Systems Thinking in Food Security Research

Authors: Apostolos E. Lydakis, John Darzentas, University of the Aegean Greece
Jenny S. Darzentas, Dept of Product and Systems Design Engineering, University of the Aegean Greece

Read the working paper ⇒  

Reference to ‘systems thinking’ is found in food studies more frequently, as increasingly food security research literature recognises the complexity of the problem space and also acknowledges the interconnectedness of the various elements. This is also true of research in other areas dealing with complex global challenges. Food security research uses terminology such as “food systems”, but these may refer to parts of food security research independently, for instance concentrating on food production, or on food supply systems. This has been changing, with more food security researchers trying to find ways to study food systems more holistically. Such research (Bland and Bell, 2007; Ericksen, 2008; Horton et al., 2017) on food security is working to draw in sources of multiple interactions, to identify key processes, drivers, multiple feedbacks and outcomes. This then leads to some thought-provoking perspectives on how components are interlinked and could potentially lead to “actionable improvements”. This wider, more holistic, agenda for food security research may include many different factors not apparently directly influencing food security, such as the production and over-consumption of ‘bad’ food and obesity, to be studied along with more traditional foci such as increasing food production and improving food value chains.

It is also true to say, that policymakers have also encouraged the turn to the systemic. On a global level, food policies have moved towards making food systems more sustainable with systems thinking emerging as an indispensable tool to handle the food systems’ complex nature. The Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United National (FAO) shows a clear commitment towards facilitating systems thinking (FAO, 2019). The One Planet Network’s (UN Environment, 2019) demonstrates a systemic approach towards the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Similarly, the EU’s “Green Deal” policy has a systemic approach in its research and innovation agenda that is also emerging in the implementation of the “Farm to Fork Strategy“ (European Commission, 2019a, 2019b). Finally, the need for a systemic approach is also evident in Food2030 within the EU’s Bioeconomy Policy, through the “Fit4Food2030” project which acknowledges the urgency for systems thinking adoption by all research and innovation efforts (Gill et al., 2018; Zhang et al., 2018).

Food Security and Systemic Designers

Even if food security researchers and systemic designers are working broadly within a systems thinking paradigm, our experience has shown that not all the potential of systemic design has been unleashed. As an example, food researchers may tend to conceptualise the interconnected food systems as well-defined entities, pre-existing and agreed upon, and assume that their interactions with one another form patterns that can, with study, be revealed. Indeed Ericksen (Ericksen, 2008) advocated for compiling a ‘database’ of such interactions, that can then be abstracted away into typologies, to be referenced by other researchers when faced with similar situations. The aim is that this database will guide those in charge of managing Food Security policies. Similarly, Horton (Horton et al., 2017) is interested in modelling the whole of the agro-food economy in such a way as to apply quantitative methods to analyse and manage it. While some of these assumptions may be at odds with the understanding of the everchanging and dynamic nature of systems embraced by Systemic Design, it is important to acknowledge the significance of these approaches that move from reductionistic models of food systems and embrace more holistically based viewpoints.

By contrast, systemic designers, focusing on starting with a ‘tabula rasa’ and prompting researchers representing stakeholders to create a holon, i.e. a description of the ‘whole’ situation that is wide ranging, and then encouraging them to explore the interactions and connections, inviting speculation on the need to include other stakeholders (Darzentas et al., 2018).The purpose of encouraging this greater freedom is, in part, to move beyond disciplinary or professional boundaries, as well as linear “food supply chains”. This approach avoids reductionism and narrow focus and allows for the emergence of new ways of thinking and praxis that was not previously possible. Another example, with a focus on the circular economy, concentrates on drawing in all stakeholder groups located in a particular region, to understand how they are part of the regional system, and seek ways to exploit further existing links or develop entirely new interactions, such that they create new opportunities (Barbero, 2015, Nohra and Barbero, 2019). In each case, the systemic designers help the stakeholders to explore and move into different configurations.

Literature Review

In an effort to better understand what the food security research understands by systems approaches, and how it uses them, so that systemic designers may better work with them, a review of a wide range of relevant literature was undertaken. The review covered literature from a wide variety of relevant and overlapping disciplinary areas as shown in Figure 1 below, (a sample of the journals consulted are listed in each area). In addition, a number of policy-related documents were also included, since these can be of relevance to the type of intervention that systemic design offers when working in the areas of service provision and public sector policymaking.

Figure 1: Reviewed papers organized by journal titles. A variety of methods were used to sample the literature, including keyword searches, collection of relevant journals, and snowballing, as well as serendipitous searches. Also, literature that was older was filtered out, unless there was a pertinent reason to retain it since most of the turn to systems is of fairly recent origin, that is, in the last two decades or so.

Generally speaking, the review showed that the majority of the publications scrutinised followed complex adaptive systems approach rather than softer systems thinking approaches favoured by systemic design. However, more recent research can be found that investigates softer approaches. This is especially the case for work that originates in disciplines that treat food security from an environmental/sustainability perspective. It is here that we see work that uses practices familiar to systemic design practices, such as appreciating the significance of stakeholders’ learning process in the system’s complex evolution and activities to collaboratively map the food system (Grant et al., 2019).


By offering to those working in the various disciplines that contribute to food security research the opportunity to interact with each other, following a systemic design enquiry approach, new framings can help to extend not only the toolboxes of the researchers (Bosch et al., 2007) but also their way of thinking about these complex challenges. Recent proactive initiatives for collaborative systemic learning (Grant et al., 2019), clearly demonstrate recognition of the food system as a purposeful system. Their shift towards soft systemic concepts demonstrates the food community’s acknowledgement that stakeholders’ learning is key to the system’s self-organization and subsequent evolutionary change. In an attempt to establish a common ground, and to differentiate from the adoption of hard systems thinking, considering Food as a complex evolving system, instead of an “adaptive” system would illustrate a more proactive, creative behaviour versus a more passive, adaptive, and in a sense even “mechanistic” stance. This would highlight the collaborative role of human individuals in forming their own future and well-being within a purposeful, complex, and evolving societal system, empowering the food system’s stakeholders to design and co-create their desired future.


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Bosch, O.J.H., King, C.A., Herbohn, J.L., Russell, I.W., Smith, C.S., 2007. Getting the big picture in natural resource management—systems thinking as ‘method’ for scientists, policymakers and other stakeholders. Systems Research and Behavioral Science 24, 217–232.
Barbero, S. (2015) Systemic Design for Food Sustainability Interpretation of real cases and reflection on theories Relating Systems Thinking and Design 4 Working Paper, Banff, Canada,
Darzentas, John, Darzentas, Jenny, De Bruin, A., Power, M., Prado, P., Carmien, S., Hobbs, E., 2018. Systemic design in food security and resilience: Building a holon. of RSD7, Relating Systems Thinking and Design 7, Working Paper, Turin, Italy.
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Nohra, C.G.& Barbero, S (2019) Systemic Design for territorial thinking. Circular urban transitions for post-industrial cities, The Design Journal, 22:sup1, 915-929, DOI: 10.1080/14606925.2019.1595408
UN Environment, 2019. Collaborative Framework for Food Systems Transformation. A multi-stakeholder
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Posted: Oct-2020

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