Food System

Definition

Food system includes all processes, infrastructure, organizations and people involved in providing food: growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, purchasing, consumption, disposal of food and food-related items, food related research and education and others. It covers both commercial and household. It also includes the inputs needed and outputs generated at each of these steps. A food system operates within and is influenced by social, political, economic and environmental contexts.

A food system has always been result of a food culture, of the system of beliefs and values that any society associated with their food, but now that sequence has been put upside down. We may think that we wanted to have our current food system but our wants have been manipulated. We have been told that industrial foods would offer us so many benefits when disregarding, hiding or omitting the truth about the major negative effects that would come with it. We could not choose, we just got sucked into the flow and as we were moving along, the food propaganda intensified. The food system we have now is here because it has suited interests of those who did, and still have big stakes in its development.

Our present industrial food system gives to those of us who live in Western societies the real benefits of convenience and low prices. Indeed, the system freed us from the burden of food production, procuring and preparation. The other more illusory benefits that it delivers is abundance of sweet, salty, fatty, taste stimulating and attractively packed shelf-stable products. All negative effects that come along with these benefits have been indirect and time delayed. Only now they are coming to the surface. More and more people are starting to see the links between the food system we have and many of our current global ills and most importantly, its extensive negative effect on our personal health.

The global industrial food system is unsustainable. It doesn't matter from which of the many angles you may look at it. It is driven by cheap oil and other limited fossil fuels. It changes the climate, destroys soils and the arable base of food production and contaminates the environment and food with chemicals. It pushes farmers out of their lands causing irreversible loss of knowledge of sustainable farming all over the world. It causes massive food shortages and spreads hunger to over a billion of people worldwide. Finally, it causes irreversible damage worldwide to people's health and causes physical degeneration that may affect new generations raised on industrial foods on the scale that we now cannot even comprehend.

Our global industrial food system is based on mass production of foods at all its stages. It starts from growing grains, vegetables and fruit and raising livestock. Then it involves primary and secondary processing stages, distribution, sales, food service, etc. - through all the steps of the food supply chain. It also includes all the associated industries that produce fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, pharmaceuticals, food ingredients, additives, flavours, and so on. Further, it includes all the food machinery and equipment for both agriculture, food processing, retailing, food service, etc. The processing sector is highly mechanized and involves processes that drastically alter composition and character of basic food staples, turning them into substances that supposed to offer some new benefits to us. Overall, we can observe increasing control of the system and accumulation of power by ever less organizations and people.

Foods are coming and are sent from and to different parts of the world, the distribution is driven only by the cost of foods and requires incredibly complex logistics for the system to move foods all the time. Even a relatively short interruption of the flow of foods may cause massive food shortages. In Western societies, particularly for the North America, food shortages are incomprehensible but they are absolutely realistic. They may happen at any time if any natural or man-caused disasters occur.

There can be a lot said about our industrial food system and, by now, there are countless books and publications available that describe its faults. This is not the goal of the proposed Centre to focus on exploring faults of the industrial food system. The focus is on exploring questions like: "Can we have a different food system that is sustainable?" and "Can we have a system that can serve people over generations, one that doesn't destroy natural resources but keeps their intrinsic capacities or even restores them and builds them up?"

We believe that there are affirmative answers to these questions. It all depends on what the sufficient majority of people want. Practically, building such new sustainable system can only start on a small scale with hopes that it may create working patterns that can eventually spread and grow. The formation and initial growth of a sustainable food system will happen if a sufficient number of people, both consumers and food producers (farmers, processors, sellers) change how they think about food, what they believe in and what they value. That is where the Centre can help.

Building a sustainable system faces many traps. The problem is that there is not a clear vision of what a sustainable food system may look like. This is a grassroots, chaotic by nature movement and hence there is no platform to support it as a whole. To start, all initiatives that are truly committed to principles of sustainability must stay separate from the dominating industrial global food. However, most people and organizations involved in the sustainable food movement try to make their food initiatives a part of the existing food system. The result is that such initiatives are quickly corrupted, absorbed or incapacitated.

There are many grassroots initiatives but all farmer markets, direct sales from sustainable farms, some speciality stores, etc. don't yet form the system; these are only some potential elements of it. There are still big black holes that must be filled. These are mostly in processing and distribution but also in the retail areas since there are only very few dedicated business structures operating in these parts of the system. Yet, the biggest hole is probably in our decimated household food economy. For a sustainable food system, a lot of foods have to be processed, prepared, and maybe even grown/raised at homes. Indeed, the change of our food system must start within households. Only from there, through an increased market demand, it can spread to other parts of the food economy.

Organizations and people who have a big stake in protecting the dominating food system try to confuse and absorb the budding economic initiatives that could lead to the formation of a sustainable food system. Even the framing of sustainable food initiatives as the local food movement is part of that effort. What is really the emergence and grassroots growth of the sustainable food system is labeled as the local food movement. Notice, that local is tolerable to the current food system but sustainable is not. However, for a food system to be sustainable, it must be local but local foods don't have to be sustainable, and in many cases are not. Hence it is important to think and talk about sustainable (local) food system rather than just local.

Recommended Books 

Hungry City

Hungry City. How Food Shapes our Lives. by Carolyn Steel 

Eating Fossil Fuels. Oil, Food and the Coming Crisis in Agriculture. By Dale Allen Pfeiffer

The End of Food. How the Food Inudstry is Destroying our Food Supply. Thomas F. Pawlick 

Let Them Eat Junk. How Capitalism Creates Hunger and Obesity. By Robert Albritton