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Food Systems Approach

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The global ambitions to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture (SDG2) demand a complex transition of the current food system. At the same time, the food system also needs to respond to other challenges such as climate change, resource scarcity, (youth) employment and gender equality. There are many interconnections within the system, which means that activities with an effect on one part of the food system can result in (unintended) outcomes in other areas. A need thus exists to manage such trade-offs and identify room for synergies. In this context, a ‘food systems approach’ attempts to deliver sustainable solutions for the sufficient supply of healthy food to achieve SDG2 in balance with other sustainable development goals.

In this topic a curated selection is presented of key publications on food systems and the food systems approach. These reflect current work by knowledge institutions and other stakeholders who explore the concept and try to enhance understanding of how it can deliver the needed food systems transitions.

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Food systems everywhere: Improving relevance in practice
Published by Global Food Security Journal,
This article identifies strategies for and performance of food system transformation by assessing 32 highly-cited international studies, identifying and comparing differences in the frameworks used for food systems analysis, and discrepancies in the procedures. Food systems approaches must be useful to decision makers and performance can only be improved if decision makers have a better understanding of these underlying interactions and dynamics of food systems change. »
The food systems approach in practice: Our guide for sustainable transformation
Published by ECDPM,
In this paper an iterative, step-based sustainable food system approach has been developed that help navigate complexity and is flexible in its required resources, thus enbaling a fast overview or a deep dive as determined by a project's or organisation's objectives. The goal of the approach is that together, the four components can help guide practitioners and decision-makers to describe, diagnose, and develop more coherent, effective, and context-appropriate interventions in food systems to improve their sustainability. »
SOFI 2020: Transforming food systems for affordable healthy diets
Published by FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, WHO,
This report assesses the state of food security and nutrition in the world, and attempts to foresee impact of COVID-19. The critical link between food security and nutrition outcomes are food consumption and diet quality. New analysis determines that the cost of the diet increases incrementally as diet quality increases. The hidden costs for health and environment translate into actual costs for individuals and society. »
Reshaping food systems after COVID-19
Published by A4NH-CGIAR,
This blog outlines that all key dimensions of food systems are simultaneously influenced by the COVID-19 pandemic and therefore there is a need to better understand their interactions in order to identify a strategic response to reshape future food systems. Hopefully, food systems transformations will enter a new era of policy engagement, international alliances, and multilateral cooperation. »
Global food policy report 2020: Building inclusive food systems
Published by IFPRI,
The 2020 Global Food Policy Report focuses on the need to build inclusive food systems, both to ensure that marginalized and vulnerable people enjoy the benefits and opportunities that food systems can bring and to support sustainable development. »
Financing the transformation of food systems under a changing climate
Published by CCAFS-CGIAR & KOIS Invest,
This report states that the global food system will need to produce food more efficiently and sustainably to achieve the SDGs and meet the 2°C climate commitments of the Paris Agreement. As climate change affects food systems, governments, food and agriculture companies, and public and private investors need to better identify and address the numerous climate-related risks they face. »
Incentivizing food systems transformation
Published by World Economic Forum, McKinsey & Company,
This report outlines four pathways for creating the right incentives to transform food systems. Incentivizing food systems transformation will not be straightforward and will require substantial investments and efforts to manage complexities and trade-offs. In addition, incentive mechanisms in food systems will have a greater impact if they are complemented by incentives from other sectors. »
Food systems for healthier diets in Bangladesh: Towards a research agenda
Published by IFPRI,
This discussion paper identified a large set of research questions that, if answered, could shed light on both how the food system in Bangladesh works, and the rate of change of food system transformation in Bangladesh. Both government interventions and innovations are needed to help shift the national food system to improve nutrient-dense food availability, particularly among the poor, and to limit the increase in processed food consumption. »
Civil society and social movements in food system governance
Published by Routledge,
This book examines and compares variety of governance innovations, at a range of scales, thereby offerig insights for those considering contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation. A key finding includes that food movements are increasingly engaging in governance to have a wider and more systemic impact. »
Food systems and nutrition: Emerging evidence and research opportunities
Published by Feed the Future, USAID and Tufts University,
This review identified opportunities for action that could contribute to systemic change that improves diet quality, particularly for nutritionally vulnerable people in low income settings. The review summarizes research findings and presents future research opportunities, as well as several cross-cutting issues that have implications across the food system. »
Conference report: Monitoring and evaluation for inclusive and sustainable food systems
Published by Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen Economic Research, Food & Business Knowledge Platform,
This conference report shares key insighs from a conference that aimed to seek clarity in the role that monitoring and evaluation (M&E) can play in informing and supporting transformation towards inclusive and sustainable food systems for healthy diets. M&E can generate information to help understand food systems (starting from consumption) and identify tradeoffs in order to support decision-making. M&E can build on and complement existing food systems frameworks. »
