plant-rich diet over an animal-centered one will help lower greenhouse gas emissions, including methane from cattle burps and carbon emissions associated with land use and deforestation.
Food Systems’ Effects on Animal Welfare
Different food systems can have different animal welfare implications, with some alternative systems less likely to use growth hormones or factory farming-style confinement. There are numerous animal welfare certifications on the market, though frequently little oversight to ensure producers meet the welfare claims of these labels. Opting for plant-rich foods is the best way to eliminate animal suffering from your diet.
Food Systems’ Effects on Societies and Economies
Food systems such as cooperatives seek to empower communities and workers. Conventional food systems have a long history of harming societies by expropriating resources, introducing public health issues and reducing property values.
Food Systems’ Effects on Human Health
Health experts agree that a plant-rich diet made up mostly of whole grains, legumes and nuts and fresh fruits and vegetables is optimal for human health, regardless of the system that produces your food. When considering public health rather than consumer or individual human health, you might opt to participate in food systems that limit the use of antibiotics to avoid contributing to antibiotic resistance or farms that prioritize worker well-being.
Food Systems’ Effects on the Environment
Conventional food systems are responsible for significant levels of environmental damage, including air and water pollution from factory farms, land use and deforestation from sprawling cattle ranches and excessive manure and synthetic fertilizer use.
Food System Problems
World Hunger and Food Waste
Over 800 million people around the world were affected by hunger in 2021, despite a global food system that produces massive amounts of food for cheap. Meanwhile, the average household in the United States wastes roughly a third of the food that it buys.
From an animal welfare perspective, the conventional food system has failed miserably. In 2020, 165 million land animals were slaughtered just in the United States. Most of these animals spent their short lives on factory farms.
Why Do Food Systems Need Reform?
The conventional food system that dominates food production around the world is broken. It not only allows but encourages human and animal suffering while lining the pockets of a few wealthy executives and bankrupting many farmers — but it is also one of the major drivers of global environmental destruction.
What You Can Do
All of us have to eat. By doing your best to support food systems that are socially just, economically viable, environmentally sound and humane, you can help contribute to a better food system. Regardless of where you get the food that supports alternative food systems, opting for plant-rich foods can help reduce food system harms. For more information, see our Take Action guide.
Grace is an avid writer and advocate with a passion for exploring animal rights from a social justice lens. She brings almost a decade of varied experience within the animal rights movement to her work as staff writer at Sentient Media.