Convenience stores, grocery stores, and fast-food restaurants in the US offer customers an almost dizzying array of food selections, from packaged snacks to fresh produce, fresh foods, canned goods, and complete prepared meals. Yet, the production system that makes these food choices possible is often invisible to the end consumer. The great distances these products have traveled and the number of hands they have passed through are hidden behind the appearance of standardization and abundance. From Seattle to Topeka, an orange is an orange, and the same brand of packaged foods looks and tastes the same. Amid this sameness, it now requires time and effort for a food purchaser to trace the unique sources of familiar foods or understand what sort of farming they represent.
That so much food can be produced worldwide and distributed so widely is proof of the tremendous amount of hard work and sacrifice that people and animals contribute within our food system every day. Conventional food systems are capable of providing safe and reliable food products consistently from year to year, during all seasons, through a combination of technology, skill, and organization. But behind this abundance is an uncomfortable truth: The food systems that fill our plates are also purveyors of human injustice, animal abuse, and environmental degradation, leading to increasing calls for alternatives.
WHAT IS A FOOD SYSTEM?
A food system is a complex set of interconnected practices and relationships that ultimately deliver food from farms, processing facilities, factories, warehouses, and retailers, to the dinner table. Viewing this web of activities as a system allows us to examine how the system works.
Food systems begin with food production—including what is grown, how, where, under what conditions, and by whom—and conclude with the circumstances of food consumption.
Food systems can be relatively simple at smaller scales or more extensive and complex. For example, in certain subsistence farming contexts, farmers directly feed themselves and their own families from their own labor on plots of land nearby their homes. More complex food systems, like that of the United States, are characterized by production and consumption that are often separated by long distances and involve a tremendous number of activities, resources, and individuals in their journey from farm to table. Today, many food systems span the globe.
The idea of a food system encompasses all the potential questions, challenges, and consequences of food production and consumption. These include deeper topics such as the environmental impacts of agriculture, the ethical dimensions of raising and eating animals, the problems of inequity and injustice in farm policy and supply chains, and the challenge of ensuring universal access to healthy food.
HOW DOES THE FOOD SYSTEM WORK?
Food systems function differently around the world, but some exert more influence around the globe than others. The US is an example of a national food system that is able to purchase and transport food commodities from abroad to feed its population, necessitating extremely complex supply chains that involve large numbers of actors.
Production refers to the creation of food’s raw materials. This can involve farms that grow field crops and facilities that raise farmed animals such as cattle or farmed fish. The fishing industry is a segment of the production system that focuses on harvesting wild species like tuna and salmon.
Once crops have been harvested or animals slaughtered, the resulting food commodities are sold to processors that transform them into finished goods. Processing facilities cut and can fruit, wash and bag vegetables, freeze products that will be sold frozen, juice fruits, and grind nuts into nut butter. Slaughterhouses, also known as meatpacking plants, harvest usable tissues from carcasses of animals and pack them or keep them in storage. Subsequent stages of processing add additional value to many raw materials, such as creating baked goods or pre-cooked meats that will be sold as ready-to-eat products.
The wholesale food industry purchases value-added, processed products from both national and international producers and stores them in warehouses until they are ready to be delivered to food businesses and grocery shelves. Many trucks on American highways and containers arriving in shipping ports are part of this distribution network. Food products may be shipped hundreds, or even thousands, of miles before ultimately reaching the consumer.
The final stage of the food system involves facilities that serve consumers. Grocery stores, corner convenience stores, and vending machines account for the retail sector of the food system, where consumers shop for food products to take home. The foodservice sector includes food served in restaurants, schools, cafeterias, and the airline industry.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF FOOD SYSTEMS?
Food systems look different depending on the geographical location and the socioeconomic status of a region and the cultural context within which the system functions. These factors influence how a given food system functions and whether it is just and sustainable or unjust and extractive. The US has what can today be considered a conventional food system based on industrial production.
CONVENTIONAL FOOD SYSTEMS
Many food systems worldwide are rooted in inequality. British and European colonialism was fueled by trade in food commodities like tea and sugar that enslaved or exploited the labor of people from African, South American, and Asian countries to produce goods for consumption in Europe. This legacy of exploitation and dehumanization continues today within many industrial food systems.
