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Economic Systems We Can Eat


The Center for Adaptive Solutions will write about the topic of food during November, 2010.  The topic is an opportunity to apply a whole-system approach to a Wicked Problem.  The goal in whole-system work is to understand a large activity, not to “solve” it.  The issues are wicked exactly because there are too many parts and participants for some single practical solution to exist.  However, it’s both possible and important to work at seeing steps that could reduce negative effects and increase positive effects.

This month’s food posts will offer an overview and analysis of food as a complex systemic problem.  By looking at food as a wicked problem, the posts also will offer new insights and ideas for ways to find systemic operations that rebalance the food process in a more sustainable and effective manner than the present food activity.

For starters, my introductory post today aims to show how food covers a lot of ground – land, water, weather, plants, animals, storage, industry, transportation, river systems, regional typology, dams, aqueducts, ecological systems, mechanization, fertilizers, chemical industry, biological research, universities, theft, shrinkage, rustling, seed ownership, patents, automation, finance, commodity markets, labor, taxes, subsidies, governments, international relations, human needs, income levels, consumer segments, wholesale, retail, advertising, business organization, indigenous populations, trade, and more.  The scope of food as a whole system can make it a challenge to see what makes the wheels go round, even while most of us eat the results daily.


As perspective, it’ll help to ask if the increasing complexity of food is leading to a more refined and aware sense of how best to balance earth, water, and air with a point of departure that provides a framework for seeing food as a systemic topic.  The best context is to place the complexity of food as the product of a story that’s still being told.

One test of the story is to see whether the food theme already has passed through levels of apparent complexity to emerge into an aware whole system state of wisdom, nurture, and natural sustainability.  The wicked challenge is that semi-acute insight in a multi-participant society can result in interventions that achieve targeted benefit for some, but not systemic benefit for most.  In practice, some targeted participant benefits may be the cost of obtaining overall systemic benefits.

The slippery slope is that more benefits may be ceded to current actors than can be gained by all participants if sub-system edits are accepted as adequate to address a systemic framework.  The working goal is to modify core operations and rewards to bring currently unrecognized value to current actors as well as new value to currently underserved participants.  In thinking about food, there’s the challenge that the food story simply has too many chapters to fit within a nation-wide, self-aware, single-agency sense of food’s potential positive systemic operation in the US and elsewhere.

Specifically, a complex system like food likely is wicked because it is not subject to master assessments and solutions.  The sticking point is the reality that very complex systems act like flexible, self-interacting networks.  Interconnected networks absorb a “solution” value without actually affecting the overall arc of the complex system.  It’s not a matter of context sensitivity.  Some of the shrewdest, most astute assessments of a given context have emerged from the acute interpretations and social collective actions instigated by active social system engineers such as Stalin, Hitler, Robespierre, and Tamerlane.  At huge cost, they won until they lost.  They won by leveraging active self-perceptions in their societies.  Then they lost by not having enough resources to overcome and replace the inertial momentum operating in the global systems that they wanted to change.

A Helpful Guidepost

A more helpful case in point for looking at food’s complexity is the analogy provided by the theoretical and practical inability reliably to predict long-run efficacy for new drugs in the hugely complex human system (see here, here, and here).  So too is it unlikely that a new, targeted food policy happily will unravel and reconnect food in more sustainable, aware, and effective systemic activity.

Agriculture (food) policy resembles the problems with predicting drug efficacy because large-scale experiments (policy changes) such as land-use reforms already have been tried in order to solve specific problems or ailments in society.  The results have not been seen to be uniform successes.  But, it’s worth noting that a spirit of inquiry might help us look at where we are, and at what might be done.  Toward a start at an inquiry, let’s take a look at the food story in an idiosyncratic and condensed manner…

1. Urbanization

Urbanization (a very long-running experiment) separates food production from food use.  As a result, food policy aims at output that can be harvested, assembled, transported, prepared, and eaten.  Food policy also aims at production whose short-run reliability is able to keep down the need for trying to maintain large, long term inventories (food spoils).  The systemic operating goal is to grow, move, prepare, and eat food in the shortest possible continuous loop.

Within the continuous food loop, one operating tactic is to move foods across the planet so Southern Hemisphere crops can supply the Northern Hemisphere with out-of-season foods due to winter and summer occurring at the same time from a global north-south perspective.  Global north-south food movements enable the US and Europe to enjoy fruits in the winter and asparagus in the fall.  Global east-west food movements allow wheat and rice in the Eastern and Western Hemispheres in the north to back each other up in their shared growing seasons.

