A Modern Framework for Sustainable Food Systems

Farmer, holding a wooden crate of fresh vegetables, practices organic farming to help shape sustainable food systems

In today’s globalized world, the need for sustainable food systems is a pressing concern for all actors in the industry. Producers, aggregators, processors, distributors, and consumers all have a stake in adopting a modern, sustainable framework that spans the entire food industry. Driven by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the aim is to reduce hunger and ensure food security while limiting the environmental, economic, and societal impacts associated with modern food systems. Achieving the targets of the SDGs will require major transformations in all facets of the food industry with the impetus falling on both private companies and policymakers. 

The business of food encompasses a wide variety of industries, geographies, technologies, and infrastructures. These elements must work in conjunction to ensure the food safety and security of future generations. By 2050, the planet will have an additional two billion people that need access to nutritional, sustainable food sources. According to the latest figures from the United Nations, we’re not on track to establishing environmentally positive, healthy, and fair food systems. A modern framework proposed by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations guides organizations and entities involved in the food industry. Let us look at why we need to create sustainable food systems and how the changes we make today can have a positive impact on food security and nutrition in the future. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Sustainable food systems are important if we want to increase food security and improve the health of the world’s populations.
  • Economic, societal, and environmental dimensions determine the sustainability of food systems and help identify where today’s organizations can improve.
  • A sustainable food system should take a holistic approach when assessing the factors that influence food security, nutrition, and inclusivity in the food industry.

What Are Sustainable Food Systems?

By definition, a system is a set of interconnected functions that work together in a network to achieve a specific goal. A sustainable food system (SFS) takes each subsystem’s efficiency, productivity, and sustainability into account when assessing the performance of each stage in the value chain. If agricultural practices lead to higher yields but the downstream processing, distribution, and consumption of food items cannot handle these increases, it results in waste that makes these gains unsustainable. The framework proposed by the FAO seeks to establish:

  • Economic sustainability – Developing a food system that is profitable throughout the entire supply chain
  • Social sustainability – The system provides broad-based benefits to the whole of society and can support future generations
  • Environmental sustainability – The activities taken to produce, process, and distribute food have a positive or neutral impact on the planet’s natural environment

Current approaches highlight systemic failures in ensuring the economic, social, and environmental sustainability of food systems. Challenges exist due to the low nutritional value of widely available and consumed food items, excessive levels of food waste, inefficient use of resources including energy-intensive production processes, a negative ecological footprint, and health issues in human and animal populations. Food systems are operating beyond planetary boundaries according to researchers. The new framework will need to address factors like the availability, accessibility, affordability, and desirability of nutritional food items by using strategic policy interventions. 

 Infographic showing the four elements of a transformed food system towards greater sustainability


The infographic above is from the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. It shows that specific, strategic interventions can make a major difference in the sustainability of the food systems and promote healthy diets in the world’s populations. Integrated goals and commitments from governments and private organizations are vital to transforming food systems towards sustainability. Food system reforms need to address each system and subsystem involved in the industry to overcome dietary, planetary, and security challenges. 

Taking a Holistic Food Systems Approach to Sustainability

A food systems approach enables the holistic assessment of the entire food lifecycle. This includes evaluating the actors directly involved in food production and distribution, the related effects of these practices, and the relationships between subsystems like energy production and waste disposal. The three dimensions of sustainability (social, economic, and environmental) provide different lenses from which to view current food systems and recommend changes to the model that result in meaningful impacts.

Sustainable food systems will:

  • Provide profitable solutions to the food supply systems that add jobs and increase tax revenues
  • Reduce the carbon footprint, energy waste, resource consumption, and toxicity of food production systems
  • Deliver greater value to populations with improved nutrition and fairer rights for workers involved in the food industry

The webinar above discusses the resilience and nutrition challenges faced by populations across the world. It combines the technical expertise of researchers and published literature that describes the appropriate steps required to support resilience programs and nutrition education. Sustainable food systems should be equitable, fair, and far-reaching to have the required impact set out by the SDGs. 

Understanding the Sustainable Food Systems Framework

The sustainable food systems framework proposed by the FAO uses a systems wheel to describe all the actors, systems, and shareholders involved in the food industry. At the center is the need for poverty reduction, increased nutrition, and food security that make up the human element of the wheel. The core systems include all the production, processing, distribution, and consumption systems that require transformation to provide for sustainable performance in food systems that depend on natural elements. Sustainable food system development will require input from all societal actors such as regulatory bodies and food organizations. Investment in infrastructure and education can drive the required transformation of social and cultural norms that are detrimental to the natural elements we depend on for food security. 

The Food System Wheel proposed by the FAO to improve food system sustainability and security

Practical approaches proposed by the FAO include how to measure the performance of current food systems and identifying possible synergies available across all three dimensions. Analyzing performance requires an understanding of the linkages of the core systems, the governance mechanisms available that can drive transformation, and the root causes of current undesirable practices. Changing behavior starts by creating a joint vision and strategy with multi-stakeholder engagement and facilitating positive feedback loops using public and private partnerships. 

Engage with All Stakeholders in Sustainable Food Systems Development at SIAL America

As the world’s food systems are transforming, keeping up with all the latest developments will be essential for food services organizations and brands. At SIAL America, leaders from all sectors of the food business engage and share their latest visions, experiences, and innovations with other stakeholders. 

If you want to remain at the cutting edge of sustainable food systems, register to attend SIAL America