Complexity Approach to Food Systems

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Food Systems

Food systems are probably the most ancient human construct, we have been developing new methods, processes and techniques for the capturing and transforming of food into human nourishment for millennia. Our relationship with the earth changed fundamentally when we began to practice agriculture some ten thousand years ago as it gave rise to the formation of advanced civilization, and even today agriculture can be said to still be the foundation of our economies. As such agriculture is one of the few economic processes that we are critically dependent upon and it has been identified as the predominant driver of growth in many low- and middle-income countries, more effective at reducing poverty than growth originating in any other sector.

Water Systems

Food is any nutritious substance that people eat or drink. What is and is not food is relative to what provides nourishment to the human body. This definition helps us to focus on the fact that food is always relative to human nutrition. Thus, food systems should be understood as a broader category than simply agriculture, as agriculture is primarily focused on the production of food, whereas food systems engender the full lifecycle of food production and consumption. A food system is then a set of interconnected elements for the production, processing, distribution, consumption and disposal of food. These elements may be ecological, technological, economic or social institutions.

Today’s food and agribusiness from a $5 trillion global industry, a complex global system spanning from the small self-sufficient farmer in rural India to multinational corporations trading commodities on international markets, to everything in between. But as impressive as its results during the twentieth century have been, our modern agricultural system has evolved into a highly unsustainable format across a number of dimensions. Today the industrial system for food provision has significantly lost favor in the eyes of the mainstream public within developed economies, due to its negative externalities on the environment, health, and the social fabric. At the same time that demands on the system are increasing, required input variable from the natural environment are decreasing. 


Today there is a need for a second Green Revolution that will give us the same quantum leap in productivity the revolution in the 60s did but this time, it will be very different. Not simple a technology revolution that dramatically improves farm productivity, but one that drastically improves the productivity across the entire complex network that is today’s food system, not isolated technical solutions but a change in the entire system’s architecture, a change in its fundamental organization. It is only through a much higher level of integration across the entire system that we will be able to achieve the outcomes that are required, such as being able to actually match agricultural production all the way through to nutritional outcomes. It is through the development of horizontal networks that span across the value chain and integrate it from seeds to marketing that we will be able to achieve the levels of transparency, traceability and authentication required while reducing the high level of waste through coordination.


Solutions to the limitations of our current food system will require an integrative systems approach that is able to bring together the many different stakeholders to enable collaboration across the value chain, building it into a coordinated and resilient system. In order to achieve this, next generation sustainable food systems will be built on information technology. IT platforms that are able to identify the different stakeholders and their different needs giving them representation, information and the capacity to interact and self-organize. IT enabled food platforms can create end-to-end networks that bring in all stakeholders from across the value chain to create a functioning well coordinated micro economy. Food platforms can be of any scale from small scale networks connecting local farmers and end users within a given vicinity, to large multi-national platforms connecting producers and consumers across the planet.

Digging Deeper

Download our full report which looks at the current state of the global food system, traces the major vectors of change in the coming decades and presents solutions for developing next generation, IT-enabled, distributed food platforms.

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