Food Systems Model

The work of Foresight4Food is based on a food systems model which looks holistically at issues of agriculture, nutrition, food security, and more. A food systems framing acknowledges the interconnected nature of problems, and recognises that systemic, rather than siloed solutions are needed for change and transformation.

Foresight4Food uses a food systems conceptual model (illustrated below) to help understand the interactions and relationships in a food system. A systems conceptual model is a simplified tool to help understand and visualise complex sets of relationships. The construction of a conceptual model depends on human perspectives; different people or groups may construct different models. Systems models are human constructs to aid understanding, and are not models of “reality”.

As illustrated in the diagram, a set of food system activities are at the core of the food system. These are undertaken by different actors, from primary production, to processing, retailing and consuming along with storage and disposal. In reality, food systems involve multiple interacting value chains. To function, these require a broad set of supporting services including, physical and market infrastructure, transport, financial services, information, and technology. The incentives and operating conditions for the actors are influenced by the institutional environment of policies, rules, and regulations (e.g. food safety and quality, financial, taxation, environment etc.), consumer preferences and social norms (see Woodhill 2010 and 2008). These institutions create the formal and informal rules that govern how the food system functions.

The food system operates within a wider context of human systems and natural systems with multiple interactions and feedback loops between these systems. These wider systems create a set of external drivers and their trends that shape the behaviour and evolution of the food system, though each actor in the system will be influenced, and thus react, differently. Drivers include population, wealth, consumption preferences, technological developments, markets, environmental factors and politics. The outcomes of food systems function can be categorised into three main areas: economic and social well-being, food and nutrition security, and environmental sustainability.

A food systems model, such as this, provides the basis for understanding and exploring the critical relations, trends, and trade-offs that will underpin any desired transformation of the system. For example, indicators for the three outcomes enable an assessment of whether food systems are functioning in desirable or undesirable ways relative to wider societal and environmental objectives. The drivers enable an understanding of the pressures acting on food systems and influencing how they are changing (with these drivers in turn being influenced by the outcomes).

Fundamental to the systems model is the recognition that food system activities, from farming to eating, are undertaken by actors who have differing interests, influence, power and perspectives. Further, institutions shape the way a food system behaves and delivers more or less benefits to different actors in the system and the environment. Transforming food systems is largely about institutional innovations to redesign incentive structures, in particular to tackle the market externalities related to negative impacts on human health and the environment. Given the inevitable trade-offs and impacts on vested interests, this is inevitably a highly political exercise which has to play out in a highly value-laden, contested space.

Foresight4Food’s model integrates work by Ericksen (2007), Ingram and Zurek (2018) with the market systems thinking of the Making Markets Work for the Poor (M4P) approach (Springfield 2015). Other food systems models and frameworks include the highly detailed model of ShiftN (2009) , the CGIAR CIAT model and recent framework by Wageningen University and Research (van Berkum et al (2018). More information on systems thinking is described in this blog.