Types of Food Systems and Tracking Their Sustainability

woman in grocery store


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The term "food systems" is used to describe something that is large, happening all around us, and easy to take for granted. A food system is simply the connection between growing, transporting, selling, and consuming food. It integrates fields such as agriculture, economics, marketing, retail, and nutrition.

A Brief History of Food Systems

About 11,000 years ago, mankind went from being hunter-gatherers to understanding how to grow and harvest wheat, corn, spelt, kamut and other grains. This is known as the agricultural revolution or the first agricultural revolution. Due to the ability to grow and eventually store food, man developed surpluses. When certain groups had too much food, they could trade it for food grown by other populations or could trade it for other goods.

Such early commercial transactions led to the spice trade, which connected various countries and eventually developed into the global trade system of today. Our modern food system involves various crops being grown and animals reared in different parts of the world, then warehoused or shipped hundreds or thousands of miles to consumers in distant markets. This approach would be what some call the "standard food system" or "basic food system." It has been prevalent throughout the second half of the 20th century and to some extent in the 21st.

Standard vs. Alternative Food Systems

But many experts are raising serious questions about the sustainability of this food system. One crucial issue is that it is terrible for the environment. One of the major problems with the global distribution of food relates to the carbon emissions and greenhouse gases it generates. The major culprit here is the transportation needed; however, cooking the food and the CO2 generation associated with the production and logistics of wasted food is also a significant concern.

Further, there may be equity issues with the current approach to food distribution. Massive quantities of food are generated by small segments of the population. It is shipped to consumers with the wealth to buy it, as well as to support the modern logistics infrastructure required to keep it fresh while moving it regionally or even globally. As the population grows, it is not clear that the existing approach will meet the needs of the hungry to keep them fed where incomes are low and logistics systems are inadequate.

One way to address these various problems is to think of other models for producing or obtaining nutrition. We will now compare the various food systems, including some newer and developing ones.

Organic Food Systems

Food, either meat or vegetables, can be designated organic if it is grown or raised without chemical pesticides or other chemicals, or without growth hormones. These traits show the main motives for people choosing organic foods: a desire to avoid these things and to feel that their food remains closer to its natural origins.

In terms of sustainability, an organic food system can contribute by maintaining the sustainability of the soil, since the non-chemical methods do not contribute to soil erosion or degradation. This, in turn, can have some positive impacts on climate change: to put it briefly, soil erosion and decomposition ultimately produce CO2. By recycling organic matter and maintaining soil quality, organic farm systems can contribute positively in this manner.

Up to this point, organic food production has generally been on a small scale, meaning that it may have a hard time playing a large role in the world's food consumption. Because food made organically is more expensive than non-organic, it occupies a niche market.

Local Food Systems


There are a couple of main categories of local food systems. One is a farm-to-retail model through which farmers and livestock raisers have markets (often within about a hundred miles) for their products in the form of grocery stores, institutions like schools or government agencies, and restaurants. Because the food can travel outside of a town or an immediate area, this model can sometimes be referred to as "regional."


If you live in a small village and you buy various vegetables from a few different farmers, plus meat from someone who raises goats or chickens, you are living in a farm-to-consumer model. In industrialized nations, this can take the form of farmers' markets or co-ops in which people receive bundles of produce from farms in exchange for doing tasks on the farm or paying subscriptions.

One of the chief motives behind local food systems is in reducing carbon emissions by transporting the food over very short distances. While this is true, research seems mixed as to whether local food systems are more efficient than standard food systems in reducing CO2. Issues surrounding the inefficiencies of smaller scale local operations and distribution cloud the issue. Increasingly, however, as the minimum efficient scale of food production decreases, and as such trends as indoor vertical farming become more mature, the advantages of local production will become solidified. There have also been efforts by some major players to improve the efficiency of local food distribution, such as by Amazon Fresh.

Fair Trade

Fair trade practices are made up of webs of systems meant to ensure the dignity and ability to make a livelihood of the producers. Distributors and retailers of, for example, fair trade coffee, may not pay the lowest prices for the coffee beans but are instead in an agreement wherein the prices they pay the producers to correspond with the price of growth and help ensure the ongoing viability of agricultural communities.

Tracking and Transparency of Food Systems

In recent years, there has been an increasing urgency to improve the traceability of food systems. Such visibility into the food system enables retailers and customers to better understand the provenance of the food they are receiving. Issues such as animal welfare, social justice, and environmental impacts are of increasing interest to consumers, as is concern about food safety.

Certification programs are increasingly being used to help customers better understand the products they are purchasing. Examples of such initiatives include the USDA Organic label, or USDA's Country of Origin Label (COOL) or various other certifications such as Fair Trade or Dolphin Safe.

Major retailers also employ their own tracking systems and contract with third-party auditing services to ensure compliance with their food safety and Corporate Social Responsibility programs. Product tracking technologies are also improving. Such measures help to provide further transparency, and can help expedite more efficient food recalls when needed. The introduction of blockchain is being looked at enthusiastically as an important technology for better verifying the authenticity and movement of goods through the supply chain.

I started this piece by saying that the food system is something that is large, happening all around us, and easy to take for granted. Don't do it. There are too many crucial issues at stake in terms of human health, social equity, and environmental impacts to not take the time to understand the issues and act accordingly.