Q: What is your background and experience in the realm of global food systems?
A: I have 33 years of experience working in the global food ingredient industry and for global agri-food stakeholders in the food supply chain. More specifically, my focus has always been on the nutrition and health aspects of foods. I have also focused on the food industry with respect to the societal aspects of foods, both with regard to health and to sustainable production and consumption. This focus has made me aware of the enormous complexity of the food supply system, especially when viewed from a global perspective.
Q: What was the reason for designing this graphic? When was it designed?
A: The Global Food System map was designed by our American colleague Marshall Clemens, who was working for shiftN at the time. The map was created in 2008–2009 within the framework of a U.K. Foresight project, “The Future of Food and Farming,” which was conducted at the request of the U.K. government future thinking program. The aim was to understand the driving forces that will influence the evolution of food production and farming and their interdependencies. The map was essentially compiled from a collection of scientific and gray background reports that provide challenging views and insights on all of the elements involved. The map then served as a basis for future thinking, which in turn provided input for considering policy changes related to farming and food conversion processes.
Q: What does this map reveal to you about the global food system?
A: The vastness of the agricultural system that is needed to produce all of the necessary raw materials, as well as the supply chain that is required to distribute these raw materials have immense consequences for resource availability—material as well as human and ecological. Moreover, the food production system as a whole is driven by economic motives, with a disregard for many of the negative consequences for people and the planet. Thus, although the modern food system gives the impression that high food availability and affordability have been realized, there are hidden costs.
Hence, I would classify the present food system as a “wicked problem” that is very complex and has far-reaching consequences for all of the stakeholders involved, including the individual consumer. Along the path of discovery we have conducted several projects in which parts of the food system or other systems influenced or related to the food system were analyzed, e.g., the future scenario project “2025—Fields for Food or Fuel.”
Q: What are the most critical components in the global food system?
A: The Global Food System map was meant to visualize the complexity of the food system in order to make it more comprehensible and to support discussions among experts. Therefore, the map is not a typical systems map that identifies the key driving forces of the system. In this map we described the flow of materials and values throughout the chain, which stakeholders are involved in each of the dynamics, and how these forces are intertwined. As a result, it is impossible to identify critical components of the system map directly from this map. However, when looking at the map the center consists of a striking feature: it reveals a system under pressure. Five types of renewable organic material (ROM) processing are under pressure from two forces: the limits imposed by the processing and technology (from the top) and the logic of value creation, which imposes demand for and constituency of the product mix. This element seems to comprise the core of the entire food system, because it is the balance between these two forces that will dictate the farm-based production system, from material choice to energy, technology, and human resources.
Another striking feature is the farming system on the left side of the map. It is here that the balance must be found between efficiency and sustainability—both ecologically and economically.
Looking back at this map 10 years later, it strikes me that a key feature is missing: the importance of food waste streams at all levels of the food system. Today we understand that this is a key strategic aspect for making the food system more sustainable. It is remarkable, therefore, that it is missing from the map and that experts commenting on the map did not note its absence.
Q: Are there mitigating factors around this system that impact its design?
A: This map shows the fundamental food system at a very high level, and it is, therefore, generally applicable to any food production system in the world. It is unlikely that the system as it is described will change fundamentally over the span of several years; however, when considering a timespan of decades, one might expect that our knowledge of planetary equilibrium in response to climate change patterns would lead to the inclusion of additional factors in the equation.
Q: Has this system changed since you completed this graphic?
A: With this map we attempted to describe the essence of the global food system without making any assumptions about the status of any particular crop, technology, or processing application. As a result, many of the ongoing changes in the system are taking place at a lower level of granularity than the map was intended to visualize. Of course there have been many changes in terms of farming methodologies, land- or sea-use dynamics, energy inputs and types of energy used, fertilizer and pest management, etc.—all of which are factors within the “farming system” on the left side of the map. Other changes are occurring along the value chain axis, where entirely new concepts of local sourcing, urban agriculture, and food distribution are changing the two primary pressures on the “raw materials” in the center of the map.
Our current knowledge of the global food system in relation to resource use and the impact of processing and consumption patterns on our planetary ecosystem is still too fragmented to fundamentally reconsider the system as it is depicted here. However, one might expect breakthroughs in the coming years that will allow us to draw more interdependencies between the various elements.