In the United States, it is estimated that 40% of food is wasted. Food is thrown out from store shelves, because it has passed “best by” dates—which some have pointed out are arbitrary and not really related to food safety. Consumers who buy more than they eat, or forget their tomatoes or leftover take-out Chinese food in the back of their fridge until it is too old to eat also throw out food. Food waste is also rampant in the restaurant industry, especially due to overly large portioning. Even if the most wasteful aspects of food “waste” were dealt with, however, there will always be organic materials from food preparation and consumption that require disposal. Onion peels. Tomato stems. Fish bones. Right now, this mostly goes into trash streams, aka landfills.

The other post-consumption waste, as mentioned, is human urine and feces. What do we do with it? Well, considering human waste disposal is the “big necessity” of civilization, we’ve been remarkably irresponsible (stupid?) with our approaches. For those in the developed world, water-based sewage infrastructure takes our shit away quickly and easily—which is great for public health reasons—but does so with massive waste of clean (often potable) water, and requires additionally expensive and large infrastructure to process that waste and find somewhere to put it. Some municipal wastewater treatment programs produce what they euphemistically call “biosolids”; in some places this is used on landscapes as fertilizer, in others it is incinerated, or landfilled. In some cases, wastewater is simply dumped into bodies of water such as rivers, bays, and seas.

In the developing world there are major issues of sanitation in the absence of the above infrastructure. Open-air sewage near villages often causes outbreaks of preventable communicable diseases. Latrines built by well-meaning “development” projects often are converted to other uses, or used until filled and then never used again (development projects all too often pay for implementation but not maintenance/upkeep). Yet, the use of human waste in an ecologically sound manner does exist, notably in China, where “night soil” (another euphemism) still is collected, composted, and used as an agricultural amendment locally. The need to deal with waste in a way that benefits the sustainability of farming systems (that is, the soil!) will be taken up further in the “solutions” section.


Consumption is the whole point of food systems! Who gets to eat what food, and how often, is very much determined by the dynamics of production, distribution, and processing. Health outcomes in humans are tied to the kinds of foods produced (for example, are they high-calorie fats and carbohydrate crops, nutrient-rich vegetables, or nutrient-dense animal products?). These outcomes are also tied to the ways foods are produced (for example, are they pesticide-drenched or not?), processed (for example, are they kept whole, fermented, or otherwise chemically reconfigured?), and distributed (most especially, their accessibility and affordability to the consumer).

The previously mentioned exchange value of food influences where foods end up, and who ends up able to eat them, in direct and indirect ways. Most directly, if someone lacks the money to buy sufficient foods, they are likely to end up hungry. A full assessment of food distribution and consumption, then, should include unpacking how the commodification of food affects where food ends up. The process of commodification is also more hidden and complex to the average person than simple market prices indicate. This is evidenced by commodities stock markets, where traders speculate on the prices of foods: these stock markets have been cited as having helped create the 2007/2008 “food price crisis”—where hundreds of millions of people lost affordable access to staple foods suddenly.

While human physical health and issues of hunger and malnutrition are clearly important, there is also the longstanding cultural importance of food. Cooking traditions and specific ingredients have been passed down generation to generation. Those ingredients might be rare or difficult to find as food cultures become homogenized and standardized around the globe. Cooking itself is in some ways become a “lost art”—at least for those in the developed world—as people have less and less time to cook, less interest to cook, less skills in cooking, and more access to processed and pre-made foods, like restaurant-made and microwave meals.

The question of whether we should accept the modernization of food culture—such that food cultures and ingredients are evermore globalized and no longer as geographically static, and food is consumed more quickly and more often outside of the home—is an important one for food systems. Are these part of the problem of food systems? The “Slow Foodmovement argues this way: “fast food” culture and the replacement of local food cultures with international ones are bad omens for a future of food that is “good, clean, and fair”.


Distribution can similarly be thought of in terms of scale, method, and character (like production). The same caveat about dichotomies goes here, but we can still consider these aspects. For scale, we’d wonder: how far are a farm’s products distributed? In some cases, foods are exported from one country as raw materials, processed in another into a packaged good, and then sent back to the original exporting country. In other cases, products might be processed on the farm and sold directly to a consumer. In terms of character, foods’ distribution is either capitalist (directed towards purchasers based only on considerations of profit-making potential) or non-capitalist. As an example of the latter, we could include the distribution within a household of foods grown in the family allotment garden or farm, or the barter of foods from one gardener to another, or foods provided by a government program to the poor. As a tendency (but not a rule!), peasant farms produce foods that are distributed more often through local and regional markets, rather than exported internationally. By nature, the character of distribution is always based in social relationships, but whether and to what extent these relationships are mediated through money exchange (or not) makes a difference and is worth paying attention to.

There are as many methods of distribution as there are forms of transportation and ways of organizing them. Some new urban farm projects are experimenting with local food distribution, based on bicycle power. The Vermont Sail Freight project has been delivering small-farm-raised products down the Hudson River to urban centers like New York City. For decades after food began to be industrially produced, these industrial products were mostly delivered by railroad. Later, gas/oil-driven engines became more prevalent and trucking overcame rail (some countries have more well developed rail infrastructure, so this isn’t true across the board).

