Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford

A food system concept for food security research

ECI's 'Food Systems Research Programme' is contributing to the University of Oxford's broad view of food systems by increasing understanding of the two-way interactions between food security and environment change.

Food systems are not just about producing, processing, packaging and distributing food – they are also about how much food people can afford, whether it’s available to them, whether it’s safe, and how nutritious it is. Environmental change is bringing new challenges to satisfying society's demands for a healthy diet; and the ever increasing demand for food is further contributing to environmental change. Thinking about the food system as a whole helps identify where interventions can be made - including reducing waste throughout the food chain - and how such interventions would affect the food industry, food security and the environment.

The research programme, led by John Ingram, therefore concerns not only all food system Activities from production to consumption, but also how these relate to both food security and environment Outcomes of these activities. Adopting this food system concept thereby complements more traditional ‘food security’ programmes, many of which adopt a more productionist approach.

Research builds on, and extends, the dynamic and holistic food system concept developed by the 10-year international research project GECAFS (Global Environmental Change and Food Systems), hosted by ECI until the project’s close in 2011. A synthesis of GECAFS results is presented in the 2010 Earthscan book Food Security and Global Environmental Change.

Research areas

Research areas, all of which are being developed within the context of environmental change, include:

  • Understanding and describing food system processes and dynamics, by integrating concepts of interconnectivity, community behaviour and spatial organisation from agroecology and human ecology.
  • Enhancing food system governance, by improving understanding of the respective roles of, and interactions among, the public sector and private and other non-governmental actors which guide the management of food within a complex network of governments, organizations and citizens.
  • Improving food system resource-use efficiency and mitigating waste, by identifying synergies and analysing trade-offs between food security and environmental outcomes of a range of policy and technical interventions across the whole food system, including potential impacts of dietary change.

Work on these themes is underpinned by cross cutting research on ‘Food System Concepts’, ‘Methodological Approaches’ and ‘Analytical Tools’.

Continuing impact

ECI food systems research products have already been adopted by a wide range of national and international organisations. New work will link closely to the Resilience of the UK Food System and the outreach activities in Table (Table is the successor to the Food Climate Research Network); and will contribute to the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food. Emphasis will be placed on further strengthening interactions with a wide range of stakeholders, and defining and equipping the 'new professions' with the latest understanding and tools needed to better manage food systems via the IFSTAL 'food systems learning' programme.

This Agenda is addressed by:

  • Delivering high quality research outputs to our partners and funders on time and within budget;
  • Building innovative research alliances across food system actors to help provide the evidence pathways for system change;
  • Strengthening partnerships and alliances across the University of Oxford to create a food systems hub;
  • Working collaboratively with other universities and partners on research, teaching, and knowledge exchange;
  • Providing a supportive and learning environment for students to develop their skills and expertise; and
  • Seeking opportunities to promote the outputs of our work to policy-makers, practitioners and academics.