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Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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Summary

The nation’s food system historically has seen remarkable success in providing the U.S. population with a varied, relatively inexpensive, and widely available supply of food. It has done so through a supply chain of producers, processors, and distributors that provides food to consumers (see Figure S-1). The food system also represents one of the most significant components of the U.S. economy.

The U.S. food system has extensive connections to the global food system and exercises important influences in the global community. It is also embedded within a diverse, ever-changing, and broader economic, biophysical, and sociopolitical context (see Figure S-2).

A myriad of actors with diverse goals that are interested in specific aspects of improving health, protecting the environment, or increasing productivity make decisions that shape the food system every day. Those decisions, however, may have unexpected consequences beyond their original intent both in the United States and abroad. The results of those decisions may impact the environment (e.g., effects on biodiversity, water, soil, air, and climate), human health (e.g., direct effects on diet-related chronic disease risk, and indirect effects associated with soil, air, and water pollution), and society (e.g., effects on food accessibility and affordability, land use, employment, labor conditions, and local economies).

To date, most studies that address changes within the food system have taken a relatively narrow approach with limited consideration of the system’s complexity. However, such approaches can often miss important interconnections and may not capture the full set of impacts flowing from any particular change in the food system.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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FIGURE S-1 Conceptual model of a food supply chain. Elements or actors in this supply chain in one area (e.g., region or country) also have interactions (e.g., international trade) with actors in other areas.

In considering any changes, decision makers need the right tools for analyzing intended and unintended effects, understanding how to weigh those potential effects, and being able to recognize the need for trade-offs.1 For example, recommendations to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables to promote healthier diets raise questions about the potential consequences of expanding their supply, such as increased irrigation water or farm labor. Deciding among various options can be challenging because there could be a large number of trade-offs that are difficult to compare. However, any solutions will need to integrate a multifaceted approach for measuring and weighing various consequences.

The committee proposes an analytical framework as a tool for decision makers, researchers, and other stakeholders to examine the possible impacts of interventions and evaluate the collective health, environmental, social, and economic outcomes of specific changes in the food system. The framework provides a conceptual and an empirical structure consisting of four

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1 A trade-off is a situation that involves losing one quality or aspect of something in return for gaining another quality or aspect.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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FIGURE S-2 Links between the food supply chain and the larger biophysical and social/institutional context.

principles and six steps, as described later. This framework will be useful for (1) identifying and potentially preventing unintended effects of an intervention; (2) promoting transparency among stakeholders about decisions; (3) improving communication and providing a better understanding of values and perspectives among scientists, policy makers, and other stakeholders; and (4) decreasing the likelihood of misinterpretation of results from any particular analysis.

The intent of the framework is to provide guidance when conducting evaluations within food and agriculture. The committee recognizes that, as with any tool, analysis using the framework would simply be one input into any decision-making processes. Many other factors come into consideration (e.g., judgments) that are beyond the scope of this report.

THE TASK

The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council convened an expert committee to develop an analytical framework relevant for the food system (see the Statement of Task in Box S-1). The ultimate aim of the study is to (1) facilitate an understanding of the environmental, health, social, and economic effects associated with all components of the food system and how these effects are linked; (2) encourage the development of

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
×

BOX S-1
Statement of Task

The expert committee will develop a framework for assessing the health, environmental, and social effects (positive and negative) associated with the ways in which food is grown, processed, distributed, marketed, retailed, and consumed within the U.S. food system. In developing the framework, the committee will undertake the following activities:

  1. Examine available methods, methodologies, and data that are needed to undertake comparisons and measure effects. Examples of such needs that the committee will examine are:
    • Defining comparable characteristics of different configurations of elements within the food system.
    • Mapping the pathways through which different configurations of elements of the food system create or contribute to health, environmental, and social effects.
    • Determining the contribution of those configurations to effects relative to those from other influences.
    • Characterizing the scale of effects (e.g., individual, national).
    • Quantifying the magnitude and direction of effects.
    • Monetizing effects, when appropriate.
    • Addressing uncertainty, complexity, and variability in conducting comparisons and measuring effects.

improved data collection systems and methodologies to identify and measure these effects; and (3) inform decision making in food and agricultural practices and policies in ways that minimize unintended health, environmental, social, and economic consequences.

