4.3. The food system


The energy system described in the previous section is intertwined with the food system. Energy is used at all stages of the food chain, and until now it has been overwhelmingly fossil in origin.

As discussed in the "Introduction to Planetary Well-being" course, the global food system is facing a major upheaval. The global food system is massive by any measure and therefore its environmental impact is enormous. For example, current agriculture uses half of the world's habitable land, produces a quarter or even a third of greenhouse gas emissions and causes more than three quarters of eutrophication of water bodies. But the ecological problems created by the food system are only one of the reasons behind the change required. 

Perhaps the most important reason for the change needed is that the current system is not fulfilling its primary role. The food system does not provide food security, i.e. access to good nutrition and food stability, for the whole of humanity. Even if enough food is produced to feed the entire global population in caloric terms, there are still hundreds of millions of chronically undernourished people on the planet, as monitored by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), with an estimated 1.5 billion hungry people and 2 billion undernourished people, instead of the calculated minimum thresholds based on people's actual nutritional needs (Hickel 2016). At the same time, the number of overweight people is increasing. Obesity-related diseases have already become a greater cause of premature death than malnutrition.

The problems will not solve themselves. On the contrary, a widely repeated projection is that the food system should be able to produce 50% more food in 2050 than today, although such projections include many assumptions - such as that diets will remain unchanged in developed countries and that developing countries will follow the path of developed countries in terms of diets. If the future food system is to be ecologically and socially sustainable, it cannot be based on the same systemic characteristics as the current system. In this section, we focus on describing the current system. Food system transformation will be discussed in more detail in the fourth MOOC on planetary well-being.


What is the food system?

The food system can be characterised in the same way as the energy system: it is the whole food chain, embedded in its social, ecological and economic environment. For example, the High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) of the Committee on World Food Security defines the food system as follows: "A food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes." The HLPE defines a sustainable food system as "a food system that ensures food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition of future generations are not compromised". Food security, in turn, is defined by the UN as the physical, social and economic access of all people at all times to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary preferences and nutritional needs for an active and healthy life.


In the food system, the social and ecological subsystems are intertwined

The food chain refers to the entire food chain from the farm or fishery, including inputs (such as machinery and fertilisers), through processing, trade and services to the consumer. All stages of the food chain consume energy and generate food waste.

However, it is not fruitful to describe the food system solely in terms of its positive and negative outputs. The processes of the food system are central to understanding the food system from a systemic perspective. On the one hand, these processes are linked to the interactions and relationships, such as unequal power relations, between different actors in the food system, such as producers, processors and consumers. 

On the other hand, these processes involve material and energy flows within the system and between the system and its environment, with particular attention being paid to ecological processes, both for terrestrial and underwater life. Fostering these ecological processes is enshrined in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14 & 15), as explained in the "Introduction to Planetary Wellbeing" course. Planetary well-being is linked to maintaining the integrity of these processes from disturbances such as those caused by agriculture and fisheries.

Food production is intertwined with many critically important ecological processes. These include pollination, nutrient cycling by soil organisms and freshwater cycling. By depleting water resources and degrading agricultural land, current food production undermines its own capacity to function. Of course, problems caused by climate change, such as droughts, increased heat waves in hot regions and floods, and the increase in plant and animal diseases, will also contribute to making global food production more difficult.

In addition to the food chain, the food system includes policy sectors that affect the chain, such as agricultural, food, trade and geopolitics. As explained in the course "Introduction to Planetary Well-being", science and technological development have also had a major impact on the evolution of the current system. As with social systems, the dynamics between human activity and the normative structures that govern it also affect the various components of the food system. 


Types of food system

As is typical of complex systems, the boundaries of the food system are blurred. It is often thought that food systems at different levels are intertwined and overlapping: for example, in Finland we can talk about the Finnish food system, but it is also part of the global food system. Although we live in a common global food system, where things that happen in one part of the world can affect, for example, the world market price of food and thus radiate to all other parts of the world, the system does not, of course, offer the same disadvantages and benefits to all people. To help account for the evolution of the food system and its differential impacts, different typologies have been developed to describe different food systems. For example, HLPE, the expert body mentioned above, divides systems into three different types according to their level of development: traditional, mixed and modern.

