Food systems

Understanding food systems - The triple challenge

The term “food systems” refers to all the elements and activities related to producing and consuming food, as well as their effects, including economic, health, and environmental outcomes.  

Food systems fulfil many important functions, but at its core are three essential functions: ensuring food security and nutrition for a growing population, supporting the livelihoods of millions of people working in the food supply chain, and doing so in an environmentally sustainable way. Food systems around the world face the “triple challenge” of simultaneously meeting these objectives. Moreover, across these three dimensions food systems should also become more resilient.

Unfortunately, food systems are currently a long way off from meeting the triple challenge. As documented in the OECD report Making Better Policies for Food Systems, globally about 2 billion people do not have regular access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food, while an even greater number are overweight or obese. At the same time, technical and structural change and the repercussions of COVID-19 are putting pressure on the livelihoods of people working on 570 million farms worldwide and along other stages of the food supply chain. The environmental damage from food production is also considerable: around 80% of all threatened terrestrial bird and mammal species are in danger because of habitat loss due to agricultural expansion; food systems account for 21-37% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Better policies are urgently needed to deal with these problems. 

A “food systems approach” emphasises that there may be synergies and trade-offs between these different policy challenges. This creates both opportunities and challenges – it requires policy makers to take into account a broader set of objectives, but also gives them new tools to meet those objectives.  

Achieving better policies for food systems has often been difficult because of disagreements over facts, diverging interests, and differences over values. Better policies will depend on robust policy processes that are evidence-based, inclusive, and can mediate between differing values. 

OECD data and analysis can inform the design of better policies for food systems.