Food systems at risk: New trends and challenges
Published by FAO, European Commision, CIRAD,
This report examined the most up-to-date scientific assessment of the danger humanity faces if present trends continue, with priority being given to food systems in low and middle income countries (LMIC). The potential severity of the combinations of risks to which LMIC food systems are exposed requires a change in their transformation pattern. Since food systems face locally specific combinations of risks, they als have to meet locally specific objectives. »
Capturing the economic potential of food systems for the poor
Published by IDS,
This report provides an overview of the evidence of the economic potential of food systems for the poor for the next ten years. Evidence shows that only the upper tier of small-scale farmers can access the more modern and commercialised food channels. For policy it is of importance to get the mix right in relation to the ability of smallholder farmers in the food system to “stepping up” or “hanging in” (farmers not able to scale up and commercialise) farming activities. »
Transforming food systems under climate change: Local to global policy as a catalyst for change
Published by CCAFS-CGIAR,
This working paper discusses how policy should bring transformative change for food systems to become sustainable, resilient, climate smart and inclusive, while delivering affordable, culturally appropriate, healthy diets for all. Transformation demands participation and action from all actors. »
Food systems for healthy diets: Policy guidance note
Published by FAO, European Commission,
This new guidance note presents how a food systems approach can guide the delivery of healthy diets and the steps to take to identify policy options and drive policy change, and subsequently address all forms of malnutrition. It is important to take a food systems approach comprising four functions - food production; food handling, storage and processing; food trade and marketing; and consumer demand, food preparation and preferences, and to coordinate interventions across these functions. »
Food systems: From concept to practice and vice versa (Including decision-support tool)
Published by KIT, WUR,
This working paper summarizes academic litarature on food systems and systems thinking, in order to inform a system approach for the development of food and nutrition security (FNS) programming. Also a decision-support tool is developed to translate the insights on food systems invo actionable recommendations for FNS programming. »
Food systems for an urbanizing world
Published by World Bank,
This report examines available evidence and innovative initiatives as the basis for proposing a conceptial framework and the broad parameters and priorities for efforts to improve urban food systems. »
Characterizing diversity of food systems in view of sustainability transitions: Review
Published by Agroonmy for Sustianable Development,
This paper presents a framework to characterize the diversity of existing food systems and classify the food systems in terms of their support by mainstream practices. Results of the framework can be used to focus attention on functioning of the food system components and reveal main barriers and promising elements, and can be used in the exploration of potential transition pathways of food systems. »
Global implications of the European food system: A food systems approach
Published by Wageninen Economic Research,
This report enhances the knowledge on the global implications of the EU food system. How trade relations of the EU with LMIC may evolve in the future, depends on major trends in consumption and production in the EU. »
Food in the anthropocene: The EAT-Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems
Published by The Lancet,
In this article the EAT-Lancet Commission developed global scientific targets based on the best evidence available for healthy diets and sustainable food production. A universal healthy reference diet was developed to provide a basis for estimating the health and environmental effects of adopting an alternative diet. Scientific targets for the safe operating space of food systems were established for six key Earth system processes. An opportunity exists to integrate food systems into international, national, and business policy frameworks aiming for improved human health and environmental sustainability. »
Shaping the future of global food systems: A scenarios analysis
Published by World Economic Forum and Deloitte,
This report presents four scenarios for the future of global food systems. These possible futures of global food systems broaden perspectives about alternative future environments. The report aims to challenge global leaders to think in new ways about the future and to motivate action on key issues that will shape the global food systems. The key question is: How will food systems nutritiously and sustainable feed 8.5 billion people in 2030? »
The challenge of food systems research: What difference does it make?
Published by Sustainability Journal,
This article aims to assess the conceptual challenges and practical opportunities for analysing the structure and performance of food systems, and identifies how food systems analysis could deliver new and innovative insights for nutrition policy in developing countries. »
Food system governance: A systematic literature review
Published by WUR,
This article seeks to capture how food system governance has been conceptualized in academic literature since the world food prices crises of 2007/2008 and what proposals have been developed to change and strengthen food system governance. The article is part of a book that addresses a range of issues in food governance revolving around questions of justice, fairness, equality and human rights. »
The food systems approach: sustainable solutions for a sufficient supply of healthy food
Published by Wageningen Economic Research,
A food systems approach (FSA) is a useful interdisciplinary conceptual framework for research and policy aimed at sustainable solutions for the sufficient supply of healthy food. The aim of this paper is twofold: to explain the term ‘food systems approach’ in greater detail, and to show how a food systems conceptual framework can be useful in developing an integrated international policy on food security, nutritional security and international agri-business. »
Netherlands Food Partnership

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