Why should you read this chapter?

How food gets to our plates and what happens afterwards, connects many issues of concern, including health, biodiversity, climate change, livelihoods, and more.

This means that by acting to change how food is produced, distributed, consumed, and disposed of, we can also affect these outcomes — either for better or for worse. However, to understand the implications of potential changes, we must understand how all these factors are interconnected and affect one another. In other words, we need to apply systems thinking to food.

This chapter, and associated resources, provides an entry point into ‘food systems’ thinking and the multifaceted set of issues that are connected through food. It provides a foundation for the wider set of ideas and complexities that are explored in the other chapters of Foodsource.

The chapter addresses the following:

  • What is meant by the term food system?
  • What are the major issues of concern linked to food systems?
  • How can a food systems approach help us to address these more effectively?

Key points

  • Food affects social, economic, moral, and environmental concerns in complex ways. To understand how, we need to adopt a systems thinking perspective.
  • The whole ‘food system’ encompasses all the interconnections and interactions – spanning time and geographic space – between food, natural resources, people, organisations, government, organisms, the climate, and more.
  • But such complexity is overwhelming. In practice, food systems thinking divides up this interconnected whole and makes judgements about which parts and interconnections are the most important for understanding the causes of things.
  • Food systems interact with the environment in multiple ways, including as major sources of greenhouse gase emissions and as contributors to water and air pollution, biodiversity loss, deforestation, desertification, and land degradation.
  • The food system interacts with people and society via health (e.g. malnutrition, infectious disease), livelihoods (e.g. employment and subsistence), consumption growth (e.g. driven by diets and population), and is shaped by power relations (e.g. gender, wealth, political and economic relations).
  • Food systems are shaped by, and in turn influence, cultural, social and ethical concerns, including traditional practices and cultural norms; social identity; moral concerns about animal welfare and rights; religion and spirituality; art; and as part of shared experiences and enjoyment in social life.
  • Because food is a point of interconnection linking social, economic, and environmental concerns, by understanding these interconnections, common solutions can sometimes be found that address multiple issues simultaneously.
  • To be truly sustainable, food systems must operate within environmentally sustainable limits and at the same time, must also provide for basic human needs for nutrition, employment, health, and more.
  • What sustainable food systems actually look like is still unclear, although our understanding is continuously growing.


Suggested citation

Garnett, T., Benton, T., Nicholson, W., & Finch, J. (2016). Overview of food system challenges (Foodsource: chapters). Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford.

Written by

Tara Garnett, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford

Contributing authors

Jessica Finch, FCRN, Warwick University; 

Will Nicholson, IntoFood;

Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds;

Edited by

Samuel Lee-Gammage, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Marie Persson, Food Climate Research Network, University of Oxford;

Reviewed by

Professor Mike Hamm, Michigan State University;  

Dr Elin Röös, Swedish Agricultural University;  

Dr Peter Scarborough, University of Oxford;

Dr Tim Hess, Cranfield University;  

Professor Tim Key, University of Oxford;

Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds;  

Professor David Little, University of Stirling;  

Professor Peter Smith, University of Aberdeen;

Mara Galeano Carraro.

Reviewing does not constitute an endorsement. Final editorial decisions, including any remaining inaccuracies and errors, are the sole responsibility of the Food Climate Research Network.

Funded by

The production of this chapter was enabled by funding from the following sources:

The Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation;

The Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food;

The Wellcome Trust;

The Esmée Fairbairn Foundation;

Jam Today;

Waste Resources Action Programme (WRAP);

The Sustainable Consumption Institute at Manchester University.

Chapter resources

External resources