Chapter 11: Food

Tai Munro

Key Ideas

In this chapter, you will learn about:

  • the complexity of food sustainability
  • current projects that are challenging how we think about food

Food Systems Complexity

As you have already seen in this book, systems thinking is a way of approaching complex topics. Food systems have many different elements and interconnections, feedback loops, and leverage points. This complexity can make food and sustainability seem overwhelming. Food systems include many different actors and activities, including food producers, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal. It also includes many sub-systems; each of the items in the previous list could be a sub-system and interacts with other systems such as energy, transportation, trade, and health. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations states that “a sustainable food system (SFS) is a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised” (Nguyen, 2018, p. 1). Recall from Chapter 6 that Dr. Julian Agyeman also advocates for culturally-appropriate food, a concept that is not recognized in the above definition.

Let’s break down what that might mean in our daily lives. Imagine talking with someone who drinks at least two 8 oz glasses of milk a day. They currently drink regular 1% milk from the grocery store. They have come to you for help to improve the sustainability of their milk. They are okay with changing the type of milk but don’t want to remove milk completely from their diet.

Some initial suggestions you might consider include purchasing organic milk or trying to purchase from a local dairy. Unfortunately, they have looked into both of those and they would both increase the cost too much for their budget. You might then do some research on other types of milk and the environmental impacts of each, but what do you want to consider? The most sustainable type of milk seems to change whether you are looking at greenhouse gas emissions from production, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, water usage, biodiversity loss from monocultures, and deforestation. Already you’re swimming in numbers, trying to figure out the best option for where you live, and then the person you’re helping throws another consideration into the mix: nutrition. They would like it if the milk alternative still provides significant levels of protein. That changes things and may result in a different answer, and we haven’t even gotten to considerations regarding working conditions and social justice or culture. We also need to consider how much waste is produced both during processing and distribution and by the consumer through wasted product and packaging.

The complexity of a single choice when it comes to food makes it clear that a reductionist approach is not ideal. This is why food systems are gaining support.

Reflection 11.1: Sustainable Food Systems

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations published: Sustainable food systems: Concept and framework. This document explains what food and sustainable food systems are and then develops a potential framework. As you review the resource, consider the following:

  • Do you currently know of any sustainable food systems?
  • How does a sustainable food system demonstrate systems thinking?
  • What parts of systems can you identify in the proposed framework?

Hope is on the Table

While the complexity of food creates significant challenges, it also creates space for many opportunities. Watch the next video (4:33) to learn about just a few places where there is room for hope within food sustainability.

Expanding Your Knowledge

There are many different connections between food and other areas of our lives, personal and professional. Systems thinking provides an approach to think about food that recognizes the complexity. And yet, it can still be challenging to think about all the possible connections that occur.

Activity 11.1: Expanding Your Knowledge

Conduct an online search to find a resource that discusses the complexity of food sustainability. Explore the resource and consider how it might connect to the different areas in your personal or professional life. Some potential resources include:


Activity 11.2: Create a Food Map

Choose one meal that you eat this week and investigate where the food comes from. Answer the following questions:

  • Where was it purchased or gathered from (farmers market, chain grocery store, independent grocery store, grown at home, etc)?
  • Where does each item actually come from (e.g., if there are oranges, are they from BC or California)? This may take some work and research to find out depending on the type of food you are including.
  • What is the cultural background of the meal? In other words, what culture(s) is the meal drawn from, think types of food, spices, ways of cooking, etc? Does it represent a mixing of cultures?
  • Reflect on how your meal affects the four areas of sustainability based on your findings from the previous questions.



Nguyen, H. (2018). Sustainable food systems: Concept and framework. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0.


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Introduction to Sustainability Copyright © 2023 by Tai Munro is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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