Systems thinking and the food system

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Blog by Dr Harley Pope, IFSTAL Education Coordinator, University of Reading

As a concept, food systems are currently in vogue. The complexity and unintended consequences of our global supply chains are undeniable. Hardly a week goes by when there isn’t a news story about some unsavoury aspect of the food system that has been uncovered. Recently, there has been the deliberate mislabelling of food safety dates on chicken[1]. Despite these stories pointing to problems in the food system, many shoppers remain blithely unaware that items in their shopping basket may be a product of slavery, depress living standards, or contribute to habitat destruction and global warming. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. Globally food is produced in sufficient quantities and variety to sustain 7.6 billion people[2] and their livestock. The system seems to work, at least for some, and for the time being.

If we try to wrap our heads around the concept of the global food system with its myriad inputs and outputs, people and organisations, it becomes clear that it’s a confounding landscape to navigate – hence the attraction to the idea of a food system – that there might be some way of mapping out, ordering and dealing with this complexity. But what does the term food system actually mean, and how can we make it useful for addressing some of the problems mentioned above?  This is where systems thinking can help.

At a very simple level, a system can be thought of as a collection of parts, and the relationships between these parts. It must also have at least one function or purpose, i.e. it must do something. This distinguishes a system from just a collection of parts.

parts + relationships + function(s) = system

When beginning to think about a food system we might start intuitively with the idea of supply chains. Food travels from farm to fork, and changes many hands along the way. If we pay greater attention to this process we might be able to improve some food system outcomes, for example reducing food waste, improving food safety, affordability, or worker livelihoods. However, food system activities such as food production, processing, transport and consumption have effects that range far wider than the supply chain. Collectively, producing and consuming food affects habitats, our atmosphere, our oceans, other species, our health, economies and culture. As the diagram below shows, if we try to think about all the different parts, relationships and functions of a food system, even generically, it quickly becomes challenging.

A representation of the global food system[4].


There are essentially three challenges that can be distilled from trying to map or act on the food system:

  1. Incomplete knowledge
  2. The limitations of human cognition
  3. Limited capacity to act

Firstly, the global food system is so vast that it is impossible for any one person or organisation to understand it in its totality. It is not just a question of information. There are numerous disciplines and specialist knowledges beyond the understanding of any one person. Since we can’t know everything, incomplete knowledge is a risk to appropriate action. What aspect of the system are we oblivious to, and what should we be focusing on?

Secondly, as humans we are only able to keep a limited number of objects in mind in any moment[5]. Moreover, we are often far from rational in how we process and use information. Even if we were to have perfect knowledge of a situation, would we be able to use it in an optimum way, and who decides what is optimum?

Thirdly, as an individual we may have many roles in the food system. We are all consumers, and some of us are producers too. The power of our individual voices, the organisations that we’re employed with, or campaign groups that we’re members of, all affect our relative agency and ability to intervene in the food system. While we may have some power to intervene in certain contexts, there are many barriers to our engagement in others.

System thinking consists of a range of methodologies that have been developed to address these three challenges in different ways. In the Innovative Food Systems Teaching and Learning Programme (IFSTAL) we aim to help address some of these challenges by equipping the next generation of food sector professionals with these necessary food systems thinking skills and knowledge. In my next post I will discuss some general strategies that different systems thinking approaches use that can be of help in intervening in food systems.


Dr Harley Pope is the IFSTAL Education Coordinator for the University of Reading. He has research interests in science and technology studies, governance, agriculture, international development and the environment. He also lectures on food security and development.




[3] Image source:

[4] Source:
Produced by shiftN for the Future of Food and Farming project, UK Government Office for Science (2011).

[5] Miller, G. A. (1956). “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information”. Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97.

Header image credit:Oregon Department of Transportation on Flickr by CC 2.0

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