2. Customer Demand

On the demand side, food’s customer pyramid reflects groups with different disposable incomes.  A prior post noted that 1 percent of US households (some 3 million people) earn well over 20 percent of all US personal income, so 99 percent of US households (over 297 million) share less than 80 percent of US income—averaging 8/10 of 1 percent of US income to each 1 percent of households, until the top 1 percent.  The larger-poorer majority has a significantly reduced ability to pay for food, so bulk food must be delivered for sale and usage at the lowest possible end-to-end unit cost.

3. Production Focus

The requirement to deliver profitable food reflecting the lowest short-run cost to large urban centers induces the food system to focus on the high-volume production of least-cost staples.  The production volume requirements result in the need to reduce food varieties and to select plants and animals that are bred for quick maturation, mechanical processing, long-distance shipping, and quick preparation for eating.  The food can be bland as it must be tough enough to survive all the farm-to-table handling operations.

In addition, because the new bland food must sell in bulk to make a profit, sugars, salt, and flavors in various forms often are added to expand consumption.  In response to public concern, the push to develop sturdy food created a secondary policy-driven focus on disclosing nutritional content to assure customers that the bulk food offers a level of value.

A separate result of bulk commodity food policy is food stratification.  Food stratification means that market segmentation leads to a distinct product array aimed at higher-income markets with more nutritious choices including locally grown fresh food supplies.

4. Food Production Infrastructure and Consequences

Food’s first step is growing it or catching it.  Food’s middle step is food transport.  Food transport depends on a transportation infrastructure from places of production to places of consumption.  To reduce food preparation and transportation infrastructure costs and unit operating costs, it becomes necessary to concentrate food processing in very large, highly automated food preparation operations that support high-volume points of origin for shipping.

A corollary to the need for low-variety, high volume production and the related need for concentrated transportation is the agglomeration of agricultural land into very large farming and feedlot operations.  Large-scale operations help to minimize unit costs and thus sustain year-over-year profitability in the face of weather and market variability.  As a practical matter, large-scale farm operations need to develop and grow tough, limited-variety plant foods to maximize the unit-cost benefits of wide-area mechanization.

Several consequences emerge from bulk mechanized operations designed to reduce the time needed to acquire, grow, process, and ship increasing quantities of plants and animals as bulk food for a continental urban population.  Here are several examples…

  • High-volume hydrocarbon-based fertilizers and bulk-feed growth additives increase output and reduce growing time for large mechanized plant farms and animal feedlot operations.
  • Large farm operations also use copious hydrocarbon-based pesticides to cut losses due to insects, molds, vermin, and birds attracted by extensive mono-culture crops.
  • Concentrated large-scale animal operations accumulate huge excrement ponds as a low-cost approach to manure management.
  • Farming operations use deep tiles permanently to drain large, low-lying areas.  The drainage converts wet soils into crop land to grow more food.  As a side effect, the wet soils no longer exist to buffer surface water, chemicals, and dung collections from entering down-stream waters and waterways.

5. Wide-area Cost

Wide-area food operations exist in a framework that encourages care of the land used in production.  However, there is an end-user reason for not counting the down-stream impact costs of a continent-wide flow of water carrying discharges from land saturated with chemicals from fertilizers, pesticides, and dung.  By ignoring the full down-stream cost of production, producers reduce the overall cash cost of bulk food production and transport.  By not recognizing the full production and transport costs, producers keep down the short-run cost of food delivered into large urban centers.  As a result, today’s food consumers are consuming the long-run sustainable viability of food production operations.

6. Final Food Stage

To enable final food usage, the food process also includes fast-food chains.  Fast-food serves millions in urban and suburban centers.  Like food processing plants, fast-food outfits depend on standardized operations and high volumes, low unit costs, and low wages.  As a group, fast-food outfits are the largest bulk food buyers.  As the largest organized direct food buyers, fast-food operations set common baseline denominators for food producers—cheap and sweet, shipment-durable, machine-ready chicken, corn, beef, pork, tomato, lettuce, milk, wheat, rice, and sugar.

Both fast-food operations and retail food store operations use customer-convenience packaging to make impulse-based food eating or buying easier for time-pressured customers.  Also, fast food and retail foods sold in smaller but more numerous packages tend to increase the amount of food eaten or bought by minimizing the reality of the total amount of food involved.  The induced end-user food usage makes it more difficult for many consumers to respond to prices per unit of measure, and for many to manage body weight.  Land-fill burdens impacted by post-purchase packaging disposal are made more challenging by selling foods in smaller, higher quantity amounts.

