The Dynamics of Food Systems – A Conceptual Model

“Food systems” has become the term around which issues of agriculture, nutrition and food security are now being framed.  But what is a food system?  Here I flesh out the details of the conceptual model we are using to underpin the work of Foresight4Food.

The attention to food systems is for good reason. The 2008 food price crisis sparked much concern over global food security. However, the concept of food security tended to be narrowly associated with ensuring people have access to enough food in terms of calories, leaving aside a much wider set of food issues. We now more clearly recognise the “triple-burden” of malnutrition that involves under-nutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and overnutrition. Globally we have an unhealthy imbalance between producing and consuming too much calorie-dense food and not enough nutrient-rich food.  The alarming increase in numbers of overweight and obese people, and the associated rise in rates of non-communicable diseases is one of the consequences. Meanwhile, food production is a major contributor to green-house gases, biodiversity loss, and natural resource degradation, yet despite this pressure on limited resources, 30% of food is lost or wasted. These are interlinked problems requiring systemic solutions and a transformation in how our food systems operate.

Let’s back up a moment and consider what we mean by a system. Using classic systems thinking, a system consists of a set of interacting components that transform inputs into outputs/outcomes. A system has a boundary that distinguishes it from the environment in which it operates. Feedback loops between the internal components (sub-systems) and between the system and its wider environment underpin how the system behaves and evolves. Food systems involve the interplay of human and natural systems and as such are complex adaptive systems. This means they have high degrees of complexity, uncertainty and adaptiveness and may evolve in ways that cannot be entirely predicted and controlled through human endeavour.

In developing a systems conceptual model, it is important to remember that it is a simplified tool to help understand and visualise complex sets of relationships. How the conceptual model is constructed depends on human perspectives. Different people or groups may construct different models, and the models’ design is dictated by the question(s) it aims to help address. Such a model is a human construct to aid understanding, and is not a model of “reality”.

As illustrated in the diagram, a set of food system activities are at the core of the food system. These are undertaken by different actors, from primary production, to processing, retailing and consuming along with storage and disposal. In reality, food systems involve multiple interacting value chains. To function, these require a broad set of supporting services including, physical and market infrastructure, transport, financial services, information, and technology. The incentives and operating conditions for the actors are influenced by the institutional environment of policies, rules, and regulations (e.g. food safety and quality, financial, taxation, environment etc.), consumer preferences and social norms (see Woodhill 2010 and 2008).  Together these institutions create the formal and informal “rules of the game” that govern how the food system functions.

The food system operates within a wider context of human systems and natural systems with multiple interactions and feedback loops between these systems. These wider systems create a set of external drivers and their trends that shape the behaviour and evolution of the food system, though each actor in the system will be influenced, and thus react, differently. Drivers include population, wealth, consumption preferences, technological developments, markets, environmental factors and politics. The outcomes of food systems function can be categorised into three main areas: economic and social well-being, food and nutrition security, and environmental sustainability. Fundamental to the systems model is the recognition that food system activities, from farming to eating, are undertaken by actors who have differing interests, influence, power and perspectives.

This model of the food system integrates work by Ericksen (2007), Ingram and Zurek (2018) with the market systems thinking of the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) approach (Springfield 2015). Other food systems models and frameworks include the highly detailed model of ShiftN (2009) , the CGIAR CIAT model and recent framework by Wageningen University and Research (van Berkum et al (2018).

A food systems model, such as this, provides the basis for understanding and exploring the critical relations, trends, and trade-offs that will underpin any desired transformation of how the system works.  For example, indicators for the three outcomes enable an assessment of whether food systems are functioning in desirable or undesirable ways relative to wider societal and environmental objectives. The drivers enable an understanding of the pressures acting on food systems and influencing how they are changing (with these drivers in turn being influenced by the outcomes). The Foresight4Food Beta Data Portrait provides a synthesis of key trends for these food system drivers and outcomes.

Of critical importance is understanding how institutions shape the way the food system behaves and delivers more or less benefits to different actors in the system and the environment. Transforming food systems is largely about institutional innovations to redesign incentive structures, in particular to tackle the market externalities related to negative impacts on human health and the environment. Given the inevitable trade-offs and impacts on vested interests, this is inevitably a highly political exercise which has to play out in a highly value-laden, contested space.


Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead