In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Food Systems

  • Introduction
  • Introductory Works
  • Journals/Special Issues
  • Edited Book Collections
  • Policy and Regulatory Responses to Food System Functioning
  • Recognizing Culture as a Determinant of Food System Health
  • New Interdisciplinary Public Health Framings of Food Systems

Public Health Food Systems
Jane Dixon
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 August 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 August 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756797-0151


The term food systems refers to the complex of institutions, actors, and actions that take place across the spheres of food policy regulation, production, distribution, marketing and exchange, consumption, and, more recently, the postconsumption activities of waste disposal and recycling. Within each of the spheres there are multiple activities—for example, production involves plant seed and animal genetic development; fertilizer, pesticide, and veterinary medicine manufacture; on-farm growing and harvesting activities; commodity sale negotiations with wholesalers or retailers; and environmental management to ensure consistent production capacity. Food systems also have a spatial dimension, being manifest at the household and community or local level, and at the national, regional, and global levels. One of the major changes in food systems over the last two hundred years has been the transition from household subsistence activities, with minimal commercial relationships, to highly complex, multilevel systems, with participation from international agencies, transnational corporations, multiple government agencies beyond agriculture and trade, nongovernment agencies, professional bodies, research and policy bodies, and social movements. Within a context of growing malnutrition, civil unrest sparked by food shortages and price rises, and environmental constraints on the food supply, public health researchers now work alongside agricultural economists, environmental scientists, and economists to advocate for transdisciplinary research to advance the case for health-promoting and sustainable food systems. The new perspectives—public health ecology; One Health, which involves equal consideration of animal and human health; and agri-health, which involves equal consideration of agri-environmental health and human health—share a concern that the dominant model of industrial food systems is delivering poor health outcomes, is unsustainable, and is unjust. Industrial food systems adopt a narrow focus of the most efficient production of the highest possible food yields to be distributed via commercial channels to mass consumer markets. This approach to feeding populations has been very successful in increasing the amount of calories available globally, but it has led to numerous population and environmental concerns, prompting civil society to support alternative food systems that stress quality over quantity, fair returns to farmers over corporate profits, environmental protections over food yield maximization, and producer-consumer engagement over a relationship built on price, Through the office of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, renewed attention is being paid to the human right to adequate nutrition through fair livelihoods for those who are formally engaged in the food system, given that a high proportion of the world’s farmers and fishermen live in poverty. The interrelationship between human security, principally freedom from want and fear, and nutrition security has also come onto the United Nations agenda.

Introductory Works

As systems constructed out of a diverse array of nature-society interactions, and with multiple spheres of sociocultural, political, economic, and environmental activity that vary from place to place, food systems are typically examined using an array of mixed methods. Global databases exist—EUROSTAT, FAOSTAT—which permit comparative national examinations of particular food supply issues (including available nutrients and prices) and food consumption trends (including nutrients utilized). There are also opportunities to analyze the impacts on nutrition of natural experiments, such as the Cuban experience of domestic food self-sufficiency, wartime food rationing, and structural adjustment programs. However, assessing cause and effect relationships, understood in the epidemiologic sense, between the operations of a food system and health outcomes is rarely possible. The interdisciplinary nature of food system scholarship means that systematic reviews are not undertaken, although there are an increasing number of special journal issues and edited collections which focus in some detail on an aspect of the system, like retailing, or a specific problem, like aquaculture sustainability. A selection of relevant special journal issues and edited collections is provided below under Journals/Special Issues and Edited Book Collections. The works in this section provide an introduction to the origins of the modern food system as understood from different disciplines: social history, anthropology, development sociology, and economic geography. One social history, Toussaint-Samat 1992, moves from the Paleolithic age, and the evolution of fire, to the present science and technology–based food supply; while Mintz 1985 covers the transition of a single commodity over a period of 500 years, but in a way that sheds light on the types of economic, cultural, and geopolitical considerations lying behind the contemporary food system. Winson 2013 describes how dramatically diets have changed with industrialization over the past 150 years. From economic geography comes a co-edited collection describing the changing nature of pastoral systems (occupying 25 percent of the world’s land area and central to the livelihoods of 200 million households), which traces not only the centuries-old marketization of livestock, but also the more recent pressures on food system livelihoods coming from global supply chains (Gertel and LeHeron 2011). From development sociology, Friedmann and McMichael 1989 explains the modern food system in terms of the dynamics of capitalist economy formations, specifically industrialization. Hawkes, et al. 2010 provides insight into one of the most pressing food system governance issues with a bearing on food security in relation to global food trade. Again from sociology comes Warde 1997, an early empirical study of consumption, including attempts to better understand the adoption of “healthy” foods. This work is regularly cited in more contemporary examinations of sustainable consumption practices. Finally, Pretty 2002 provides an ecosystem treatment of production and consumption within a context of nature-society relations.

