The workshop began with an opening session moderated by Jennifer Otten, University of Washington, focused on taking a broad look at the food system. This session was intended to answer two key questions: (1) What are innovations within a food systems frame? and (2) What does it mean to use systems thinking in addressing food systems innovations?
Food Systems as Complex Systems
Kate Clancy, an independent food systems consultant and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University, began by describing the value of systems approaches in addressing innovations in food systems. She noted that, given the complexity of food systems, the 2015 Institute of Medicine (IOM) and National Research Council (NRC) report A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System included the recommendation to apply analytic methods and an understanding of complex systems in exploring food systems issues (IOM and NRC, 2015). The framework from this report is presented in Figure 2-1. Clancy observed that the report has been widely utilized around the world for teaching, planning, and research purposes on topics including climate change, food procurement, and food security.
According to Clancy, the 2015 report built on a report titled Toward Sustainable Agricultural Systems in the 21st Century, which states: “The
transformative approach to improving agricultural sustainability … would facilitate the adoption of production approaches that capitalize on synergies, efficiencies, and resilience characteristics associated with complex natural systems and their linked social, economic, and biophysical systems” (NRC, 2010, p. viii). The report explains further that in order to effectively instill systemic changes in current farming systems, research must address the various dimensions of sustainability and require the application of a systems approach. Clancy added that while the report focuses on agricultural production, its emphasis on examining economic and social dimensions also applies to other food system elements.
Clancy shared a graphic of a food system (see Figure 2-2) that captures many of the components of such a system, including supply chains, social organizations, science and technology, the biophysical environment, and policies and markets. She explained that as food and food service flow through a supply chain, money and demand information move through it in the opposite direction. She emphasized that it is inaccurate and confusing to define a supply chain as a food system; rather, as Figure 2-2 illustrates, the supply chain is but one of the system’s components. Furthermore, she pointed out that hundreds of thousands of food systems exist across the
country and the globe, and context is needed to understand which food system is under discussion.
Clancy defined systems thinking as “a set of synergistic analytic skills used to improve the capability of identifying and understanding systems” (Arnold and Wade, 2015, p. 675). The value of a systems approach, she elaborated, is that it makes one consider a wide range of variables, such as people’s values and internal and external barriers, involved in a problem. It is also useful, she continued, for acknowledging trade-offs and multiple potential solutions, anticipating unintended consequences, making predictions, and targeting intervention points. In particular, she observed that innovation is likely to result in trade-offs, and acknowledging them allows greater circumspection about the roots of problems and leverage points for solutions.
Clancy mentioned that the 2016 United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report Food Systems and Natural Resources uses the term “food systems approach” in its conceptual framework to describe the connections among variables and how they lead to outcomes related to multiple goals and possible synergies (UNEP, 2016). According to the report, this approach can be used to manage complexity, including dynamics, feedback loops, unpredictability, and other system qualities. However, Clancy added, the authors do not clearly apply elements of systems thinking in much of the report, nor do they discuss systems modeling or modeling tools, such
as causal loop diagramming, which she finds useful for visualizing systems issues.
Clancy then described in more detail the IOM and NRC framework that lays out four steps in carrying out a food system assessment. The first is to recognize the effects across the entire food system one is assessing. The second is to consider the health, environmental, social, and economic domains and the dimensions of quality, quantity, distribution, and resilience. The third is to account for system dynamics and complexity, including heterogeneity, interdependence, and adaptability. And the fourth is to choose appropriate methods for conducting the assessment. According to Clancy, systems thinking may be particularly useful for complex problems involving multiple actors for which solutions are not obvious. It can also be used to anticipate unintended consequences, make predictions, better target intervention points, and identify workable policies.
Examples of the Use of Systems Thinking
Clancy provided several recent examples of groups using systems approaches to explore complex food system issues with consideration of the economic, social, health, and environmental domains. In the first example, the World Economic Forum identified four core aspirations for the world’s food systems: (1) adequate quantities of food, (2) economic and social inclusion for all, (3) minimal environmental damage, and (4) access to nutritious and healthy food. The group also outlined four potential future scenarios, noting that they could occur as soon as 2030: (1) unchecked consumption, (2) survival of the richest, (3) local is the new global, and (4) open-source sustainability (WEF, 2017). Clancy elaborated that these scenarios were framed with consideration of the uncertainties of shifts in food demand across the globe and connectivity among markets.
