An introduction to a food systems view by David McInnes, President and Chief Executive Officer, The Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute.

It’s commonly understood that it takes a “supply chain” to get food to our plates.

Many companies provide the “inputs” required to grow or raise our food; for example, seed, fertilizer, pesticides and animal feed is needed. A farmer or rancher grows or produces the food. The food may be shipped to a processing company to prepare it for consumption. Then the final product is distributed to grocery stores or restaurants. Some foods are directly shipped to market, restaurant or store without processing or minimal processing. Food service companies distribute food to institutions, such as school cafeterias and hospitals. This is an over-simplification but this supply chain is often viewed in a linear way (see diagram 1). But, there’s much more to it than this.

GC-Shifting-001The actual supply chain is very complex. There are “short” supply chains (from farm to a local market) and “long” chains (supplying vegetables from South America). There are many players who have a role in getting food to our plates. Regulators inspect premises for food safety. Scientists explore new varieties of crops to plant so that farmers can better respond to climatic conditions, such as droughts. Medical researchers examine food ingredients for their contribution to our health, such as anti-oxidants.

Nutritionists and teachers educate consumers and students about food and diet. Veterinarians ensure good animal care. Information technology companies provide software to track food from the retail shelf right back to the farm which is important for ensure food safety and quality. GPS technology is used to improve planting and harvesting. Food processors depend on advanced packaging technologies to preserve food and rely on robotics to be efficient. Financial institutions provide financing. Environmental advisors help companies minimize impacts on eco-systems. Ports and transportation infrastructure are needed to ship food to consumers here and abroad. Governments help food companies export food to other countries. Bio-technology companies use agricultural ingredients to develop new plastics, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and fuel. The “food system” includes all the players in the supply chain and these diverse (and even other) participants.

foodsystemsDiagram 2 represents the many food system players. This provides a lens to consider how the players relate to or depend upon each other. “Food systems thinking” is about understanding these connections.

Key factors motivate or influence how each player in the food system works. The supply chain is focused on ensuring a reliable food supply. If this breaks down, then we can’t eat. They also need to remain economically viable (and profitable). Across the system, environmentally sustainability is important. If we don’t ensure that our soil remains productive and have access to clean water, we can’t grow or produce food. Each part of the food system has some role in improving the well-being of the consumer.

Food players need to constantly understand how consumers are changing. Consumers are increasingly interested in “what it is my food?”, “is it good for me?” and “how my food is produced?”.

The food system portrays how we get food to our plates every day and how each play can relate to others. Can you find your place in the food system and where you would like to work?