What does an ideal food system accomplish? In the committee’s view, such a system should support human health; be nutritionally adequate and affordable and provide accessible food for all in a manner that provides a decent living for farmers and farm workers; and protect natural resources and animal welfare while minimizing environmental impacts. However, the activities that take place as we produce, process, consume, and dispose of food have positive and negative consequences in many realms of our physical and economic system, ranging from the more direct—providing nutrients needed for life—to the more indirect ones—contributing to changes in climate. Many individuals and organizations work on preventing or mitigating those negative consequences; on the other hand, some of the current challenges of the food system (see Chapter 2) may have resulted from making decisions based on siloed analyses, that is, analyses that explore effects only in one dimension and without considering the potential trade-offs. Better, informed decisions about interventions and possibly with fewer unintended consequences will be made if critical effects and trade-offs in various dimensions are first considered.
This report is intended to provide a framework for analyzing the health, environmental, social, and economic effects of the food system. To develop such a framework and illustrate issues it might need to address, the committee concluded that food system effects need to be examined in these varied domains. As described in Chapter 2, the food system is composed of many actors and processes; it is dynamic and circular (i.e., it is affected by interactions and loops) rather than linear; it affects populations in different ways; and the effects themselves can be acute and long term. There
are interconnected markets that function (and result in impacts) at global, national, regional, and local levels. All of these features contribute to various challenges such as establishing boundaries, attributing cause and effect, and identifying mechanistic pathways of effects.
Part II is written as a background piece with brief descriptions of selected effects and complexities; for those selected, no systematic review of their potential associations with the food system was conducted. The chapter describes some complexities of the food system both conceptually and with examples. However, the connections to labor markets and social structures that have significant behavioral, social, and economic effects were not explored in detail. From this background piece, then, the reader should not imply any causality with the food system but, rather, potential associations. Also, although the committee recognizes that the U.S. food system has extensive and important connections to the global food system, the potential effects on other countries are not discussed. Finally, the chapters do not suggest (or even explore) alternative interventions to minimize any negative consequence or trade-off of current configurations.
In addition to highlighting some potential health (Chapter 3), environmental (Chapter 4), social (Chapter 5), and economic (Chapter 5) effects that arise as we produce, process, consume, and dispose of food, the chapters provide a brief summary of some methodologies that are used to identify and measure those effects. The introduction to each chapter aims to help the reader understand how the committee has categorized the effects in the health, environmental, social, and economic domains (e.g., food insecurity could be categorized as a health, social, or economic effect, but it has been included in Chapter 5 as a social and economic effect).