  • Friedmann, Harriett, and Philip McMichael. 1989. Agriculture and the state system. Sociologia Ruralis 39.2: 93–117.

    Building on world-system theory, this pathbreaking article argues that contemporary food systems can best be understood as periods of stability and crisis in state-producer-consumer relationships. By adopting this approach, a succession of food regimes involving the deployment of different regulatory mechanisms is illuminated.

  • Gertel, Jorg, and Richard LeHeron, eds. 2011. Economic spaces of pastoral production and commodity systems. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

    Using rich case studies from postcolonial Africa, Central Asia, and Australia and New Zealand, this book examines an overlooked aspect of food systems: pastoralism. Chapters investigate how market economies are altering the livelihood structures of pastoralists, with consequences for the nature of the meat and dairy foods available in the global market.

  • Hawkes, Corinna, Chantal Blouin, Spencer Henson, Nick Drager, and Laurette Dubé, eds. 2010. Trade, food, diet, and health: Perspectives and policy options. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.

    Provides an overview of the major ways in which the import and export of foods is contributing to the rise of chronic noncommunicable disease. It contains a useful “Glossary of Trade Terms” and a section devoted to the primary national and international regulatory instruments being adopted to advance the trade in both unhealthy and healthy foods.

  • Mintz, S. 1985. Sweetness and power: The place of sugar in modern history. New York: Viking Penguin.

    Widely regarded as a classic text in economic anthropology and agri-food studies, Mintz links the current fondness for sugary foods, and the advent of cheap calories, to the unfolding of European industrialization built on the natural abundance of sugarcane found in tropical colonies. The book’s multifaceted approach provides a template for the study of food commodity trajectories more generally.

  • Pretty, J. 2002. Agri-culture: Reconnecting people, land and nature. London: Earthscan.

    Based on a mix of empirical evidence of environmental conditions and food yields, farmer narratives, and policy analysis, there are calls for a new agricultural revolution based on what is being learned of farmer, corporate, and regulatory innovation. The book highlights the importance of recognizing farmers as lay scientists who have a deep knowledge and appreciation of biospheric resources.

  • Toussaint-Samat, Maguelonne. 1992. A history of food. Translated by Anthea Bell. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Reference.

    Part dictionary and part philosophical treatise, this book provides histories of hunting and gathering, followed by sections devoted to histories of staple, luxury, and “sacramental” foods; the rise of urban markets; and the centrality of spices and salt to food trade. A good place to begin any commodity or culinary culture-based research. First published in French in 1987 as Histoire naturelle & morale de la nourriture; expanded edition published in 2009.

  • Warde, A. 1997. Consumption, food and taste: Culinary antinomies and commodity culture. London: SAGE.

    Among the first works to take the study of food consumption seriously, and to locate its different forms within broader social systems, including class and the life stage. Warde links the adoption of novel tastes and consumption habits, including health, to new forms of niche production and marketing.

  • Winson, A. 2013. The industrial diet: The degradation of food and the struggle for healthy eating. Vancouver: Univ. of British Columbia Press.

    This book lays out in some detail what is meant by an industrial food system: stripping natural ingredients out of whole foods, adding chemicals and other additives to increase shelf life and improve flavor, making claims about the qualities of products that are not based in evidence, and shipping foods around the world where they can do as much health harm as good.

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