The second example cited by Clancy, from a paper titled “Feeding Prometheus,” describes work by a multidisciplinary group at the University of Michigan, which referenced the Greek myth to make an argument about freeing the world from an unsustainable global food system (Vandermeer et al., 2018). As Clancy explained, these researchers argue that it is necessary to ask new questions and have a better analytic framework that includes agricultural ecology; equity; cultural dimensions; and the linkage between global public health and the type, quality, and availability of food.
In Clancy’s third example, scholars, researchers, and practitioners from U.S. and Canadian universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Research Service applied resilience thinking to agriculture to identify strategies for reducing food system vulnerabilities. The strategies they agreed on were gender equity, agroecological approaches,
regional food systems, and the embedding of access to healthy and culturally relevant foods in production policies.
The final example of systems thinking Clancy referenced involved the Lancet Commission report The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition and Climate Change (Swinburn et al., 2019). She noted that while the Commission was originally tasked with addressing obesity, it reframed the problem because many recommendations had already been proposed with what she termed “patchy progress” and little meaningful change. As Clancy explained, the Commission applied a systems perspective to its work and defined the major systems driving the syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change as food and agriculture, transportation, urban design, and land use. The report distinctly describes how complex, man-made adaptive systems interact with each other and the natural ecosystem at the micro, meso, and macro levels. It also delineates five crucial feedback loops to be addressed: business, health, supply and demand, ecology, and governance.
Clancy then provided examples of on-the-ground research using a systems approach, including W.K. Kellogg’s Food and Fitness Initiative. This 9-year initiative involved experts in six areas of the country working to increase equitable access to locally grown food and safe places for physical activity for children through a focus on creating and changing local systems and policies that determine health. In addition to utilizing a systems thinking framework, the project entailed years of training for community partners in systems approaches and systems thinking, including their application in low-income communities.
The second on-the-ground research example Clancy highlighted was the Enhancing Food Security in the Northeast (EFSNE) project, for which she served as deputy director. This 7-year project analyzed the economic, social, and biophysical constraints on the expansion of regional food systems in the 12 Northeast states and the District of Columbia. It involved 11 institutions and nearly that many low-income urban and rural study sites. According to Clancy, the overall goal of the project was to begin to answer the question of whether the growth and strengthening of regional food systems can contribute to better food security across the region and in low-income areas while benefiting supply chain actors and other food system components. She explained that researchers from 17 disciplines worked on interdisciplinary teams and integrated systems elements into the work, including consideration of the environmental, social, cultural, economic, and health domains. She added that the research also took account of boundaries, scale, heterogeneity, adaptability, and resilience. Clancy reported that the team was able to develop baseline findings on supply chain capacity, as well as many other variables related to food access.
As a shorter-term example, Clancy described a 4-day summer institute for public health professionals on applying systems approaches to obesity
prevention, which she co-led. The result, she said, was the immediate successful application of systems principles by several of the students in their public health work.
Clancy concluded by highlighting the complementarity between systems thinking and interdisciplinary research. She outlined the benefits of the latter as learning across fields, developing more creative ideas, building trust, improving communication, and setting boundaries. She also enumerated challenges to inter- and transdisciplinary research, which can include transaction costs, different paradigms, delays in publication time, and the need for specific skills and competencies.
In closing, Clancy emphasized that systems thinking can be very effective when applied to complex problems that involve helping multiple actors see the bigger picture; recurring problems; problems without obvious solutions; and assessments, interventions, policy, planning, and development. She asserted further that it also works in most types of institutions and with both cross-sectoral and cross-disciplinary issues. However, she lamented that systems thinking is still largely underrepresented in undergraduate and graduate curricula in food and agriculture across the country.