In a traditional food system, people live mainly in rural areas. Dietary diversity can be low due to the fact that the food consumed is mainly local and often self-produced. The food bought from animal markets and small kiosks consists mainly of fresh food. Basic foodstuffs are mainly affordable, but not everyone can necessarily afford food of animal origin. Food quality and safety controls are generally lacking and food advertising and information are scarce. Food can be of low nutritional value when it consists mainly of staple crops such as maize, rice and wheat. This results in low intakes of protein and micronutrients, and health problems caused by their deficiency, such as stunted growth in children, are common. On the other hand, environmental conditions have a significant impact on the nutritional values and protein content of the food available, and in coastal areas, for example, protein availability through fishing is also high under the traditional system.

In mixed food systems, a higher proportion of people live in suburban and urban areas and are on average better off than in traditional food systems. People in these more complex systems also have access to local markets for live animals, but also to supermarkets with a wide range of processed, packaged and fresh foods throughout the year. 

Mixed systems also offer the option of eating outside the home, as urbanisation brings with it street food, street kitchens, etc. Food quality and safety levels vary widely between different food products, which is generally being improved by evolving regulation. Food advertising is increasing in supermarkets and fast food restaurants. In these systems, people tend to get a wide variety of foods, leading to adequate calorie and protein intake. Instead of the health problems caused by a lack of calories and protein, the problem is the harm caused by the fats and sugars in processed food, such as obesity and the associated cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.

In the modern food system, more people tend to live in urban areas, with higher incomes and a huge variety of food choices: the biggest hypermarkets have tens of thousands of different products. Consumers often live far from where their food is produced. Thanks to technological and infrastructural advances, consumers have access to a wide range of food products all year round. Consumers have choices about where to buy their food. Supermarkets tend to offer more choice, better quality and more specialised products. 

In the modern system, there are many options for eating out, from fast food restaurants to buffets and gourmet restaurants, which tend to use higher quality ingredients. As in mixed food systems, food prices vary widely, with fresh foods being more expensive than most packaged foods. However, the relative price of fresh produce compared to staple foods is lower than in traditional food systems. Local and organic products tend to be more expensive. There are also more expensive options, such as special packaged foods and high-end restaurants. 

In the modern system, strong regulations allow for strict control of food quality and safety. Food promotions and labelling are on the increase, often focusing on health or the environment, such as highlighting non-GMO, local or organic products. In modern food systems, abundance of food, especially highly processed food, is associated with an increased risk of overweight, obesity and disease. The consumption of animal products is often proportionally much higher, affecting both the public health impact and the environmental sustainability of diets. As incomes and education increase, people's knowledge of the relationship between diet, nutrition and health increases, but the characteristics of the system have a significant impact on whether this increased knowledge translates into health-promoting dietary choices. 


The current food system produces many unintended consequences

As already explained in the ‘Introduction to Planetary Well-being’ course, the environmental impacts linked to food are huge. Improving the sustainability of the food system is therefore crucial to protect biodiversity, mitigate climate change and reduce water consumption and pollution. This is easy to understand when looking at the key figures for food-related environmental impacts: Around a quarter or even a third (depending on how land use change is calculated) of greenhouse gas emissions are linked to food (a large proportion of which are emissions from land use and energy production); half of the world's habitable land is used for agriculture; agriculture accounts for 70% of global freshwater consumption; 78% of eutrophication of the world's oceans and freshwater is caused by agriculture; 94% of the world's mammals (non-human) are domestic animals (cattle); agriculture is a threat to the vast majority of the tens of thousands of species that are at risk of extinction.

In addition to the environmental impact, the current food system causes or exacerbates many serious health problems. These are caused by malnutrition, i.e. undernutrition on the one hand, and obesity on the other, but also by the nutritional poor quality of food, such as micronutrient deficiencies.

