Places to Intervene to Make Complex Food Systems More Healthy, Green, Fair, and Affordable

This article examines papers presented at a conference in April 2009 that focused on food systems and public health. By analyzing statements in these papers by theme and intervention level, the authors provide a profile of the level and type of problems being discussed.

The authors first developed a categorization system based upon an intervention level framework. They then analyzed papers from the conference and categorized their elements according to the intervention framework to identify key common themes.

Key Findings:

  • Changes intended to make the food system more healthy, fair, green and affordable must recognize that the system is complex, non-linear and resistant to broad modifications.
  • While the conference was devoted to making the food system healthy, fair, affordable and green, the largest number of ideas expressed in the pre-conference paper involved healthy food and its relationship to the other three themes. Health appeared in approximately one-third of all statements.
  • In contrast, affordability was the theme least likely to be addressed in conference papers, appearing in less than 20 percent of statements.
  • Half of the ideas expressed in conference papers addressed structural elements of food systems. System structure was the next most frequently discussed theme. Statements relative to feedback loops were relatively rare.

This article presents a picture of the discussion surrounding improvements to the food system. While not comprehensive, the preliminary analysis provides a better understanding of the interactions of the components of a very complex system.