A food system is made up of all the processes involved in producing, distributing, and consuming food. It includes sub-systems in topics like natural resources, economics, communication and education, health, and culture. The relationships between these sub-systems influences the efficiency and sustainability of the overall system. Since the sub-systems rely on each other, changes in one sub-system will affect all the others and may create unexpected consequences, too. Currently, the sustainability of the food system is being threatened by the overconsumption and reduced quality of resources, which will affect the functionality of the subsystems and the overall system.
The food system is made up of many sub-systems that interact with each other.
The US uses an agro-industrial food system where the goal of production is to produce the greatest volume of food as possible. One of the issues with industrial production has been the depletion of environmental resources because of its disregard for the environment. For instance, suitable agricultural land has decreased by tens of millions of acres, groundwater is being used faster than it is replaced, and the excessive usage of fertilizers has caused marine life damage and reduced soil quality. Many farms, food processing facilities, and distribution centers have consolidated, so that a smaller number of producers are providing the majority of the food in the country. This also means that access to food may not be as widespread as before and that food may travel farther to reach people, and thus, cost more for them, too. Politics has also influenced crop production in the US, which has led to global effects. For instance, subsidies for corn (used to make high-fructose corn syrup and ethanol) were created to incentivize production, but this has led a large portion of the US farming region to dedicate itself to growing only corn. Not only does this decrease biodiversity, but the region cannot realistically sustain itself if it does not grow other nutritious foods. Globally, the low cost of corn makes it easier for other countries to import it, rather than utilize their local farmers. This creates a strong dependence on US corn sources, which if damaged, will affect many countries.
A large-scale industrial farm. Source: https://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/pub-details/?pubid=88056
Vietnam’s food system is similar and different from the US system in several ways. One similarity is that development is encroaching into agricultural land, reducing the amount of available space for agricultural use. One of the differences is that the diverse climate and geology in Vietnam allow a large variety of nutritious and fresh foods to be produced. Another difference is that most foods are purchased at open air markets, while street vendors are popular sources of food. This is currently one of the most serious concerns because it makes it difficult to regulate and verify food safety practices, which increases the risk of food-borne diseases. Another concern is the usage of pesticides and harmful chemicals, and the potential chemical residue left on food products, especially because of the vast amount of chemicals used during the war.
Produce being sold at Ben Thanh Market in HCMC. Notably, the food is not refrigerated, which reduces their shelf-life. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Produce_in_Ben_Thanh_Market_-_Ho_Chi_Minh_City,_Vietnam_-_DSC01095.JPG
The current food system is unsustainable because there are still over 820 million hungry people in the world, yet 33% of the food produced each year is wasted, which is enough to feed more than all the hungry people. In both the US and Vietnam, sustainable food systems can be achieved by considering the needs of each sub-system. Farming techniques, like polyculture and crop rotation, can help the crops and environment maintain its biodiversity and resilience to natural disasters. Eating locally-sourced foods can help reduce costs and increase accessibility for all. Having more local sources will also create more self-sufficiency so that in emergency situations, people can still access food. Consuming more organic foods can protect the environment from chemical pollution like pesticides and fertilizers. In addition, removing these chemicals would protect the health of the workers who are forced to work with the chemicals in large quantities. Educating both producers and consumers about safe farming and food can help encourage these practices. Overall, the food system needs to adopt more sustainable methods in order to provide access to safe and nutritious food for every person, without damaging the natural environment or wasting resources.
A successful sustainable food system must address each aspect of food production.
Scarlett Cheung - Foodbank VietNam