Food Ecosystem FAQ

Food ecosystems are complex networks of farms and fisheries operating locally, regionally and globally. Policies about land use, farmworker rights, use of chemicals, transportation and distribution systems significantly impact how individuals and communities access high-quality, affordable foods. Even issues such as food waste impact our communities.

Here are some common questions about food ecosystems:

What’s the connection between health and food systems? Is it just about things such as nutrition and affordability?

The connection between food systems and health is how what is grown, where and at what cost contributes substantially to population health. Issues such as nutrition and affordability are highly visible, longstanding global food system issues. The food system is all activities and resources that contribute to and influence producing, distributing and consuming food; a soil-to-soil system that includes all the resources, technologies, stakeholders, relationships, policies and laws that shape and influence how food moves through the system – from farm to plate and back to the farm again. All of these stages are connected to health, and adopting a food system that’s “environmentally sustainable, improves nutritional quality, and supports human dignity and justice” is a priority. In addition to nutrition and affordability, other well-researched determinants of health correlate to the food system, such as food access and insecurity; child food insecurity and obesity; farmworker rights and health; environmental impacts of the food system; and climate change.

What do you mean by stages of the food system?

The food system is a “soil-to-soil” connection between production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management stages of agriculture and food. In the stages, the research considers all-natural, human and material resources, technology and cultures, policies and laws that contribute to the opportunities and challenges of our food system. The production stage includes traditional farming practices and resources, fishery management and sustainability. It also includes agricultural inputs such as soil and water that allow them to produce food. The processing stage is usually associated with unhealthy, inexpensive goods. But processing involves the basic steps needed to ensure the longevity of consumer goods from “farm to plate,” and even provide variety to food choice. The distribution stage of the food system is the bridge between producers and consumers. Distributors are also partly why foods are transported long distances. Larger, more competitive distributors may buy only from large farms that provide a steady supply of goods at the lowest prices — even if those farms are halfway across the globe. The consumption stage of the food system is probably the most visible since we are all consumers of food. This is often at a retail or commercial level of interaction, but consumers also play a role in holding those involved in the earlier stages accountable for their practices and products. 

Who are the stakeholders in the food ecosystem?

Stakeholders in the food ecosystem are the global community and economic actors involved in the stages defined earlier. Everyone eats food and is affected by the food ecosystem. We all deserve access to healthy, affordable, sustainably and inclusively produced tasty food. Generally, stakeholders are those in the ecosystem who have an impact on or are impacted by changes in related policies, systems or environments. Stakeholders include but are not limited to farmers and farm workers, fisheries, transporters, government, small businesses, and consumers. 

What are some of the major challenges facing the food ecosystem? 

Each stage of the food ecosystem has issues. The most well-researched and clearly detrimental to population health topics are related to farmworker rights and pesticide use, safe food supply and access, and food access and insecurity. Other issues include the environmental impact of food production, food waste and loss, and the impact of climate change.  

What are some innovations addressing food ecosystem challenges?

People across the food ecosystem are creating more sustainable practices and solutions to improve the food system. Innovations include the use of hydroponics to grow food more efficiently, supply chain management changes, eco-labeling to help improve farmworker conditions and quality/safety of food, and insurance companies using meal delivery kits to improve the health of policyholders. Innovators and startups around the world have created ways to improve food sovereignty, develop alternative consumer options and mitigate the effects of climate change. 

What is the AHA doing to help improve the food ecosystem?

The AHA has always been committed to advancing nutritional quality and access to healthy foods through our science, policy and programmatic initiatives. Our expanded focus on food systems will broaden our engagement to include upstream aspects of agriculture, food workers, innovation and impacts of food on environmental sustainability.

How are issues such as disaster recovery being addressed? 

Climate change has directly affected the number of natural disasters, and the impact is immediately felt within the food system from hampered farm production to a total loss of resources. Recovery is often difficult, expensive and time-consuming. The population health impact of climate change occurs in food scarcity and rising costs. Some solutions being researched focus on mitigating the short- and long-term issues arising from food security, nutrition, diet-related disease, food safety and environmental and occupational health by increasing partnerships between food, health, and agriculture industry stakeholders.

How does the increasing number of natural disasters impact the long-term viability of food ecosystems?

In recent years, with increasing disasters arising from the adverse effects of climate change, food ecosystem stakeholders and researchers have had a grim outlook. Reduced food supplies and rising food prices are predicted, with some areas of the world already suffering from high rates of hunger and food insecurity. Affected areas include parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which are predicted to experience the greatest declines in food production.