The next speaker, Roni Neff, Johns Hopkins University, continued the conversation and stage setting on systems thinking and food systems, focusing on “the future of the future of food systems.”
Neff described the food system as encompassing food production, processing, and packaging; alternative forms of food production; food distribution; marketing and value chains; data and analytics; addressing waste; and food access and affordability. She noted that some of these issues would be addressed by other workshop speakers. She then outlined the breadth of the U.S. food system, stating that it encompasses 52 percent of U.S. land, 80 percent of consumptive water use, 16 percent of energy use, and nearly 20 percent of jobs (Bigelow and Borchers, 2017; Canning et al., 2017; BLS, 2019; Hellerstein et al., 2019; USDA/ERS, 2019). She added that, while the 13 percent of U.S. household expenditures currently spent on food is higher than the percentage in recent history, it is low in the broader historical context and less than in most other countries in the world. She observed further that, as the food system is globally interconnected, effects on the system in
one part of the world will have ramifications in the United States and vice versa, as well as effects outside of the food system.
According to Neff, the food system is at a “critical juncture,” affected by climate change, food waste, food insecurity, chronic disease, and innovation. With respect to climate change, she stated, food production is a key contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, noting that an intergovernmental panel has recommended that global GHG emissions decline beginning in 2020 (IPCC, 2018). Moreover, she observed, food production and distribution, the nutritional value of food, biodiversity, and the availability of water and other resources are also at risk from climate change. With respect to food waste, she continued, about 30 percent of the global food supply and 40 percent of the U.S. food supply is discarded. Regarding food insecurity, she reported that 821 million people globally are chronically hungry, including almost 12 percent of U.S. households, which experience food insecurity (FAO, 2011; FAO et al., 2019; USDA/ERS, 2019). Finally, regarding health and chronic disease, she pointed to poor diet as the number one risk factor for mortality in the United States (U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators, 2018), largely because of its impact on chronic diseases.
Neff noted that innovations to be discussed during the workshop would address the issues she had just described, as well as others. Referencing the food systems framework Clancy had presented, she argued that innovations should attempt to solve problems in the domains of health, society, economy, and environment.
Neff next referenced the book Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food and its discussion of the history of predictions about how food will change in the future (Belasco, 2006). She described Belasco’s insight that while the most dire or innovative predictions get attention, most progress is incremental. Another key insight she cited is that future predictions say a great deal about the current state of anxieties, hopes, and assumptions. She then illustrated how the same predictions tend to recur. In the context of food security, for example, possible scenarios include (1) running out of food, (2) technology as the solution, or (3) sustaining ourselves by increasing equity. More broadly, in terms of how food will change in the future, Neff elaborated, three characterizations recur: (1) classical, with the future evolving from the past, getting bigger and better; (2) modernist, with unprecedented breakthroughs that value simplification, streamlining, and technology; and (3) recombinant, a combination of the two. According to Neff, the dominant view is recombinant, suggesting a future food system that offers choice, convenience, and small improvements on the current state that make it more modern. She also pointed out that framing matters: presenting an innovation as classical, evolving from tradition, can make it palatable, while framing it in modernist terms, perhaps as a “frankenfood,” raises anxieties.
Neff then provided a few examples from Belasco (2006) and elsewhere of past predictions that turned out to be inaccurate and may even seem absurd today. In 1919, for example, an American geographer stated, “It is true that the farm tractor is on the way, but it has less prospect of displacing the work animal in food production than the automobile has of driving the workhorse off the road.” As another example, in 1930 it was predicted that, in 2030, agriculture would cease to exist, as people would prefer tastier, synthetic foods. Another prediction, from later in the 20th century, was that food of the future would look like astronaut food. Neff also shared items from the cutting edge of futuristic/fantastical food development today, such as a robotic chef to cook and clean, pears grown in the shape of babies, edible paint, and 3-D printed burgers.