Approach of the Committee

In order to provide some context, this report describes the U.S. food system and gives a brief history of how the current system evolved and how the system can be viewed as a complex adaptive system. The report describes the most salient effects of the food system in the health, environmental, and social and economic domains. Understanding the relationships among components of the food system and their effects on health, the environment, and society are essential prerequisites for attempting any evaluation of costs and benefits of the health, environmental, social, and economic effects of the food system.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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  1. Describe several examples of different configurations of elements within the food system and describe how the framework will be applied, step by step, to compare them. Examples should be drawn from different parts of the food system (production, harvest, processing, distribution, marketing, retailing, and consumption). The emphasis will be on those effects that are generally not recognized (i.e., they may not be fully incorporated into the price of food). Different configurations for the committee to consider might include regionally based food systems and a global food system; free-range production of poultry and caged housing practices; and reduced retail presence of processed food and current availability of processed food.
  2. In constructing examples, describe the strengths and weaknesses of the framework in different contextual situations and suggest how and when adjustments to the framework may lead to more accurate comparisons. The goal of the examples is to illustrate the potential use of the framework to analyze a variety of questions and compare, measure, and, in some cases, monetize the effects of different scenarios on public health, the environment, and society. The focus of these exercises should be in explaining the elements of the framework, not in attempting the analyses.
  3. The committee will also identify information needs and gaps in methods and methodologies that, if filled, could provide greater certainty in the attribution and quantification of effects related to food system configurations and improve the predictive value of the framework for evaluating how changes in and across the food system might affect health, the environment, and society.

The committee has written its report from a U.S. perspective while recognizing the global nature of the food system and its effects. The committee focused primarily on the domestic effects due to time, expertise, and page limit constraints. Consequently, discussions in this report preclude U.S. food-related interactions and consequences with the rest of the world, yet the committee’s proposed framework is still valid for examining those global interactions and effects.

Six examples were selected to illustrate how the framework might be used when comparing current versus alternative configurations within the food system. By applying the framework to these six examples, it revealed how features of the food system are intricately tied to one another. The committee did not take it one step further with these examples in conducting assessments which would be outside the scope of the Statement of Task.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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BOX S-2
Characteristics of the Food System as a Complex Adaptive System

The following are characteristics of the food system that makes it a complex adaptive system:

Individual adaptive actors. The food system is composed of a variety of actors, including human actors (e.g., farmers, workers, researchers, consumers), institutions (e.g., governments, corporations, universities, organizations), and organisms (e.g., microorganisms or insects). The decentralized behavior and interaction of these actors shapes and modifies the food system; at the same time, actors respond and adapt to changes in the system around them. For example, consumer behavior shapes market demand, but may change in response to new products, information, or social forces. Consideration of adaptive responses (by multiple types of actors) can be important in a sufficient understanding of likely effects over time that result from any change to the food system.

Feedback and interdependence. Many mechanisms at work within the food system cross multiple levels (e.g., the biological level, physical food environment, and social or market context are all involved in food preferences and eating behavior). Multiple interacting mechanisms across levels of scale can lead to interdependence among actors, sectors, or factors. Feedback loops can also arise, through which initial changes to one component of the food system that affect a second component may “feed back” to further alter the first component after a time lag. For example, limited pesticide introduction may initially control pests, but over time resistance may arise, leading to increasing pesticide usage to maintain control.

THE FOOD SYSTEM: A COMPLEX ADAPTIVE SYSTEM

The food system is woven together as a supply chain that operates within broader economic, biophysical, and sociopolitical contexts. Health, environmental, social, and economic effects are associated with the U.S. food system, often with both beneficial and detrimental aspects. For instance, in the area of health, the U.S. food system supplies a wide variety of foods in sufficient quantity and at low cost for most, but not all, of the population. However, unhealthy dietary patterns are identified as a risk factor in the etiology of several leading causes of mortality and morbidity. Other effects of the food system involve climate, land, and water resources. Depletion of resources (e.g., water) and flow of outputs (e.g., nitrogen from fertilization, pesticides, and greenhouse gases) to the environment as a result of food system activities can be significant and disturb the ecosystem dynamic. The U.S. food system also carries social and economic effects that are mediated

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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Heterogeneity. Actors and processes in the food system differ from each other in important ways that can shape local dynamics and lead to divergent adaptive responses to changes in the system. For example, corporations will likely have constraints, goals, and information that differ from those of individual consumers. An intervention designed to increase intake of fruits and vegetables will affect farmers, workers, manufacturers, consumers, and retailers in different ways, and each type of actor may respond differently to any change.

