What is a food system?

But first, what’s a food system? The term “food system” might seem pretty straightforward to some people. It’s the system that surrounds food. Duh. Really, though, we should probably get clearer than that. We can think of the food system as composed of five main aspects: food production, processing (including packaging), distribution, consumption, and disposal or waste (the kind that happens after consumption, since there is also waste that happens in the first three aspects). I’ll introduce each step briefly here, and then give each a bit more detailed treatment in the next four sections.

Production might be the most obvious aspect: barring the eventual realization of Star Trek’s “replicator” technology, we don’t get food out of nothing. It has to be produced, somehow, somewhere. For perhaps obvious reasons, most readers will immediately think of farming as the primary way that food is produced. This is sensible. But let’s not forget that for roughly 95% of human history (as in, during the time humans have been anatomically human according to archeological record), humans got their food via other means besides agriculture. We didn’t do what is thought of as farming: clear land, plant seeds in rows, water the crops, harvest and repeat.

Often, these “other means” of food procurement are lumped into the category of “hunting and gathering”—and certainly these are two activities that humans have used, to eat, over the long arc of our history. Additionally, many contemporary human communities continue to rely on these activities. In discussing “hunter-gatherers”, we need to be careful not to create a picture of non-agricultural people that assumes a certain “primitive-ness” compared with agricultural society. As I’ll cover later, this isn’t the case: many non-agricultural cultures managed lands, species, forests, and crops in very sophisticated ways—sometimes over very large land areas, and just not in ways we consider “agriculture”. Many likely understood how farming could be done, but had no reasons to do so. In fact, scientists increasingly believe that non-agricultural societies historically did far less work to survive than moderns one do—like 17 hours per week of work to secure enough food to live long and healthful lives.

That said, because the audience for this blog is likely to be regularly subsisting on the fruits (literally and metaphorically) of farming, rather than “hunted/gathered/land managed” foods, most of what I’ll discuss in this blog pertains to farming. But let’s try to always keep in the back of our mind that foods from the “wild”—fish being a primary example—are a key part of past and future food systems, and the way these resources are managed are just as important as how farming systems are managed. When I write “farm”, keep in mind that there are sites of food production other than farms, such as rivers, lakes, seas, and forests.

Second is food distribution. Once food is grown, gathered, or otherwise procured, where does it go? How does it get there? What are the means of transmission, both physical and social? What I mean by this is that we should see distribution as including both the ways that food literally moves around (e.g. by truck or train or boat), but also the reasons that compel it to move that way. Food can move from field to fork (or hand, chopstick, or spoon) via family ties, for example, or through a community of sharing. Of course, food also moves in the modern era by way of monetary transactions. That is to say, food moves as a “commodity”, a thing that has “exchange value” (a price) and not just “use value” (a use).

Consumption comes after distribution (even if just seconds after you pick your homegrown cherry tomato from its vine and stick it in your mouth!). We consume food every day—or at least, most of us do, and physical necessity forces us to eat whether we like it or not. As part of our consideration for the consumption aspect of food systems, we can think of the reasons for consumption—which obviously includes survival (i.e. an intake of calories and nutrients necessary to survive as animals), but also cultural influences (why this food and not that one?). Nutritional nuances and impacts (how much foods, of what types, are consumed, and what are the results of this?) and “food safety” are other important aspects of consumption.

Lastly, disposal/waste can be thought of in two main ways. First, the obvious waste that happens—most often in affluent societies—when food is left over after a meal, and thrown “away” instead of consumed by humans. The second form of disposal is the one we consider “out of sight/out of mind”. Why don’t we call it what it is? Poop. Pee. Excrement. Urine. Our food doesn’t just feed us, it continues its life in other forms after it leaves our body—and what we do with this material is just as much part of the food system as farming!

But before we get to that shit, a little more detail on production.

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