Skip to main content

Supporting policy with scientific evidence

We mobilise people and resources to create, curate, make sense of and use knowledge to inform policymaking across Europe.

Publication | 2021

Food Systems - Definition, Concept and Application for the UN Food Systems Summit. A paper from the Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit (March 2021)

This paper aims to inform about concepts and definitions of food systems and determinants of their change.

A General Food Systems Concept

Food systems exist at different scales: global, regional, national and local. They are very diverse and location-specific.

Food systems embrace the entire range of actors and their interlinked value-adding activities involved in the production, aggregation, processing, distribution, consumption, and disposal (loss or waste) of food products that originate from agriculture (incl. livestock), forestry, fisheries, and food industries, and the broader economic, societal, and natural environments in which they are embedded.

A sustainable food system is one that contributes to food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social, cultural, and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are safeguarded. A sustainable circular economy concept as an overarching systems frame, in which food systems are embedded, should be considered in the solution-finding process.

Conceptualizing food systems entails defining systems boundaries and systems building blocks and linkages among them, while simultaneously being connected to neighbouring systems such as health, ecological, economy and governance, and the science and innovation systems.

summary food systems










A Food Systems Concept for the UN Food Systems Summit

As the Food Systems Summit is based on clearly stated objectives already defined in the SDGs, a normative approach (the normative concept postulates a set of objectives and aims to shape the systems to serve the stated objectives) is justified.

A normative concept and definition of food systems based on objectives embraces the five Actions Tracks:

  1. Ensuring Access to Safe and Nutritious Food for All
  2. Shifting to Sustainable Consumption Patterns
  3. Boosting Nature-Positive Production at Sufficient Scale
  4. Advancing Equitable Livelihoods and Value Distribution
  5. Building Resilience to Vulnerabilities, Shocks and Stresses

The Action Tracks need to consider functional relationships among them in systemic ways and must be positioned in a food systems framework that deliver health and nutrition within the scope of the following three objectives, based on the SDGs:

Objective 1: End hunger and achieve healthy diets for all. All assessments clearly indicate that healthy diets are more diverse and expensive than energy-and nutrient-adequate diets. While efforts need to be made to make healthy food accessible and affordable, it should be noted that lower food prices can hurt producers and discourage them from investing in technologies to protect the ecosystem, especially if ecosystem services related to food systems are not incentivized.

Objective 2: Achieving Objective 1 does not automatically enable the sustainable use of biodiversity and natural resources, the protection of ecosystems and the safeguarding of land, oceans, forests, freshwater, and climate. Actions to promote the sustainable use of natural resources and mitigate the effects of climate change can limit current agricultural productivity. Sustainable food systems need to find ways to address this trade-off. Agro-ecological-and agro-forestry farming practices can be steps in this direction, along with other innovations (e.g. edible insect farming, vertical agriculture, etc.)

Objective 3: Eliminate poverty and increase income and wealth. Changing food systems need to ensure that people with a low income can access a healthy diet by enabling them to earn living wages.