Spatial complexity. Spatial organization shapes many dynamics within the food system, both directly affecting the local context experienced by actors and governing impacts across time and space. In agriculture production, a key factor determining the impacts of agricultural production systems on water, wildlife, and other natural resources is the spatial organization of the components. For example, the concentration of agricultural production can magnify environmental effects in a particular location if not managed appropriately.

Dynamic complexity. The presence of feedback, interdependence, and adaptation can produce dynamics in the food system with characteristics such as nonlinearity (a small change yielding a large effect), path dependence (dynamics strongly shaped by early events), and resilience (the ability to bounce back after a shock to the system). The reduction of soil sediment redistribution as a result of prairie reconstruction is an example of nonlinearity. A clear case of path dependence is the strong association between early life nutrition and diseases later in life. Resilience can be the result of farmers’ behaviors to minimize their risks, such as providing irrigation systems to prepare for precipitation deficits.

by policy contexts and responses. Notable effects are described and categorized in the report under levels of income, wealth, and distributional equity; quality of life; and worker health and well-being.

The committee identified both direct and indirect consequences, and it found interactions across the various health, environmental, social, and economic domains (e.g., health effects that are due to environmental exposures; interdependency between socioeconomic status and health outcomes). The committee also found heterogeneity in the distribution of effects (e.g., obesity rates and food security that differ based on population characteristics). As a result of its structure (see Figures S-1 and S-2) and characteristics (see Box S-2), the committee concluded that the food system can be conceptualized as a complex adaptive system.2 As a result,

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2 A complex adaptive system is a system composed of many heterogeneous pieces, whose interactions drive system behavior in ways that cannot easily be understood from considering the components separately.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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study of the food system requires an analytical framework and appropriate methodologies that can capture key interactions and features.

THE FRAMEWORK

The committee developed an analytical framework that could be used to assess a vast array of possible configurations conceived for the food system. One single analytical tool to answer questions about the food system does not exist; however, the use of several validated tools can be helpful in addressing questions. The framework consists of a series of steps that are common in any assessment. Within that process, the core of the committee’s framework consists of a set of principles to be considered throughout all of the steps.

Steps of the Framework

The six steps of the framework are (1) identify the problem; (2) define the scope of the problem; (3) identify the scenarios; (4) conduct the analysis; (5) synthesize the results; and (6) report the findings. The steps are meant to be followed in an iterative, not linear, manner. Figure S-3 shows the six steps as circles to the left of the figure.

Step 1: Identify the Problem

This step identifies the problem and goal(s) of the assessment. Assessments are generally motivated by broad problems and are often based on interactions with stakeholders and reviews of relevant literature. The problem statement should guide the direction of the assessment, including its goals, objectives, and research questions and all future assessment decisions.

Step 2: Define the Scope of the Problem

This step defines the boundaries and level of detail of the assessment. To analyze all effects on the entire food system across all possible dimensions may be intractable. Defining the relevant scope for analysis entails using the framework to identify meaningful changes along the food supply chain—in various effect domains and dimensions, in the time horizon, in interacting processes, and in system feedbacks. The scope defines the elements of the food system to be analyzed. The boundaries may enclose a subset of the larger food system (e.g., a particular food commodity, time, or geographic area). Boundaries for the system under analysis can be shaped by the nature of the problem and often depend on input from stakeholders

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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FIGURE S-3 Conceptual illustration of the analytical framework. The four principles of the framework are represented in the larger circle, the core of the framework. These principles need to be considered throughout the assessment steps, represented in the figure as six small circles.

and on budget limitations. Outside the boundaries, the assessment may assume constant conditions, even though potential far-reaching effects are possible beyond the boundaries. Within the defined boundaries, the assessment seeks to describe interactions and relationships among key actors along the relevant parts of the food supply chain; the impact of changes on a range of health, environment, social, and economic effects; and the processes and pathways that produce the outcomes of interest.