Malnutrition is a complex problem. To measure and monitor progress in reducing hunger using a single indicator, researchers have defined a scoring system called the Global Hunger Index (GHI). The Global Hunger Index aims to assess the multidimensional nature of hunger by combining four key indicators of malnutrition into a single index score. These indicators are 1) undernutrition in the population as a whole (reflecting the proportion of the population that does not get enough calories), 2) underweight in children under five (reflecting acute malnutrition), 3) stunting in children under five (reflecting chronic malnutrition) and 4) infant mortality in children under five (reflecting the combined effect of inadequate nutrition and an unhealthy environment). The world hunger situation by country using the index constructed in this way is illustrated in the interactive map below. 


Figure. Global Hunger Index. The index is measured on a scale of 0-100, where 0 is the best score (i.e. "no hunger") and 100 is the worst score. You can also view the graph by country. Source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/global-hunger-index


Looking at the evolution of countries in the graph, it can be seen that the hunger situation has eased in most of the world's hungry countries. In 2021, only Somalia was classified as "extremely alarming". However, progress towards the goal of eradicating hunger from the world is too slow and progress is uneven. It is also important to note that the graph only depicts severe malnutrition and energy deficits. Malnutrition and food insecurity, i.e. uncertain or scarce access to food, also limit active and healthy human life and increase the risk of health problems, but these problems are not captured by the indicator above.

Obesity is one of the leading risk factors for premature death worldwide. Overweight and obesity are defined by a body mass index based on height to weight ratio. When we talk about obesity-related deaths, we mean that obesity predisposes people to various fatal diseases. Another important underlying factor is the malnutrition often associated with obesity, such as the excess intake of poor quality fats.

The graph below shows the number of obesity-related deaths by country. 


Figure. Number of obesity-related deaths in 2019. Obesity was associated as a risk factor in about 8.5% of deaths worldwide in 2019. The graph can also be viewed by country. Source: https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/share-of-deaths-obesity


Both malnutrition and overweight/obesity are strongly associated with income levels. Understandably, malnutrition is more prevalent in low-income countries. However, as can be seen from the graph above, the richest countries are not the ones that die most from obesity-related diseases, but middle-income countries - such as Eastern Europe and North Africa - probably because they eat a lot but do not have the same quality of health care to address diet-related health problems as rich Western countries. The importance of diets is also reflected in the fact that in countries such as Japan and South Korea, deaths from obesity are lower than their income levels would suggest.


Global food regimes

Food regimes are the key actors in the system and the established beliefs, norms and rules that guide the actions of food system actors - such as farmers, businesses and workers - across the food chain. More simply, food regimes could be described as established principles that govern both national food systems and the global food system. 

The analysis of regimes in the research literature has sought to make visible certain kinds of relations in the production and consumption of food: for example, how global capitalism needs certain kinds of food chain relations to function and reproduce itself, and how forms of capital accumulation produce a global order of power that is reflected, among other things, in the way food is moved around the world.

The literature on early food regimes is abundant and critical of capitalism, and while it is far from unanimous even on the foundations of food regimes, it has at least raised critical questions such as: How, where and by whom is what kind of food produced in the international capitalist economy; How, where and by whom is what kind of food consumed; And what are the social and ecological implications of the international relations of food production and consumption in different food systems? In this critical literature on regimes of capitalism, three global food regimes are generally discussed, spanning different historical periods. 

The first of these is usually dated from the 1870s to the inter-war period. During this period, cheap food and raw materials from the colonies in the tropical and temperate zones fed the industrialisation of Europe through colonial processes. At the same time, the emerging colonial states (Argentina, Canada, New Zealand, Australia), led by the US, provided Europe with basic working class food. Some characterisations summarise the first food regime as the colonial trade in bulk commodities such as wheat and sugar. 

This regime was characterised by the hegemony of the British global economy, the independence of the former colonies and the rise of nation states, which laid the foundations for the international division of labour in the food system. Although foodstuffs - such as sugar - had of course been moved around much earlier, a distinctive feature of the food regime in world history is that it generated world market prices for staple foods. At the same time, it justified itself, at least rhetorically, by the norms of free trade. The food regime of the period is reflected in various forms of exploitation of workers - and also of women and children.

