The committee was charged with developing a framework for assessing the health, environmental, social, and economic effects associated with the way food is grown, processed, distributed, marketed, sold, and consumed, as well as regulated, within the U.S. component of the global food system. To address this responsibility effectively, the committee believed it necessary to develop an understanding of the current food system and its evolution over time. The committee sought to describe some of the salient effects of the food system on human health and well-being and on the environment. The food system has evolved and will continue to evolve as a result of the natural resource endowment and changing government policies, societal norms, market forces, and scientific discoveries. Although it is difficult to predict the shape and characteristics of the U.S. food system in the future, the framework developed by the committee is intended both to facilitate retrospective and prospective analyses of the system and to foster improved decision making on how it might be better organized, altered, and maintained.
Examples abound in which decisions about the food system have resulted in consequences in multiple domains well beyond their immediate objective. Researchers are still analyzing the causes and the effects even after policies have been implemented. While collecting information
and illustrating the application of the framework to the various examples selected,1 the committee reached the following conclusions:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
1 The committee selected the following examples: (1) the use of antibiotics in animal feeding (see Box 7-7); (2) recommendations for fish consumption and health (see Annex 1); (3) policies mandating biofuel production (see Annex 2); (4) recommendations to increase fruit and vegetable consumption (see Annex 3); (5) nitrogen application to obtain maximum crop yields (see Annex 4); and (6) policies on animal welfare dealing with commercial egg production (see Annex 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
These conclusions support the development of an analytical, systems approach framework that can be used to broaden insights into the consequences of food and agriculturally related activities and policies, assisting decision makers in becoming aware of trade-offs and potential unintended consequences. When considering alternative configurations2 (e.g., policies
2 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.
or practices) that affect the food system, the framework provided by the committee should be used to examine policies or proposed changes in the food system that may have wide implications. Applying the framework also will help to identify uncertainties and identify and prioritize research needs.
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 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 use of such an analytical framework relies on good data, metrics, and methodologies. Organized and systematic collection of data on a national and international basis, in addition to local, regional, and state levels, 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, Loss-Adjusted Food Availability Data, and Nutrient Availability Data databases, which are critical as a proxy for the food consumption and food losses in the United States for more than 200 commodities. Another critical database is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which estimates the health and nutritional status of the U.S. population. In the environmental domain, the National Agricultural Statistics Service’s Agricultural Chemical Use Program collects data on pesticide use in farms, which is important to estimate the risks to farmers and the environment. The USDA National Agriculture Statistics Service data series (e.g., the Farm Labor Survey; the Census of Agriculture; and the Agricultural Resource Management Survey) are also important. Many other databases also are crucial for conducting assessments; a list of selected databases can be found in Table B-3, 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. Many specific needs also could be identified in the social and economic 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 of validated metrics for some variables, 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 federally supported 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 for developing and advancing
methods and models is necessary for a more comprehensive understanding of U.S. food system effects across all domains. The National Institutes of Health’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research has supported systems science research to advance health promotion and public health efforts, but more could be done to advance multidisciplinary studies among the agricultural, economic, environmental, social science, and health research communities. The government, academic, and private sectors have recognized the need to share data. The committee supports federal efforts to share data and encourages further development of improved methods for more efficiently sharing data across disciplines and agencies and with the private sector. The committee urges that government–industry collaboration mechanisms be developed to make industry-collected information more readily available for use in research and policy analysis.
The committee also notes the need to build human capacity in the field of systems science research. As this report has pointed out, a fuller understanding of the implications of changes to the food system could be gained by more integrated analyses, yet much research in these domains remains narrowly focused and linear in its design. Training scientists in academia, the private sector, and government agencies in all aspects of complex systems approaches—including systems research design, data collection and analytical methodologies, and the use of models—would remove some of the 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 government institutions such as USDA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Labor, and other relevant federal agencies have the human and analytical capacity to undertake assessments using the principles of the framework as they consider policies that have domestic and global consequences.
The committee intends the report to stimulate broad thinking about the consequences of food system policies and actions beyond a single dimension. The recognition that the U.S. food system represents a complex adaptive system set within local, national, and global biophysical and social/institutional contexts should bring new methodologies to the study of the potential consequences of new policies, technologies, and configurations. Such analyses may provide better guidance to decision makers. 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.