As part of the food system, processing is somewhere between production and distribution—probably it’s closer to production, but since the “production” blog post was already so long I’ll put it here ☺. At times, processing makes distribution possible, as in when fish is packed in oil or salt in order to make it “shelf-stable”. Processing can range from small-scale to large, and can range from using very simple technologies (like canning, which requires only cans, lids, water, and heat), to modern “food science” techniques of altering raw food products (like corn) into many chemical constituent compounds. These numerous compounds are used in many food products: corn, for example, is used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup, Maltodextrin, Sorbitol, Xantham Gum, Citric Acid, and much more. Some crops are also “flexible”, meaning they can be used as foods, but also as industrial products like fuels, lubricants, and fibers. This is one example of how food systems are never separate from other parts of society: corn, soybeans, sugar cane, and palm oil are all products that are now spread around the world serving both food and non-food uses—all due to the power of processing.


The scale, method, and character of production

To figure out the impacts, negative or positive, of farming, we need to ask about specific sites of production: what kind of farm is this? There are various aspects to consider. Of course what kind of product(s) the farm produces is an obvious one. But, for the purposes of thinking sustainability outcomes, there are three other important aspects to judge from. Each I’ll describe in terms of a dichotomy. In reality, farms rarely match one side or the other of the dichotomy perfectly, but rather operate on a spectrum in one or more of these aspects.

The three aspects are (and I take this schema from Martha Robbins) a farm’s:
1. “scale” of production, from “small” to “large”
2. “method” of production—the “how” of the farm’s farming—from “agroecological” to “industrial”
3. “character” of production”—the “why” of the farm’s operation—from “peasant” to “capitalist”

Scale is the easiest to describe, since it’s more easily quantified. Is the farm larger or smaller? Are the farm’s plots best measured in square feet or meters, or in acres, or in tens of thousands of acres? Is the farm small enough to be managed by hand, or does it require (often expensive) machinery, like tractors? In the case of fishing, are the boats large or small, using huge nets or small ones? If land is managed by tractor, how much land does one worker manage? Scale connects with many issues, including labor practices and the kinds of products produced. Generally—though not deterministically, meaning not in a simple cause and effect fashion—smaller farms are more ecologically sustainable.

The techniques and processes that produce the food define the method of production. The “industrial” method applies an industrial paradigm to production—meaning mechanization, assembly lines, and labor automation along with homogenization of products and processes, and economies of scale. Industrial methods of agriculture use large amounts of factory-produced inputs (namely fertilizers and pesticides), grow crops in large “monoculture” plots, use the least amount of human labor as possible per unit of output (often replacing this labor with machines), and use unskilled rather than skilled labor as much as possible. Since the industrial method seeks uniformity of the crop, it values fewer more standard varieties for crops, and tends towards creating lots of food waste (like apples with small blemishes). Industrial farming treats soil as nothing more than a medium, where plants are placed and given infusions of the nutrients necessary to produce a consistent, reliable product. These infusions come from the application of inputs, not from the soil itself, and must be applied every year. Importantly, industrial farming relies on lots of water, which often is imported from elsewhere via systems of large dams and water conveyance infrastructure.

Agroecology (which I’ll detail in later sections) is a knowledge-intensive rather than resource-intensive method of production [1]. Agroecological farms seek to reduce inputs by imitating ecological systems and utilizing ecological cycles and processes. Agroecological methods apply readily available fertilizers like animal manures and compost to create and maintain healthy living soils, which in turn support healthy crops. Since it is the soil that feeds the plant, soil is treated with respect and conserved. Agroecology uses crop inter-planting and rotations: a diversity of crops in space and time—instead of “mono” (i.e. single) cultures, it uses “poly” (i.e. many) cultures—avoids major pest and disease pressures. When pest control is needed, agroecological farms seek biological solutions (for example, by planting crops that deter a particular pest) rather than chemical ones. Although all farming uses water, agroecological methods seek to reduce water needs and avoid wasteful water use.

In case it isn’t obvious: industrial methods are generally less sustainable than agroecological ones. The details of each will be described further on in the respective sections on “problems” and “solutions”.

“Character” might be the hardest aspect to describe, because the line is much less clear between the sides of the dichotomy. Many people are unfamiliar with the term “peasant”, which has had many meanings in various historical and geographic contexts. Here, it describes a unit of production (like a farm) that has multiple reasons for production beyond “profit”. Capitalist farms have profit as their bottom line: earning more income from production (by competing in markets) than they spend on costs of production. Although both capitalist and peasant farms sell food products through markets, the peasant farm does so for the purposes of maintaining the peasant farm itself (and usually, the family that the farm is based on).

Some capitalist farms might be technically family-owned, but most family farms are peasant farms, in that they value other goals alongside economic ones. They value production as a lifestyle; for its environmental benefits; or for its connection to the farmer’s particular rural culture. Especially in predominately agrarian societies, family farms produce for their own consumption in addition to for markets (the “subsistence” farm, however, i.e. farms that produce solely for their own consumption, is largely mythological at this point in history). Family farms, unlike capitalist farms, rely mostly on family (and extended family/community) labor, rather than paid wage labor. Again, this is the hardest aspect of farms to maintain a clear dichotomy: farms often combine capitalist intentions (and strategies) with other goals.

Important to note is that a farm’s scale, method, and character are all interlinked. A farm that is capitalist in character tends to seek growth in order to achieve economies of scale, which (usually) pushes their scale larger. A farm that is peasant in character, which wants to sustain its ability to produce, has an incentive to use agroecological methods—to the extent that they lower the farm’s costs and increase its base of productive resources (soil fertility, water availability, firewood sources, etcetera).

[1] Part of the later section will cover how agroecology’s originators and proponents consider it not just as a “science”, but also as a “movement” and “practice”. Much more on agroecology, by a founder of the discipline, can be found here.

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.