Food Systems Part One

February 3, 2020

This is part one of a series explaining the food system and its various facets.

Chances are, you’ve heard the phrase “food system” thrown about once or twice, and we totally get it if you’re not sure what exactly the term means. Simply speaking, the food system is the system encompassing everything to do with food.

Right now, the world is built around a globalized, industrial food system, which means the path any one product travels along is incredibly complicated. The finished product that you purchase at the store may have traveled tens of thousands of miles, with components from across the globe, before hitting your plate.

Take a breakdown of common ingredients of peach yogurt.

  • Milk: common sources include upstate New York, Wisconsin, and Idaho. These farms are huge, with thousands of cows milked mechanically every day. (Fun fact: the average size of dairy herds in the US increased by 212% from 1992 to 2017, while the number of actual dairy farms has reached a modern-day low)
  • Guar gum: a common additive to yogurt, India grows, processes, and exports 80% of all guar gum globally
  • Peaches: China is the top global exporter for peaches, though the transformation from fresh peach to the peach product found in yogurt likely happens elsewhere (and involves additional ingredients, from additional locations).

Turning all those disparate ingredients into peach yogurt and packaging into the yogurt you purchase could happen anywhere. For example, Chobani has a plant in upstate New York, and Oikos has plants across the US, including Texas, Utah, and Oregon. The yogurt then is transported from the plant, ultimately ending up at the local grocery, where you bought it last Sunday for breakfast tomorrow.

The food system includes the growth/production of each separate ingredient, and every aspect of the path followed to reach the final product. This includes the gas used for transport, and the emissions produced as a result. It includes the food safety inspections that need to be passed every step of the way. It includes the policies that stipulate conditions on the dairy farm, the taxes on the imported guar gum, and the lobbying that went into those decisions.

Yes, the food system is complicated. Every person on earth participates in it, and that means that we all have the power to influence and shape it – that’s what it means when people say to “vote with your dollar” – when you choose your food, be it at a store, the farmer’s market, the cafeteria line, or at a restaurant, you are shaping our food system. Overwhelming? Possibly. Empowering? Definitely.


Stay tuned for our next blog post on local food systems, and how they make a difference!

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