Food system diagrams might seem irrelivent. But hopefully by the end of this post I can convince you that they’re at least important and that they are a perfect example of why policymakers keep failing to address environmental issues.


What is a Food System Diagram?

A food system diagram is an attempt to turn the complicated real-world food industry into a nice simple diagram. Economists love these kinds of diagrams because it shows the world as almost mechanic. That way, they can pick out the part of the diagram where a problem is and manipulate it for whatever they want to do.


But why do they matter?

Well our lives are hugely impacted by economists, particularly by classical economists, who follow old school theories of how the economy works. This article talks about how British politics has a huge number of people who studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, and that’s just one degree at one university! They are everywhere, running businesses and running the country. As I said above, these people love a good diagram. The Kuznets curve, and the supply and demand curve are great examples of how a simple diagram can dominate economics and as a result have massive impacts on ordinary people’s lives.

Kuznet’s Curve ans Supply/Demand Curve. Source: Wikimedia Commons



What’s Wrong with Food System Diagrams?

In theory, nothing’s wrong with them, they show the food system in an easily digestible way that most people have the time and ability to understand. This is especially good for convincing busy (and not always that bright) politicians to do what you want. But in practise the diagrams can be very problematic. They are unavoidably as biased and flawed as whoever is creating them. If there’s something the designer thinks isn’t important, then it won’t be in the diagram. More often than not, the environment is what gets left out.

Below is a diagram that was presented in one of my lectures this year. It wasn’t designed to show the relationship between food and the environment. But that’s the point, they never are, and they always should be. The two are unavoidably connected throughout, so having production visualised as separate from the environment immediately undermines your work. None of the problems are specific to this diagram, there are many more just like it.

Source: Horton P et al, An agenda for integrated system-wide interdisciplinary
agri-food research, Food Sec. (2017) 9:195–210

In this diagram, the climate and geography are shown as external factors which can affect production. This is a good start, often this isn’t even acknowledged.

Unfortunately, these factors are bundled in with other external factors and only shown to affect the growers, processors and retailers, rather than showing its intrinsic connection to the land which our food comes from. In everyday life, it is perfectly normal to hear about a particularly wet, dry, sunny or cold spell impacting a harvest, so this should be reflected in a food system.

The land can’t be treated as a fixed unchanging factor, like it’s something that’s out of our control. The issue of soil erosion and degradation proves this, changes in the quality of land that are directly reducing crop yields. These changes are caused by the farmers extracting too much from the land.

Outputs in this diagram are listed as animal waste, food waste, biomass, biofuel, sewage. Even if this were a complete list of all the by-products in food, the diagram says they are all recovered and recycled back into the food system. This totally ignored waste products piling into landfill, carbon emissions leading to climate change, pesticides destroying biodiversity and antibiotics leaching into rivers, causing immune resistance.

We can also see how these waste products do not only feed back into the food system positively. In the last year there have been many cases of wildfires destroying crops such the ‘Thomas Fire’ in California. These fires are known to be increasing in intensity and frequency due to climate change which agriculture has contributed to greatly. Livestock alone are estimated to produce about 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions. This creates a feedback loop where waste products of food production negatively affect food production itself.

Clearly, traditional food diagrams are not fit for purpose and a more inventive design is needed to properly take the environment into account.


How can it be done better?

Below is another food diagram. This one includes the environment in a far more appropriate and fleshed out way. It approaches the food system as a series of interconnected cycles with various feedback loops. It acknowledges that no part of the system is isolated or independent of other factors. The key component is that waste feeds back into the biological system, something which as we have seen is nearly always missing. Also, labour is connected to the farmers and their economic context, this can be a trap which environmentalists fall into by focusing too heavily on environmental impact and forgetting socio-economic contexts. The entire system is contained within the farming, environmental, economic and social contexts, which reflects the real nature of food production.


There are still issues with this diagram. It is large, complicated and is very different to traditional styles of diagram so is not immediately digestible. However, I don’t see that as an issue with the diagram itself, it is more a barrier to its use. This highlights the need to advocate for environmentally conscious diagrams as, although they are incredibly important in the face of environmental disaster, they will not otherwise be taken up by those in power.

Diagrams such as these obviously aren’t the solution to all the problems in food production, but the way we think about the environment needs to change drastically and fundamentally. Perhaps this can be a way of working towards that.