Although the current global food system is capable of feeding everyone on earth, nearly seven hundred million people faced chronic hunger in 2019, a number that is increasing by tens of millions per year. Additionally, an estimated 35% of adults worldwide experience overnutrition leading to health problems, and the disparity within global food accessibility becomes stark.
While the origins of this disparity are centuries old, the modern-day conventional food system of wealthier nations is a relatively recent phenomenon. Industrial agriculture, defined by monocrops, concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), and corporate consolidation, began in the US during the Industrial Revolution and has become the predominant form of agriculture nationwide.
Through corporate mergers and the exercise of political and financial power, industrial agriculture disrupted the food system, pushing out small- and mid-sized farms that were once integral to the nation’s food supply and which are far more environmentally and socioeconomically stable. Multinational food companies came to control much of the market for seed breeding, food production, and food trade, exerting massive vertical and horizontal influence from domestic economies to international markets. This consolidation of capital and market power by multinational agrifood corporations has contributed to the disruption of traditional food systems worldwide.
Conventional farming is also responsible for injecting abundant supplies of meat into the food system. While CAFO meat is relatively cheap to purchase in wealthy nations, it comes with high environmental and social costs, which are often hidden. As the country’s food system increasingly caters to diets that are rich in meat and other animal products, plant crops such as corn and soy are increasingly produced not for human households but for CAFOs. By some estimates, around 77% of global agricultural land is dedicated to raising and feeding farmed animals—land which could be used to grow food for people who are habitually malnourished. This massive diversion of resources to the animal agriculture system drives land and resource scarcity, which raises food prices, further exacerbating accessibility issues.
ALTERNATIVE FOOD SYSTEMS
Alternative food systems are today lauded as a way to resolve the many negative consequences perpetuated by conventional food systems. Yet this term is somewhat misleading. Approaches touted today as novel alternatives—including local and organic food production, direct sale from farmers to consumers, and farmer cooperatives—were established traditional ways of producing food in many parts of the world long before European settler colonialism.
LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS
While there is no universal definition of what constitutes a local food system, the term generally refers to food distribution from smaller-scale farmers who sell directly to consumers or to nearby restaurants and grocery stores. These farms produce a range of products for direct human consumption rather than bulk commodities for processing or corn for animal feed. Farmer-owners have a direct stake in the health of their land and can avoid the contract farming structures that incentivize extracting as much value as possible from the land without thought for the impacts. Sales to local retail or direct sales to end consumers also cut out some of the intermediary supply chain steps where profits tend to be captured by large food corporations, leaving more wealth in the hands of farmers. Local food systems can be appealing to consumers who wish to support farmers who prioritize high animal welfare standards and preserve the local landscape and resources.
In the US, local food systems feature farmer’s markets, community gardens, and farms where the public can pick their own produce. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs are also becoming increasingly popular. Originally developed by Black American farmers, CSAs allow consumers to purchase shares for a portion of the expected harvest of a farm, helping the farm maintain financial stability. Farm-to-school programs deliver fresh food to school cafeterias to replace meals that would otherwise be highly processed.
ORGANIC FOOD SYSTEMS
As the environmental and health impacts of conventional agriculture become more widely understood, public demand for cleaner, more sustainably produced foods continues to rise. Organic food systems describe food production, processing, and distribution in which farmers and food handlers avoid using certain artificial agrichemical inputs, including pesticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, as well as certain synthetic food ingredients. Instead, organic production favors less toxic mineral and biological alternatives that minimize ecological impact. Under the right circumstances, organic production can improve environmental health and crop yields over time. Organic principles can often apply to the processing stages of the system as well. Because organic production has to do with practices rather than with size, organic food systems may be local or even international in scope. In the US, standards for organic production set by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Nearly one hundred countries have some form of legislation protecting organic food production.
