Food System as “social-ecological” process

Now that we know what components or aspects should be considered as part of a food system, let me get a bit more theoretical. While these aspects certainly add up to “the food system”, they don’t operate in isolation—they are interacting aspects that shape each other. Why we grow food (i.e. farm character) affects how that food is distributed; how food is distributed affects who gets to eat (i.e. consumption); how we deal with disposal/waste influences our soil quality and thus our farms; and so on. Food production, distribution, consumption, and disposal are also linked to all other aspects of human society. Perhaps most importantly, they are inextricably tied to the non-human natural world, which shapes what is possible in each aspect (and in the system as a whole).

The theoretical term for this would be that, in actuality, a food system is a “social-ecological process”. It’s not just something that humans create: the food system is nothing without the natural world—the soil, the water cycle, the plants and animals, the fossil fuels, the mined metals, the materials that make our bowls and forks and toilets. At the same time, what humans do and think outside of “food systems” has major influence on what the food system looks like.

As an example, the advent and development of railroad technology and infrastructure had major effects on how food was grown, where it was grown, and where it ended up being eaten (among other things).[1] But railroads are not just “food systems” infrastructure: they were also used for moving coal around, to fire (new) industrial processes that made modern artifacts like steel and produced products in a more labor-efficient way. This industrial development, in turn, had impacts on food systems, for instance by making certain household appliances more cheap and plentiful.

So because food systems are just one part of a larger human society, they must be considered in their interactions with all kinds of human culture, with economic systems, with political systems, and with the conscious and unconscious belief systems we carry with us.[2] Food systems emerge from the interaction of these human factors with the non-human factors. All this interaction makes for a dynamic mess! Thus, food systems are more a process than a “thing”, and that process is a “social-ecological” one.

Why is this important? Well, an antidogmatist approach doesn’t do well with static representations of the world, or ones that overemphasize one side of the equation (human behavior) or the other (non-human nature). If we build our houses by the side of a river, and don’t acknowledge that rivers naturally change position over time, or flood seasonally, we may justifiably be called shortsighted. We may expect to catch fish in the river because it has always had fish in it, but if a large dam is built downstream from our house this possibility might change. The reason why change in/to the food system is possible is because it is not a set thing, but an interacting set of human and non-human factors. Later on, we’ll discover some of these factors that are leverage points for positive change.

[1] See Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner, pg 37; Nature’s Metropolis, Cronon; The Republic of Nature, Irrigated Eden, by Mark Fiege.

[2] For instance, beliefs show up in food taboos: while most Hindus wouldn’t dare eat cow meat, most Westerners shun the idea of eating dog meat (which other cultures have been known to do).