Step 3: Identify the Scenarios

This step identifies the food system scenarios (or configuration[s]3) being analyzed. Most assessments compare system performance to one or more baseline scenarios. Alternative scenarios typically specify potential

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3 Configurations are elements within the food system, such as policy interventions, technologies, market conditions, or organizational structure of different segments of the food system, that can be modified to achieve a particular goal or to explore how potential drivers (e.g., growth in demand for foods with particular traits) might impact the distribution of health, environmental, social, and economic effects.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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changes or interventions, such as a new policy or a new technology. Assessments should be explicit about each intervention being considered, including when, where, and how the intervention occurs.

Step 4: Conduct the Analysis

In this step, appropriate data and methods of analysis are selected. Multiple datasets, metrics, or analytical tools, including qualitative analysis, may be used to assess the range of scenarios and questions. Given the intended scope of a particular assessment, an analysis should draw on suitable methodologies to interpret measurements and build relevant models to assess the likely health, environmental, social, and economic effects associated with food system scenarios. The goal is to provide a scientifically valid basis for public and private decision making (see Appendix B).

Step 5: Synthesize the Results

In this step, synthesis and interpretation of findings and evidence is undertaken. Analyses of the complex food system are unlikely to offer simple answers, but rather may aim to provide insight into the range of outcomes resulting from any action, both beneficial and harmful, and their potential magnitude. Ultimately, value judgments of stakeholders and decision makers are often required to determine how to weight the various outcomes.

Step 6: Report the Findings

The goal of this step is to communicate findings to key stakeholders. Reporting involves sharing the assessment and recommendations with key stakeholders, broadly defined as the end-user of the assessment, members of affected communities, and the general public. The reporting step typically involves creating a report that clearly documents how the assessment was conducted; data sources and analytical tools, including the assumptions; interaction with stakeholders; findings; and recommendations.

Principles of the Framework

The framework consists of the following principles that would guide a team of assessors throughout an analysis (see Figure S-3): Consider effects across the full food system; address all domains and dimensions of effects; account for system dynamics and complexities; and choose appropriate methods.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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Principle 1: Recognize Effects Across the Full Food System

Positive and negative health, environmental, social, and economic effects occur all along the food supply chain illustrated in Figure S-1 and also within the economic, biophysical, and social/political context. Both the food supply chain and its surrounding biophysical and institutional context should be recognized in any assessment.

Principle 2: Consider All Domains and Dimensions of Effects

Any single assessment should consider all four important domains of food system effects (health, environmental, social, and economic) and recognize that trade-offs among the different effects both within each domain and across them will often be necessary. Within each domain, four dimensions of effects4—quantity, quality, distribution, and resilience—measure how much of what the food system provides, where and to whom it goes, and how sustainably it can do so. Judgments about the relative importance of these dimensions for any particular assessment may be normative as well as empirical, and different assessors of the food system may disagree about their relative importance.

Principle 3: Account for System Dynamics and Complexities

An assessment should account for the characteristics of the food system as a complex adaptive system, as explained in Box S-2. For example, the food system is heterogeneous in terms of the variety of the actors and processes at each step of the food chain. Heterogeneity applies to the range of actors involved; to difference within a type of actors in resources, relationships, and knowledge; and to biophysical settings, including terrain, climate, and other natural resources. These heterogeneous actors interact within the system, and may adapt their behavior as system changes take place. Given the tendency of complex interactions to trigger dynamic repercussions, assessments should, to the extent feasible, account for effects across time, space, and heterogeneous populations. They should also acknowledge the potential role of underlying drivers and interacting

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4 Quantity, quality, distribution, and resilience measure how much the food system provides, where and to whom the production goes, and how sustainably it can produce. Quantity in the food system often matters relative to a benchmark because too little or too much can be problematic. Quality characterizes an outcome, such as the nutrition, taste, or safety of a food. Distribution measures where an outcome goes, such as the incidence of obesity across different consumer populations. Resilience measures the food system’s ability to bounce back from sudden shocks and long-term pressures. For example, in response to honeybees dying of disease, resilience measures the food system’s ability to continue to supply crops that rely on bee pollination.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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pathways. The committee recognizes that any research or assessment team may be limited in terms of human and economic resources. Therefore, many assessments will be simplified (e.g., will only explore a specific question or effect). While scope limitations may preclude a specific study from careful consideration of all effects and drivers, it is important for any study to define the boundaries (i.e., what is the scope of the study) and assumptions (i.e., the potential role of relevant aspects not included). Also important is that the team of assessors has expertise in various disciplines related to the questions to be answered and that they have a plan for consulting with relevant stakeholders.