COOPERATIVES IN FOOD SYSTEMS
The conventional food system in the US is geared towards big industrial players, putting smaller producers at a significant disadvantage. Cooperatives or co-ops are one way to overcome these barriers. Collectively-owned through memberships, co-ops can take a variety of different forms. Some establish “food hubs,” processing facilities that member farms in a given region can use, enabling access to a wider range of customers from wholesale to retail. Co-ops can also engage in collective marketing activities such as forming relationships with local distributors and volume-based retail customers that smaller farms could not individually supply. Often, co-ops can be effective at addressing social justice issues related to food access. In West Oakland, California, the Mandela Marketplace is a worker-owned grocery store bringing locally grown food to a historically underserved community.
Fairtrade systems attempt to rectify global trade relations that favor transnational corporations and higher-income nations. The advent of globalization benefited heavily subsidized agribusiness corporations that were able to outcompete growers in lower-income countries. Financial market speculation also brought unstable prices for food commodities, making it difficult for farmers to maintain steady livelihoods. When combined, these factors resulted in millions of farmers losing the ability to make a sustainable income from their land, and in many cases, unable to feed themselves.
While a range of fairtrade certifications exists with a variety of mandates, fairtrade certifications generally seek to correct the power differentials that characterize conventional food supply chains, leading to meager purchase prices for farmers. Instead of searching for the lowest supplier price, fairtrade purchasing sets higher minimum prices that allow for both environmental sustainability and economic justice. Certification mandates may require that traders pay prices that enable dignified living conditions for farmers, that they pay a premium for organic products, or that they enter into long-term contracts with farmers to provide stability. While fairtrade is not a panacea for the power imbalances that plague modern food systems, it demonstrates one approach to food production built on social and environmental values rather than pure profit motives.
However, fairtrade is not a perfect solution. In some cases, the social and economic benefits of fairtrade may be more successful than the environmental goals. Fairtrade also remains a minority market segment, rife with the threat of freeloading. Despite continued mainstream support for the values behind fairtrade, food purchasers and importers are not legally obligated to obtain third-party-verified fairtrade certifications, allowing them to continue the historical power dynamics that generate poverty, environmental degradation, and human rights abuses. Where they are active, even well-designed fairtrade certifications may fail to fully deliver on their promises, leaving some fairtrade-certified farmers still unable to make a sustainable living from their work. Multinational food companies operating without fairtrade standards of conduct have recently been sued for perpetuating human rights violations in the global chocolate supply chain, including human trafficking and forced child labor.
NOVEL AGRICULTURAL TECHNOLOGIES
Novel uses of technology are increasingly showing up on farms and in food systems. Blockchain, a way of storing data through decentralized relationships that provide permanent, unchangeable records held by multiple parties, could be used to increase transparency and security within food supply chains—something that could one day help to prevent unethical practices such as forced labor and aid producers in receiving information about which crops to grow and in what quantities.
Urban agriculture is another promising technological advance for food systems, potentially allowing for food production closer to urban consumers, thus reducing the energy and resources required for distribution and helping to address food accessibility challenges in cities.
FOOD SYSTEM EXAMPLE: ORGANIC FARMING
While much of the food produced in the US relies upon the conventional food system, the organic food system also spans the nation, including farms, processors, distribution networks, and retailers. The United States Department of Agriculture oversees this system by certifying producers and food handlers that meet organic standards. For example, accredited crop producers must avoid synthetic chemicals banned by organic standards, maintain healthy soil, and refrain from using GMO seeds. Organic processors must understand the organic status of every single ingredient they use, whether they are creating food for human consumption or animal feed; only products made with a certain threshold of organic ingredients can obtain the organic label.
Contemporary food systems are complex, interconnected networks of human activities and natural environments. The broader system of people, animals, landscapes, and resources that produce our food may be beyond consideration for most—as is our role as individual consumers in a massive system that spans entire continents and oceans.
In a globalized world of capitalist agriculture built on a foundation of colonialism, food systems can be extractive and exploitative. But the growing popularity and diversity of alternative food systems offer hope for the future. By learning from the mistakes of conventional agriculture, tomorrow’s food systems can restructure food production to ensure animal protection, economic stability, improved accessibility, and plentiful plant-based foods produced with respect for the environment. Supporting local farmers growing food for human consumption, ensuring fair prices within supply chains, and embracing innovation can bring the global food system closer to solving the malnutrition and environmental degradation that unfortunately continue to define food production today.
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