7. Systemic Effects

The systemic effect of the successful, step-by-step achievement of supplying low-cost basic foods to large poor-to-average urban populations includes several side issues.  A short and not exhaustive list of side issues includes several items as follows…

  • Lack of urban food growing experience limits informed input by the public to food policy.
  • Very high petroleum usage in farm, feed-lot, and transportation operations.
  • Pesticide resistance.
  • Topsoil loss
  • Water pollution–drinking, recreation, fishery–local, downstream, river basin, ocean.
  • Increased levels of long-term metals and chemicals in the US population.
  • Corporate fast-food chain standards for farm commodities, prices, operations.
  • Corporate farming and corporate contracts with large family-run farms connect technology, productivity, operations, financing, but not wide-area systemic effects, workforce safety, or a safety culture.
  • Corporate global seed corn ownership.
  • Corporate subsidies and global trade rules to support national cheap food policy.
  • Corporate fragile farm monocultures of corn-soybean-wheat-rice-chicken-pork-beef.
  • Corporate food processing reflects high volume, low unit cost, low wage, low safety.
  • Corporate fast-food and retail food depend on high volume, low unit cost, low wage.
  • Municipal landfill shortfalls for high-volume food and drink packaging disposal
  • Reduced nutritional value and variety to US consumers—but cheap, sweet, plentiful.

Compared to increased urban hunger and unrest, all is well.  Compared to living well while caring for the safe and resilient larger ecology that will sustain food lands, fisheries, water supplies, urban centers, long-term landfills, and the overall US bodily population going forward, all is not so well.

The Challenge

We got where we are by enormously scaling up the direct local cultural responses to the individual human need to eat food every day.  The challenge in a global rural-urban food process is to square the circle for the very large number of interests that converge in the food system. One opportunity is to provide a way for voices to be heard more effectively in the food conversation.

Today, voices in US agriculture policy emerge from a myriad of national, state, and local laws, rules, regulations, and cultural habits that grew up over the past three centuries.  As a result, agriculture as an operational myth is seen through the lens of the original single-family farm as practiced through the middle of the last century.

As a further result, food at the national level historically was housed in one agency, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).  In addition, most states usually have at least one unit aimed at agriculture or food.  However, in more heavily urban or industrial areas, agriculture usually is not seen as a priority topic because there are relatively few local urban farms – yet urban areas are exactly the places that most utterly depend on long-term viable food operations that are able to support the urban population centers.

One could argue that there are no large food problems that require a food conversation in the US.  However, it’s been said that we are what we eat.  That’s interesting.  As the premise of a systemic look at food, “we are what we eat” is a huge statement.

Food literally keeps us going day by day in school, at work, in the armed forces, as human beings.  Food functionally hammers on topics across health care, education, training, work force, finance, global trade, energy, defense, urban management, pollution control, water supply, intellectual property, land use, transportation, biological research, taxes – the food story is all of us.

Today the USDA houses both food producers and food users under one umbrella.  This is an unmanageable mix because food producers have more influence than individual users to impact wide operational decisions, yet food customers and final users (i.e., those of us who eat food) make up the population that constitutes the nation itself.

A Suggestion

As a modest suggestion, it would be a huge step toward a productive food conversation to separate the historically aggregated USDA into three agencies that have operational coherence.  Specifically, as a start on food as a systemic and operational conversation, it’s time to break up the USDA into three departments aimed at consumer units, producer units, and environmental and systemic units.  The units in the three new departments give actionable impact to the usefully different voices that need to address the major connected themes introduced in this post – urban food dependence, rural infrastructure and operations, and complex systemic effects.

Next up: The CAS team will be unbundling and addressing new ideas on additional interrelated food topics in further posts this month, starting next with Joseph Carrabis.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 2011/01/02 3:37 am

    For an interpretive follow-up to some themes in this post, see the comment made at in response to a subsequent post by Rick Lent of the CAS.

  2. 2011/01/03 2:12 am

    After this post went up, a case in point came to light in the New York Times that shows how the failure to enable several core voices to interact at the USDA results in the dominance of the producer voice in the USDA. The story reports that the USDA urges a cut in cheese consumption for health reasons, while simultaneously helps the pizza and fast food industries to use and sell more cheese because we make a whole lot of it on the dairy farm. Bottom line, producers want to sell more cheese, and the USDA put its money where producers wanted it. See

  3. 2011/01/06 2:53 am

    See the comment at for a useful dialogue with Joseph Carrabis of the CAS on the interpretation of what constitutes an underlying effective response to a wicked problem such as US agriculture, given factors including context, policy, and operations.


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