How Alternative Views on Food Systems Lead to Different Food Policies


by Inge D. Brouwer, John McDermott, and Ruerd Ruben | October 16, 2020

When it comes to working on improving food and nutrition security in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), analytical approaches are constantly evolving and policy recommendations strongly vary. Whereas ‘food systems’ thinking seems to be generally embraced, its on-the-ground analyses appear to be guided by quite different perspectives.  To guarantee the practical relevance of food systems analyses it is of vital importance to maintain a sharp focus on the root causes of malnutrition in all its forms around the world, as well as on the environmental boundaries for a sustainable food supply and the requirement of equitable access to nutritious diets by vulnerable people.

The emergence of food system thinking

For quite some time, we paid intense but siloed attention to individual components of food systems and the strategies for reaching single goals. Initial attention has been focused on improving production systems, asking what could be done to maximize output of grains, vegetables and fish towards a more stable supply of food and food energy. Hereafter, new studies started to look at value chains, in order to better understand how rice, pork or tomatoes moved from “farm to fork” and farmers could be connected to markets. With the increasing influence of climate change, attention was focused on strategies for sustainable resource management and more resilient food systems. We learned a lot from these approaches, but it didn’t solve the problem: undernutrition has persisted, while we’re seeing worrying trends in many parts of the world as rates of overweight and obesity climb.

In recent decades, and particularly in the last ten years, the conversation among researchers, development partners, program implementers and policy makers has moved from supply-side approach that prioritize food production and value chains to food systems thinking that starts from a consumer-led principles. Looking at the entire food system rather than just individual pieces of it, enables us to understand the relationships between external drivers, food supply and demand components, and markets and incentives that shape the enabling food environment influencing consumer choices. Such an approach tries to make explicit the trade-offs between different socio-economic, environmental and distributional objectives (nutrition, resilience, equity) of food system innovations that result from the complex interactions between food producers, traders, consumers and government.

Consensus and Confusion

While taking a food systems approach has been an improvement in many ways, there remains a wide and conflicting range of interpretations about what a food system is, how the components are defined, and where the major leverage points of emphasis can be found. Since its release in 2017, a growing consensus has developed around the Committee on World Food Security’s High-Level Panel of Experts’ (HLPE) food systems framework, which defines and shows important interactions between food systems drivers, components, and outcomes. Yet there still exists much debate around operational definitions of key terms and interactions among framework components, which creates confusion among actors regarding focus, relationships, interventions, and policy actions.

To understand the scope of this fragmentation, we recently undertook a comprehensive analysis of some 32 recent, highly cited international reports on food systems. We tried to uncover differences and similarities in characterizations and definitions used, outlining how this leads to diverging views on the dynamics of food system change, and identifying what implications these differences have for global policy, local actions, and recommended interventions.

Drawing on the HLPE framework, we mapped these reports according to their attention to the framework components and their focus on three outcome areas: nutrition and health, sustainability and resilience, and inclusion and equity. We found the reports could be categorized into four basic archetypes of food systems analysis, reflecting divergence on key system properties and transition pathways:

  1. Supply-oriented analyses, which focus largely on food production and sufficient long-term availability;
  2. Midstream-oriented analyses, which look at markets and institutions at the intersection between production and consumption;
  3. Demand-oriented analyses, which focus on diets and consumer demand; and
  4. System-oriented analyses, which center on governance, responsiveness, and adaptability.

Analytical variance and policy divergence

We found 20 of these 32 recent reports focus on the first two archetypes, while only five look at consumer demand and nutrition outcomes. In general terms, tradeoffs between food systems outcomes are generally overlooked and most studies focus on single goals. While almost all of them pay attention to sustainability outcomes, about half look at equity or nutrition, and only four explicitly make the connection between nutrition and health.

This mapping reveals a great deal about what the focus of food systems research and analysis has been, but perhaps even more important it reveals that interlinkages between food system components are generally neglected (just two reports cover all four categories, and only another three look at three of the four categories). Focusing on specific parts of the system will result in different strategies and policy recommendations, and the lack of analysis across archetypes keeps us from being able to understand how to address tradeoffs that will invariably arise. Further analysis into the reports revealed how the approaches, strategies, and solutions vary among the archetypes.


High variance in these analyses leads to large differences in recommendations for policies and incentives to improve food systems performance and focus on how systems need to transform. This divergence is problematic in several areas, leaving analysts unable to (a) agree upon primary interactions that drive governance of change, (b) determine how to deal with conflicting objectives, and (c) identify system’s leverage points. Without consensus in these areas, policy makers will keep struggling to determine where food systems transformations are needed and how these changes can be set in motion.

While many have adopted a food systems view, our analysis shows that in practice the focus on primary production and markets still prevails, which limits understanding of the role of consumer preferences and the opportunities for public policy and private sector innovation. Consequently, better-oriented food transformation policies should consider issues of demands, tradeoffs, and issues of power and inclusion. While food systems have been addressed from many discrete angles, the challenge before us is to bring this learning together, to assess potential synergies, identify joint priorities, and enable stakeholders to take action that will transform our food systems to become more sustainable, healthy, and equitable.

Inge Brouwer leads the A4NH research flagship Food Systems for Healthier Diets, and is an Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Security at Wageningen University & Research (WUR). John McDermott is the Director of A4NH. Ruerd Ruben is WUR's representative to A4NH's Planning and Management Committee and is Professor of Impact Assessment for Food Systems at WUR. This post is based on their recent paper, "Food Systems Everywhere: Improving Relevance in Practice," published in Global Food Security.


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