The second food regime dates from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s. The US played the most dominant role in the food regimes of the era. The food regime of that era reversed the flow of food from north to south, as US agricultural surpluses began to be transferred south in the form of food aid. This was counterbalanced by competing aid from the Soviet Union - in a manner typical of the Cold War setting. One result of this was an increase in import dependency in the global South and a collapse in the profitability of domestic food production, undermining Southern food security, the resilience of regional food production and farmers' livelihoods. 

The period was characterised by the growth of capitalisation and internationalisation of agribusiness, as well as the global spread of industrial agriculture through the 'Green Revolution' (as discussed in the 'Introduction to Planetary Well-being' course). It involved the production of high-yielding varieties of a few cereals (wheat, maize, rice) in the agricultural economies of the South, using new intensive production methods involving the extensive use of fertilisers, pesticides, irrigation and machinery. 

The development of industrial agriculture geared to the global market weakened peasant farming and increased the power of large landowners. The Green Revolution enabled efficient food production on the one hand, but at the same time led to a deepening of class, gender and regional inequalities. The concentration of peasants' land in fewer and fewer hands - combined with the mechanisation of previously labour-intensive activities - pushed peasants onto poorer farmland and into urban slums in unprecedented numbers, naturally making them vulnerable to exploitation. Also noteworthy for this era is the emergence of environmental and other social movements to counter agribusiness and criticise the locally intensified environmental degradation of food production.

The third food regime dates from the early 1980s to the present day. Interpretations of this period are more controversial, if only because in describing the present, the object of study is in motion. However, certain characterisations are repeated in studies of this food regime. The regime is characterised by the unprecedented power of transnational agri-food corporations, liberalised global food trade, stronger links with financial and investment markets, globalised animal food production chains (meat complexes), increasingly concentrated land ownership, and growing ecological and social problems, with a concomitant intensification of environmental and social movements.

Perhaps the most central feature of the third food regime is its positioning within the overall dynamics of neoliberal globalisation. It is characterised by the liberalisation of markets and the privatisation of public functions and services. States have a regulatory role in the food system (e.g. in relation to food quality), but in relation to (global) capital, they play more of a service role. The rules set by market ideology consolidate corporate power in the food system. Financialisation - simply defined as the increased influence of capital in the food system - offers new opportunities not only for profit-seeking capital consortia but also for the various actors in the food chain; for example, supermarket chains are also moving into banking.

The industrialisation of agricultural production is accelerating, as reflected, for instance, in the integration of the food system with the use of fossil fuels. It is also causing growing environmental problems. The production of biofuels for transport has also emerged as a new factor challenging food production and increasing competition for arable land. As part of the third food chain, food is often produced further and further away from where it is consumed.

The problems posed by the regime are also activating the development of countervailing forces, with environmental and other social movements calling for fairness and sustainability in the food system. A more radical movement has been called the demand for food sovereignty. Food sovereignty is a grassroots movement from the Global South that calls for a complete overhaul of the food system and the restoration of sovereignty to local communities and farmers.

The above-described examination of food regimes has thus been fundamentally critical of capitalism and thus explicitly political. This is only problematic if the chosen perspective is transformed from an analysis of food regimes to a search for arguments to justify the chosen perspective. Regime studies critical of capitalism have also been criticised, for example, for over-generalising and ignoring temporal and local specificities. For example, the lumping together of peasants as a homogeneous set of 'victims' and the treatment of enterprises as a single group have been criticised. It is, of course, part of the nature of scientific activity that such gaps in research are constantly being filled. By contrast, the critical core of capitalism has been less criticised and has not been shown to be fundamentally flawed.

In any case, the regime debate makes evident the central message of this course: that the way in which relationships between people and organisations are organised is produced by the emergent properties and world-changing capacities of the system. It serves as an example of how human systems have shared norms internalised as beliefs about the workings of, for example, capitalism and market liberalism, which induce regularities (tendencies) in the system but also contain the possibility of constant change. Food regimes are under pressure to change, on the one hand from the demands of movements critical of the system, but also from the pressure to change from other subsystems of society.

