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13.1.3: Spatial Scale and Typologies of Food Systems

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    A good way to understand the complexity of different types of food systems is to look for organizing principles to classify them. In the introductory food supply chain exercise at the beginning of this module, if you chose a product that was produced a long distance from where you consumed it, you are aware that the global food system today handles food at an enormous spatial scale. This example leads to one way to organize our understanding of food systems, which is the hierarchy global, regional, and local scales of food systems (Fig. 10.1.4).


    Figure 10.1.4.: Spatial scale of organization in food systems. Credit: Steven Vanek

    Click for a text description of the spatial scale diagram.
    Scale Examples
    Global Global grain and meat production (commodities), Global fisheries
    Regional Most supermarket and restaurant foods
    Local Farmer's market, local hunting and fishing
    Household Home gardens and subsistence agriculture

    Another helpful way to classify food systems is to look for typologies of food systems. Building typologies is a somewhat subjective but often helpful process where we look for groups of systems or components that hang together in order to better understand their function, importance, or other attributes. For the typology of food systems we present here, we are thinking about classifying food systems based on how production occurs and at what scale, which portions of society are involved in production and distribution, and the rationale underlying production, distribution, and consumption. In this course, we use the scheme of three overlapping food systems that exist at global, regional, and local scales shown below in Fig. 10.1.5.


    Figure 10.1.5.: Typology of Food Systems. Credit: Steven Vanek and Karl Zimmerer

    Click for a text description of the Food Systems Typology diagram.

    Typology of Food Systems into Smallholder, Globalized Corporate, and Alternative types. Two major types at left are the globalized corporate system which is dominant in the industrialized world and in terms of trade of major commodities, and smallholder systems which are in fact extremely important at local and regional levels in the developing world, with more than two billion smallholder farmers globally growing, trading, and selling food in these contexts. The vertical and horizontal axes in the diagram attempt to capture the variation in these systems regarding their integration into global markets and specialized industrial production (vertical axis), and the way in which the systems at right are responses to sustainability challenges of the modern food system (horizontal axis). The alternative types at right, which reflect current trends and movements in the modern food system towards sustainability, are divided into a alternative global or "ecologically modernized" type (see module 2 on the history of food systems) along with a more local or community-based food system type, with both alternative food system types responding to sustainability critiques of the globalized food system in recent history. It is also important to realize that different food systems overlap and are certainly not spatially isolated: for example, smallholders in the developing world simultaneously participate in both smallholder and global ways of producing and consuming food, and urban consumers the world over may simultaneously purchase food from all four systems.

    Global Corporate Food System

    • High volume, minimized production costs
    • Simplified farms that specialize in particular crops
    • Global and regional shipping
    • Unprocessed and processed foods
    • Coordinated through major agribusinesses and food companies
    • Goals: markets and return on investment
    • Local producers participate via commodity production

    Smallholder Food Systems

    • Smaller-volume production on many more farms
    • Complex, diverse farming systems with e.g. livestock and many crops
    • Local/regional shipping and marketing
    • Unprocessed foods
    • Goals: generating farmer livelihoods and food for direct consumption and local markets
    • Mixed production and consumption roles
    • Produces a large proportion of food in developing countries

    Alternative Food Systems: Globalized and Community-based

    • Globalized
      • "Ecological modernization" of globalized food system
      • Global/national trade networks
      • Goals: reform of industrialized farming practices
      • Certification schemes: fair-trade, sustainable forestry, etc
      • Unprocessed and processed foods
      • Mainstreaming of organic products in national/global distribution
    • Community-based
      • Emphasis on reintegration of local rural-urban economies
      • Goals: reform of industrialized farming, local economies
      • Local/regional shipping and farmers' markets
      • Mainly unprocessed foods
      • Organic and local criteria/certification

    This page titled 13.1.3: Spatial Scale and Typologies of Food Systems is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Heather Karsten & Steven Vanek (John A. Dutton: e-Education Institute) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.