1.1 What are food systems?

1.1.1 Food systems can be conceptualised in many ways

Food systems can be conceptualised in a great many ways; the sheer number and variety of diagrams illustrates food system complexity.

A set of processes

At the most basic level, the food system may be considered to be the set of processes that occur between field and fork. Sometimes, this is shown as a linear sequence, while in many other cases, as here, the food system is considered to be at least partly cyclical.

This form of food system diagram, while perhaps informative at an immediate level, has very limited uses, as it fails to convey such crucial components of food systems as drivers (that is, influences on food system activities and outcomes) and actors (that is, the set of stakeholders involved in, and which influence the food system).

Processes and external influences

Source: adapted from materials provided by Tim BentonSource: Adapted from materials provided by Prof.  Tim Benton, University of Leeds

This diagram indicates a small number of social influences on certain aspects of the food system, and shows the main food system activities, but it does not encompass the full range of cultural factors, actors and drivers involved in the system.

Incorporating drivers and outcomes

Source: Ingram, J., et al (2010).

This diagram takes an almost opposite approach to the above, detailing the many different drivers and outcomes of the food system, but neither placing this in the context of the physical food system activities, nor showing the actors in the food system.


This diagram, by contrast with those above, contains a vast wealth of detail – however, it is arguably so all-encompassing as to be unintelligible.

Simplified for comprehension but holistic in scope

Source: http://www.cfet.org/resources/Source: http://www.cfet.org/resources (click on Environmental Education --> Food System Diagram)

This could be argued to be one of the most useful food systems diagrams (or “maps”) available. It encompasses physical supply chain processes; actors and activities; direct and indirect drivers (and different facets thereof); and inputs and outputs.

1.1.2 Food systems are dynamic

Food systems can be understood on a great many spatio-temporal scales, but at any scale, food systems are dynamic.

Food system dynamics encompass social, economic and biophysical interactions across multiple dimensions:

  • The physical flow of goods from agriculture through to consumption and waste disposal;
  • The social, economic, political, environmental, cultural and other forces that influence and shape this flow;
  • The social, economic, political, environmental, cultural and other consequences that result from this flow of goods; and
  • The interactions between consequences and drivers, that is, the way in which the dynamic interactions of the food system can shape its future direction.

Supply chains refer to the processes (production, processing, distribution, retail) that may be involved before food reaches our plates. Supply chains operate at both global and local levels. They can operate at: local-to-local, local-to-global, global-to-local and global-to-global scales. 

Another term that is often used is the ‘value chain’ – the latter takes into account not just the flow of products but also the actors involved at each stage and the value (financial or reputational or other) that these actors add, via processing or distribution for example, to the final good.

Gómez and Ricketts (2013) have characterised the various value chains in existence as: traditional, modern, modern-to-traditional, and traditional-to-modern (see References panel).

Food systems encompass the suite of activities and actors, as well as the environmental, socio-economic, and governance drivers and influencers of these activities and actors. Feedback loops exist among socio-economic drivers (e.g. population change), global environmental drivers (e.g. soil fertility), governance (e.g. regulations, standards), and food systems activities and outcomes, all of which together impact upon food security (see the food security building block and Chapter 7 for more on food security). The food security status of a given population will in turn act as a driver – influencing, for example, new governance arrangements, new food producing activities and so forth.

In reality, there is no single ‘food system’ but rather multiple ‘food systems’ operating at different spatial or social scales, which interact with one another to varying degrees.