To set the stage for the upcoming sessions on innovations, Neff cited the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of innovation as “a new method, idea, or product” (Innovation, 2019). She differentiated this term from an invention, defined as something that did not previously exist, whereas innovation can be more gradual and sequential. She also defined the term “game-changer” as denoting purposeful innovations that could significantly change the food system and society. She clarified that most of the innovations being discussed at the workshop are purposeful but that natural events, such as climate change, will also have an impact on the food system.
Neff suggested that, while much attention and positive interest focus on innovation, “innovation isn’t everything.” She referred to a group of social scientists called “The Maintainers” who focus on maintenance, including infrastructure, its repair, and related labor and expertise, that sustains the world (Russell and Vinsel, 2017; The Maintainers, n.d.). She added that individuals in maintenance roles are often lower-income and female, and while those engaged in such day-to-day operations are often ignored, they may have the most important insights needed to build a well-functioning future food system.
Neff also emphasized that “technology isn’t everything.” She posited that changes to human behavior are among the most important shifts needed, and that such changes can be much more difficult to effect than changes in technology. According to Neff, people are complex and diverse and may be irrational with respect to where they place trust. She suggested that throughout the workshop, audience members consider potential implications for future food systems, including potential interactions among multiple innovations, and emphasized the importance of considering effects across the full food system and ways to address them in research, policy, and practice.
To encourage the audience to think in terms of systems impacts, Neff concluded with an example of a food system innovation from her work: “direct-from-frozen” seafood. She is focused on increasing consumption of seafood, which would both provide health benefits and require less energy, water, and feed to produce relative to consumption of terrestrial food animals. According to her team’s prior research, 41–47 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is wasted, largely at the consumer level. Neff argued that preparing seafood directly from frozen without defrosting it first could lead to less waste on the part of retailers and consumers, and she described this research as being focused on assessing the feasibility and potential impacts of this innovative approach. As part of the project, she explained, the Drexel Food Lab in Philadelphia prepared and consumer-tested a set of recipes, in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. Neff reported that while her team initially encountered resistance from consumers, consumers become more supportive of the concept when they learned that most “fresh” seafood was originally frozen. She asked audience members to suggest ideas for this direct-from-frozen innovation that could have implications for future food systems and beyond. In response, audience members pointed out that the innovation could make seafood more affordable, safer, and less perishable, although unintended consequences could include a need for more freezer space or electricity.
In her concluding remarks, Neff asserted that the innovations examined in the workshop would change the future food system, along with social systems and the economy. Therefore, she suggested that each innovation be examined with a broad food systems lens, considering the urgency of issues facing society and the innovation’s potential impact, including its impact on issues of equity.
Otten opened the audience discussion by asking Clancy and Neff for their suggestions for accelerating food systems thinking. While Clancy observed that interdisciplinary research can take many years, Neff pointed to the urgency of addressing issues affecting food systems. Clancy responded that more education in systems thinking is needed, including curricula at every level. She suggested that any academics working on food systems require their students to use systems methods and begin to do interdisciplinary work. Neff added that funding agencies could provide an incentive for work on food systems by making it a higher priority.
Christina Khoo, Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc., asked Clancy what tools and methods were most important for her interdisciplinary work and what sectors are most underrepresented in food systems research. Clancy responded that several senior researchers were helpful in guiding the
process, and the team placed a great deal of emphasis on communication and trust building. They also created a glossary of terms to ensure that all individuals involved would use the same terminology and understand its meaning. Clancy added that she believes the economics profession is most underrepresented in food systems research.
Another audience member asked the speakers for their thoughts on the idea that it may be difficult to quantify outcomes when working with complex systems from different domains. Clancy agreed and expressed her hope that as people learn more about systems thinking, the use of qualitative analyses will see greater acceptance. Neff added that a great deal of work is being done in the food systems space to create indicators of progress.
Amy Brown, Natural Resources Defense Council, asked the panelists whether they agree that factors that are positive for one domain, such as health, environment, social, or economic, typically benefit other domains as well. Neff responded that this is not always the case, and trade-offs may be involved. As an example, she pointed out that if all food were highly processed, less would be wasted, but nutrition might suffer. She argued that identifying these trade-offs provides opportunities to work toward a more beneficial outcome in multiple domains.