Food Systems & Access to Food

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Local food systems maintain short linkages between producer and consumer. Source: Lakes Region Food Network

Food systems encompass all the people, institutions and processes by which agricultural products are produced, processed and brought to consumers. They also include the public officials, civil society organizations, researchers and development practitioners who design the policies, regulations, programs and projects that shape food and agriculture (FAO).

Every aspect of the food system influences the availability and accessibility of diverse, nutritious foods and thus the ability of consumers to choose healthy diets. However the linkages from the food system towards access to nutritious food are often indirect – mediated through incomes, prices, knowledge and other factors. Current local, national, regional and global level food systems coexist and evolve as economies grow and urbanization increases.

Local food systems maintain short linkages between producer and consumer, as visualized in the figure below. They are family- based, small scale and diversified and still feed the majority of the world’s people, forming the basis for broader just and sustainable systems.

National up to global level food systems entail far more actors and factors as visualized in the figure below. Both local as well as global food systems have their (dis)advantages. Larger scale food systems typically carry a wider variety of nutritious foods year-round, but also sell more highly processed packaged foods, which can contribute to overweight and obesity when consumed in excess. Governance of large scale food systems remains a huge challenge.

Source: shiftN

Food systems around the world have been radically transformed in the past decades. Economic and social development in general lead to transformation of agriculture, characterized by rising labor productivity, declining shares of population working in agriculture and rising urbanization.

Food production has tripled since 1945 and average food availability per person has risen by 40 percent. Despite the abundance of food supplies, there are still 805 million people that go hungry every day and the health of two billion is compromised by micronutrient deficiencies. Another 1.5 billion people are overweight or obese, consuming more (highly processed) food than their bodies need and exposing them to greater risk of diabetes, heart problems and other diseases (FAO, 2014).

Much of the high food output achieved in the past has placed great stress on natural resources. It has degraded soils, polluted and exhausted fresh water supplies, encroached on forests, depleted wild fish stocks and reduced biodiversity. Intensive farming systems, combined with food wastage on a massive scale, have also contributed to greenhouse gas emissions. The current approach to food production is simply not sustainable today, or in 2050, when food has to be provided for a population of 9.6 billion people (FAO, 2014).

Mid 2014, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter, observed broad acknowledgment of the need to shift to more sustainable modes of production and consumption. Topics such as agro ecology, resilience to climate change, nutrition and reduction of waste have entered mainstream discussions. At the one hand small-scale food producers' organizations are more visible in decision-making in numerous countries . Local initiatives and food policy councils are being developed, creating the conditions for a 'transition from below' towards more sustainable food systems. At the same time there are cases where participation of CSO’s and small scale producers organizations is limited because of shrinking political space. There is a need for continuous countervailing power against trends that try to undo the growing visibility and influence of the organizations mentioned above.

Making food systems more resilient, gender sensitive and nutritionally enhanced is key. For this good governance of food systems at all levels, facilitated by high-level political support, is needed to build a common vision, to support evidence-based policies, and to promote effective coordination and collaboration through integrated, multi-sectorial action.

Food System elements for better Nutrition

Food System Elements Nutrition Opportunities
Production - up to farm gate
  • Sustainable diversification of production
  • Nutrition-promoting farming systems, agronomic practices and crops
  • Stability for food security and nutrition (grain reserves and storage, crop and livestock insurance)
  • Nutrition education (school and home gardens)
  • Nutrient preserving on-farm storage
Post-harvest supply chain - from the farm gate to retailer (marketing, storage, trade, processing, retailing)
  • Nutrient-preserving processing, packaging, transport and storage
  • Reduced waste and increased technical and economic efficiency
  • Food fortification
  • Food safety
Consumers (advertising, labeling, education, safety nets)
  • Nutrition information and health claims
  • Product labeling
  • Consumer education
  • Social protection for food security and nutrition


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