The term “food system” sounds comfortingly familiar and understandable.

System, in the sense of interacting parts, has been used for a long time. Sixteenth-century astronomers talked about systems of the heavens, eighteenth-century natural philosophers about systems of the earth, twentieth-century biologists about ecosystems. Now we talk about economic systems, political systems, digestive systems, transport systems, and computer systems.

There is even a field of study, systems theory, that considers systems in the abstract. Since the mid-twentieth century, following work by the biologist Ludwig van Bertalanffy, a small army of mathematicians, game theorists, sociologists, specialists in international relations and others have worked in this area.

So to use the term food system to identify the ways in which a society or institution procures, distributes and consumes food seems perfectly natural. It was in this sense that in the 1970s, hospital administrators talked about hospital food systems.

However, from the 1980s on, many have used “the food system” in a more theoretical, precise, global, critical and political sense. Be warned that although I lived through these years, I was never a participant in the very tangled history of debates and initiatives undertaken by those who used food system this way.  This is simply my attempt at a brief retrospect.

One of the most important events precipitating the shift was the publication in 1974 by Immanuel Wallerstein of The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century.  Then at McGill University, Wallerstein has gone on to hold positions at some of the world’s most prestigious universities, and to publish a prodigious amount, including three sequel volumes.

Wallerstein’s key thesis was that in the sixteenth century the world became divided into interdependent zones that he called center and periphery (for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave out semi-periphery here) as a result of the market economy (capitalism) displacing feudalism in Europe. Independent peasant farmers disappeared.  In the center, they were replaced by workers who were paid wages; on the periphery, forced labor, at its extreme slave labor became the norm. Resources extorted from the periphery were consumed in the center by laborers who paid with their wages. This balance of two forms of exploitation benefitted the powerful who controlled capital.

Like the author of any synthetic work, Wallerstein drew on others: among them, Marxist economists, dependency theorists particularly in Latin America who postulated that resources flowed from periphery to center, thus preventing the latter developing economically, and Fernand Braudel, who was just then finishing his massive Civilization and Capitalism, 1400-1800 (1967-1979).

Thus many, including neo-Marxist economists, world historians, and food activists found world-systems theory, as Wallerstein’s analysis was called, an attractive lens for viewing the modern world.  Read more about it, including its extensive technical vocabulary, on Wikipedia or in this piece by co-authored by one of its main exponents, Christopher Chase-Dunn.

Since it’s easy to equate farming and food, world systems quickly led to food systems.

For example, the contrast, connection, and exploitation of two types of workers through food is the cornerstone of the last part of one of the most famous books in food history and anthropology, Sweetness and Power.  Sidney Mintz published this in 1985, just a decade after Wallerstein’s Modern World-System. Mintz linked the misery of the enslaved who labored on the sugar plantations (the periphery) to the dreadful sugary diet of the working class who labored for wages in English factories (the center) by the medium of capitalism. (As an aside, I believe that Mintz’s brilliant thesis needs to be revisited in light of recent scholarship, but that’s for some future publication). Mintz mentions Wallerstein only a couple of times in Sweetness and Power so he may well have come to his thesis independently.  He would, however, most certainly been party to discussions of the capitalist world/food system.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, scholars and activists found the technical sense of food system as a system of producers and consumers exploited by capital as a useful way to analyze contemporary food consumption and production. For a particularly systematic treatment, see Consumption in an Age of Affluence: The World of Food (1995) by University of London economics professor, Ben Fine, and others.

Food system became entrenched in the language.  If you run a quick google search, you will note that it is usually first defined neutrally as the chain from farm to consumer. Quickly this shifts to a critique of the “conventional” (that is, capitalist) food system for its economic and environmental failings, and calls for alternatives. Related concepts such as food regimes, food chains, and the history of commodities became widely circulated.

Food system analysis thus points to a deep divide in thinking about food and food policy.

On the one hand are the multifarious alternative food movements, who unite behind the slogan “the [conventional] food system is broken” and work to replace it with something different.

Raj Patel’s Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System (2008) is the most accessible cry for re-thinking food on a global scale.  In it, he argues that it is the profit motive intrinsic to capitalism that causes consumers to become obese and the rural poor to have hunger pangs.

Perhaps because it’s a tall order to roll back capitalism, others in the alternative food movements concentrate on re-working local food systems, improving labor conditions in agriculture, promoting small-scale farming in the United States in the name of sustainability, or raising consumer awareness.

Many of the best known works in food studies draw on discussions, particularly lively at the University of California at Santa Cruz, about food systems. Food studies courses and departments and the mainstream media do also.

On the other hand, many, probably most development specialists, agricultural economists, food policy specialists, farmers, food scientists and technologists among others believe that for all its problems, the “conventional food system” as opponents call it, is not broken but has succeeded against all odds at feeding an increasing proportion of an exploding world population.  They believe that contemporary agriculture, food processing, distribution, and development are best improved, not abandoned.

And me? Well, I think there’s no doubt that food systems have provided a fresh perspective on both the history and the current state of food. And many others, I find food system without theoretical baggage a very handy term.  But I’m in the camp of improvers, count me out if you want to start over.

And I would welcome comments.


Comments now come in on Facebook and Twitter as well as on my website.  I am so fortunate that colleagues take the time, and I want to share some.

1. My friend, the anthropologist Gene Anderson, who identifies himself as a follower of Mintz and a Wallersteinian, said that he reveled in using the term “food system.” The reason he gives? That connecting production and consumption by the idea of a system was in itself quite a breakthrough. It was all too easy to deal with production in agricultural science, consumption in home economics, with the twain never meeting.

I’d not considered it this way. I think he may be right. But in the middle of the night my head is running through early twentieth-century studies of food.

2. Gene also points out that in real life, food is too complex to be squashed into a production to consumption model. I agree.

2. Another friend, Nadia Berenstein (wait for her book on the history of the flavor industry), suggests that an advantage of the systems model is that it allows connection to other systems, such as energy.

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