the food system approach: assessing food security from a holistic perspective

“The world now produces enough food to feed its population. The problem is not simply technical. It is a political and social problem. It is a problem of access to food supplies, of distribution, and of entitlement. Above all, it is a problem of political will.”

-Boutros Boutros-Ghali, November 1993

925 million people were food insecure in 2011. It is easy to assume that the travesty is the result of a production gap as much of the modern literature focuses on how much more food will need to be produced by 2050 in order to feed the burgeoning population of the world. This is, however, not the case. There is currently enough food produced for all of the world’s inhabitants. In fact, there is enough produced to feed even more people. Instead, there are a myriad of other factors that result in logistical issues and inequitable distribution of output, including:

  • A wide range of research challenges
  • Issues related to the political economy
  • Political inertia
  • Poor funding decisions
  • Misunderstanding/wrong explanations of the issues

Contributing to the misfocus of energy is the notion that food security is exclusively a ‘developing world’ problem. Based on this false premise, little effort to address the root causes and the majority of effort towards the alleviation of global hunger has been the work of development agencies who are limited in the scope of their efforts and scientists who focus only on production and agronomic factors – many of which have high environmental costs. However, the gradual shifts in the social and environmental construction of the world have resulted in a shift of focus and a reluctant acceptance that the actions of the ‘developed’ world have consequences on food security throughout the world. Moreover, a great number of people residing in ‘developed’ lands lack access to appropriate sources of nutrition. Accordingly, this has led to a new discussion surrounding food and a new approach – a food systems approach – that serves as a tool for better understanding the complex interactions between the diverse actors in a food production system.

A food system is a type of system that relates to all activities to food:

  • Production: how the food is grown
  • Processing: how the food is transformed from raw materials into other products
  • Distribution: how the food is dispersed and appropriated
  • Preparation: how the food is handled to prepare for the consumption phase
  • Consumption: how the final food product is (or is not) ingested

The outcomes of which contribute to food security AND:

  • Access: who can obtain the food and how it can be obtained
  • Affordability: who can purchase the food
  • Allocation: who will receive the food
  • Preference: whether the preferences for food
  • Use: how and if the food will be used
  • Value: nutrition, safety and social
  • Security: environmental and other, e.g. income

Using the concept of a food system which addresses not only the economic but also the social component of food production, a more complete and holistic picture of the circumstances at hand can be developed, which can be used to:

  • Provide a framework for structuring dialogs
  • Integrate food systems analyses with analyses of food security outcomes
  • Assess GEC impacts on food systems
  • Identify feedbacks
  • Identify intervention points for the enhancement of food security
  • Analyze trade-offs between food security, ecosystem services, and social welfare outcomes
  • Highlight research gaps

In achieving these results, efforts can be focused on the most appropriate allocation of resources. Likewise, more resilient food systems that use resources in a more intelligent and equitable manner can be developed – something that is universally beneficial in the world.