Principle 4: Choose Appropriate Methods for Analysis and Synthesis

Careful choice of metrics and methods is fundamental to conducting a meaningful assessment. Prevailing standards of evidence govern the choice of metrics and methods. They vary across health, environmental, social, and economic effects because of measurement challenges specific to each domain. The assumptions, limitations, accuracy, sensitivity, and other relevant factors for methods used should be clearly stated in the assessment. The committee has identified selected metrics, data sources, analytical techniques, and simulation models that might be used in an assessment of a policy or action affecting the food system (see Appendix B). As mentioned above, regardless of the method used, clearly framing the scope of the assessment and assumptions are important steps, given the complexity of the food system. In such cases, the committee recommends that any assessment at least acknowledge the existence of some potentially important effects or drivers that are outside the scope of the specific assessment.

LESSONS LEARNED

The committee was charged with providing examples from various parts of the food system to demonstrate how the framework could be applied for evaluating the effects of an alternative configuration (see Box S-3). The committee followed the first three steps as prescribed by the framework to illustrate how it could identify and define the problems in these examples. The last three steps (analysis, synthesis, and reporting) were excluded from those examples because conducting the assessment would have been beyond the committee’s task. Therefore, readers should not take any of the specific analysis or configurations as recommendations, but rather as examples for future consideration.

Within these examples, there were several instances in which a proposed

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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BOX S-3
Examples of Food System Configurations Selected to Illustrate the Application of the Framework

The use of antibiotics in agriculture. The wide use of antibiotics in agriculture may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms with implications for human and animal health. Analysis of historical and/or current configurations of the system may yield insights about the relative contributions of the food system and of human medicine to current growth in antibiotic resistance.

Recommendations for fish consumption and health. Consumption guidelines for fish have not considered the availability of sufficient fish to meet them and the potential environmental impacts. Several alternative scenarios could entail a change in dietary recommendations or the application of new technologies (e.g., sustainable farming production methods).

Policies mandating biofuel blending in gasoline supplies. Biofuel policies intended to increase the country’s energy independence and decrease greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel were implemented without consideration of wider environmental effects and effects on domestic and global food prices.

Recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. The purpose of this assessment could be to understand the barriers and inducements to fruit and vegetable consumption so that better interventions to increase consumption can be implemented.

Nitrogen dynamics and management in agroecosystems. The use of high levels of nitrogen fertilizer to increase crop yields has environmental, health, and economic consequences that go beyond immediate concerns with crop yields. A baseline scenario could be one that is mostly reliant on mineral fertilizers without the use of methods to increase nitrogen uptake and retention. For comparison, an alternative cropping system could be less reliant on mineral nitrogen fertilizer and emphasize biological nitrogen fixation, manure and organic matter, amendments, cover crops, and perennial crops.

Policies on hen housing practices. This case study presents an assessment that is currently being conducted to analyze the implications for productivity, food safety, and workers’ health of changing egg production practices. Data for the assessment are currently being collected on three types of hen management systems.

change (in recommended policy or practice to achieve a specific objective) within the food system could lead to unintended and unexpected consequences in multiple domains. These examples demonstrate the complexity of issues and confirm the need for the committee’s analytical framework, which considers health, environmental, social, and economic domains.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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CONCLUSIONS

Although no assessment was conducted, the examples and a literature review on effects of the food system did provide the committee with some insights. The committee provides the following conclusions:

  1. Comprehensive studies of food systems that use all principles of the committee’s framework are rare in published literature. For example, the committee could not find a single example where all four domains (health, environment, social, and economic effects) and the four key dimensions (quantity, quality, distribution, and resilience) were considered. More importantly, most studies lack clear statements of boundaries and assumptions about the affected domains, their interactions, or dynamic feedbacks.
  2. Studies that consider the entire food supply chain and address multiple domains (and dimensions) of effects of an intervention and its drivers can identify outcomes and trade-offs that are not visible in more narrowly focused assessments.
  3. Policies or actions that aim for an outcome in one domain of the food system (e.g., health) can have consequences not only in the same domain but also in other ones (e.g., environmental, social, and economic domains). These consequences may be positive or negative, intended or unintended. They can be substantial and are often not proportional to the change incurred. That is, what might appear as a small intervention may have disproportionately large consequences in various domains across time and space.
  4. The data and methodologies used to study the food system have been collected and developed both by public and by private initiatives, depending on the questions they help to address (e.g., public health or climate change questions versus questions related to the environmental effects of a specific company). Methodologies include not only those to describe and assess the effects of the system but also those that serve to synthesize and interpret the results. Publicly collected data and publicly supported models have been and continue to be critically important in assessing and comparing the effects of the food system in various domains and dimensions. The lack of access to data collected by industry can be a major challenge for public research aimed at understanding the drivers and effects of the food system.
  5. Stakeholders are important audiences of any assessment exercise, but they also can play an important role throughout the process by contributing to, identifying, or scoping the problem or potential effects that may not have been apparent to the researchers. They
Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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  1. also can be important sources of data when public sources are not readily available. Effectively engaging stakeholders has challenges, such as avoiding conflicts of interest, ensuring equitable engagement, and addressing potential lack of trust by the public. Therefore, this type of participatory process requires careful planning about whom to involve, when to involve them, and how much involvement is appropriate.

  2. Even though major improvements in the U.S. food system have resulted in the past from the introduction of new technologies, needed future improvements in the system may not be achievable solely through technological innovation. Achieving them may require more comprehensive approaches that incorporate non-technological factors to reach long-term solutions. Systemic approaches that take full account of social, economic, ecological, and evolutionary factors and processes will be required to meet challenges to the U.S. food system in the 21st century. Such challenges include antibiotic and pesticide resistance; chemical contamination of air and water; soil erosion and degradation; water deficits; diet-related chronic disease, obesity, domestic and global hunger, and malnutrition; and food safety.
  3. To discover the best solutions to these problems, it is important not only to identify the effects of the current system but also to understand the drivers (e.g., human behavior, markets, policy) and how they interact with each other and with the observable system effects. Such understanding can help decision makers to identify the best opportunities to intervene and to anticipate the potential consequences of any intervention.

A CALL TO ACTION

Use of the Framework

The committee provides an analytical framework that should be used to examine policies or proposed changes in the food system that may have wide implications. The committee intends for the report to stimulate broad thinking among policy makers, researchers, and other stakeholders about the consequences of food system policies and actions beyond a single dimension. The proposed framework is relevant for researchers who are interested in examining the health, environmental, social, and economic effects of aspects of food production, processing, distribution, and marketing. Applying the framework also will help to identify uncertainties and identify and prioritize research needs. Other stakeholders can use the frame-

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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work to develop evidence that will be helpful in understanding the costs and benefits of alternative configurations within a food system. Moreover, the framework provides a tool for all interested stakeholders to deliberate about challenging issues in a transparent manner by considering multiple sources of data and information. Given that other factors, such as value judgments, underlie many choices for interventions, the committee strongly urges decision makers to use this framework to analyze the best available information about system-wide effects, trade-offs, and dynamics and to guide their selection of interventions.

This framework is sufficiently general and flexible for analyzing various configurations of the current and future food system. The committee recognizes that in some cases limited resources might preclude a comprehensive analysis of the food system. Also, discrete questions may not require a full systemic analysis. In such instances, not all steps of the framework or methods will apply equally, depending on the scope and topic chosen by a researcher. Regardless of the scope of the analysis, assessors still need to recognize boundaries and implications and to take into account the various interrelationships of the food system.

The description of the food system and its effects has intentionally been presented from a U.S. perspective, and it omits important interactions and effects for the rest of the world. However, its application is aimed not only at those attempting to understand the U.S. food system and its consequences but also at others outside the United States who are conducting similar research and making similar decisions about their food systems.