However, food has been produced for an increasing number of people in such a way that the trend in the number of undernourished has been downwards in recent decades until the covid-19 pandemic, which in turn increased the number of undernourished again. However, the future is uncertain as to whether the food system will be able to deliver improved food security in a sustainable way. Food has been produced in increasing quantities and at relatively lower cost. However, even the equitable distribution of ever-increasing quantities of food and the reduction of environmental problems have not been at the core of the food system's mission, and it is difficult to see how without a fundamental change in the food regime these problems can continue to be solved. 

In the following, we will look at the current food system and its operational problems in more detail. We define a functioning food system as one that is capable of providing food security and that does so in a sustainable manner, without compromising long-term planetary well-being or relying on inequitable processes.


Why is the food system not working?

In complex systems, the reasons for the problems the system creates are rarely simple. In a system like the global food system, the causes of problems can also be very context-specific and local. However, research has identified many general and widespread problems with the structure of the food system. These create self-reinforcing cycles from which it can be overwhelmingly difficult to escape. Some of these are outlined below.

Poverty is intrinsically linked to the food system. The vast majority of the world's poorest people live in rural areas, and most of them are subsistence farmers and fishermen. Around the world, people without education, employment opportunities, social security or political representation are caught in spirals of poverty, depriving them of access to affordable, quality food. Indeed, food insecurity is more often caused by challenges of food accessibility rather than food sufficiency. 

Poverty is a multidimensional problem that, among other things, undermines the ability of individuals to participate in social and political life in order to improve their position. The self-reinforcing cycle of poverty is created by limited choices, vulnerability to various shocks and social exclusion. Such a cycle is called a poverty trap. 

Inequalities also exist within poor communities. Children in developing countries who lack access to education or are more urgently needed as domestic labour are particularly affected. Women are more vulnerable because of discrimination in terms of pay, land ownership or access to credit, for example, but also because of their cultural roles as caretakers of the home, children and the elderly. A significant proportion of family farmers in low-income countries are women, yet they lack access to land ownership and control over land use.

The concentration of power and wealth is also typical of the global food system. The intertwining of economic and political circles allows the largest corporations and interest groups in the global food system to use their resources to exert considerable influence over the quantity and quality of the political regulation that affects them. The food system is therefore a hybrid system, where the private sector has a significant influence on food policy and the rules and norms of the system's processes. One indication of the intertwining of the private and public sectors is the so-called revolving door phenomenon, where key players move from one side of the private sector to the other to occupy important positions in the public sector. They bring with them expertise that smaller competitors do not have. In the food system, this phenomenon is widely identifiable - although it should be borne in mind that the situation varies considerably from region to region.

Deregulation and the promotion of free trade have not only lifted huge numbers of people out of absolute poverty in recent decades, but have also entrenched a great deal of power in the large players in the food system. By targeting their activities, large players have the flexibility to take advantage of more favourable economic structures in different countries, such as lower taxes, which smaller competitors cannot. Similarly, in the global food chain, companies have access to and can take advantage of a vulnerable cheap labour force that does not have realistic opportunities to defend its own interests, for example by organising.

The food system is also characterised by unfair competition between countries and regions. Roughly speaking, the rich North benefits at the expense of the developing and least developed countries, which are left to produce low-value-added raw materials, while the real value-added production and processing is done in other countries. In the food system, liberalisation has not eliminated protectionist practices, which means protecting domestic producers against foreign competition through agricultural subsidies, protective tariffs, quotas and product quality standards, for example. However, liberalisation has produced global production chains dominated by large players and competition that makes it impossible for small producers in emerging countries to compete against imported products with the inputs, methods and capital they have at their disposal. 

In practice, this has in many cases led to a situation where farmers in developing countries have to either be content with subsistence farming or produce cash crops such as cocoa or coffee for export on monocultures. This in turn undermines food security in developing countries and exposes producers to price volatility on global markets over which they have no control. 

With such systemic processes favouring the global North at the expense of the global South, the social sustainability of the food system is questionable and ecological sustainability suffers. In the absence of resources to reform agricultural practices, soil is constantly being depleted, further undermining the profitability of agricultural production.

Repairing the energy and food systems outlined above will be one of the greatest challenges of this century. The core message of this course is that when the problems are systemic, so must be the solutions. This will be explored in the fourth MOOC on planetary well-being.


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Last modified: Tuesday, 16 May 2023, 6:45 PM