Critical Needs for Using the Framework

The committee identified two general areas that need urgent attention to make the best use of the framework: the need for data collection (as well as development of validated metrics and methodologies), and the need for increased human capacity. The committee did not specify areas of research that should be prioritized, as one expected outcome of applying the framework would be identification of the most important research needs for a particular area.

Organized and systematic collection of data on local, state, regional, national, and international bases is vital to improving the ability to answer critical questions on U.S. food system impacts. The U.S. government maintains major datasets that are useful for assessing the health, environmental, social, and economic effects of the food system. These include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Food Availability Data System and Loss-Adjusted Food Availability; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey; the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Agricultural Chemical Use Program; the U.S.

Suggested Citation:"Summary." Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. 2015. A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/18846.
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Department of Labor’s National Agricultural Worker Survey; and USDA’s National Agriculture Statistics Service data series (e.g., the Farm Labor Survey; the Census of Agriculture; and the Agricultural Resource Management Survey). Many other databases are also crucial for conducting assessments (see Appendix B).

The design, collection, and analysis of data should be reviewed periodically so that it matches the needs of researchers and decision makers as new questions arise. Specific needs for data collection could be identified in all domains, but some general areas of concern are the overall lack of segregated datasets (e.g., data by sociodemographic factors at regional or local levels) and, for some variables, the lack of validated metrics, such as the well-being of individuals or groups.

The committee recommends that Congress and federal agencies continue funding and supporting the collection (and improvement) of datasets that can be used for food system assessment studies along with giving consideration to creating new data collection programs as priorities arise. Likewise, continued support to develop and advance validated methods and models is necessary for a comprehensive understanding of the U.S. food system effects across all domains.

Government, academic, and private sectors have recognized the need to share data. The committee supports federal government efforts to share data and recommends further development of improved methods for more efficiently sharing data and models across disciplines and agencies and with the private sector. The committee recommends that government–industry collaboration mechanisms be developed to make industry-collected information more readily available for use in research and policy analysis.

Efforts to build human capacity are needed for the recommended framework to be used appropriately. As this report has pointed out, a fuller understanding of the implications of changes to the food system could be gained by integrated analyses, yet much research in these domains remains narrowly focused and linear in its design. Scientists in academia, the private sector, and government agencies need to be trained in all aspects of complex systems approaches—including systems research design, data collection, and analytical methodologies—and the use of models would remove some barriers impeding progress. Continued support for research on and demonstration of systems analysis methodologies will be important to ensure that innovation in this field continues. It is particularly important that federal agencies such as USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Labor—as well as other relevant federal agencies— have the human and analytical capacity to undertake assessments using the principles of the framework as they consider policies with domestic and global consequences.

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How we produce and consume food has a bigger impact on Americans' well-being than any other human activity. The food industry is the largest sector of our economy; food touches everything from our health to the environment, climate change, economic inequality, and the federal budget. From the earliest developments of agriculture, a major goal has been to attain sufficient foods that provide the energy and the nutrients needed for a healthy, active life. Over time, food production, processing, marketing, and consumption have evolved and become highly complex. The challenges of improving the food system in the 21st century will require systemic approaches that take full account of social, economic, ecological, and evolutionary factors. Policy or business interventions involving a segment of the food system often have consequences beyond the original issue the intervention was meant to address.

A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System develops an analytical framework for assessing effects associated with the ways in which food is grown, processed, distributed, marketed, retailed, and consumed in the United States. The framework will allow users to recognize effects across the full food system, consider all domains and dimensions of effects, account for systems dynamics and complexities, and choose appropriate methods for analysis. This report provides example applications of the framework based on complex questions that are currently under debate: consumption of a healthy and safe diet, food security, animal welfare, and preserving the environment and its resources.

A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System describes the U.S. food system and provides a brief history of its evolution into the current system. This report identifies some of the real and potential implications of the current system in terms of its health, environmental, and socioeconomic effects along with a sense for the complexities of the system, potential metrics, and some of the data needs that are required to assess the effects. The overview of the food system and the framework described in this report will be an essential resource for decision makers, researchers, and others to examine the possible impacts of alternative policies or agricultural or food processing practices.

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