It is commonplace now to talk about the ‘food system’. By this we mean the vast network of people, organizations and relationships that grow, process and transport our food, from farm to plate (or failing that, to an anaerobic digester). Systems thinking is in vogue, as we move away from the reductionist model that sees food in simple terms of crop yield, price and calories, and embrace a wider reality, from soil bacteria to food poverty and human rights. But what does it mean exactly?
The work of the late Donella Meadows, US environmental scientist and lead author of The Limits to Growth, is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand systems thinking. She writes about stocks and flows, leverage points and feedback loops, and paints a picture of overflowing bathtubs and submerged icebergs that brings the topic fascinatingly to life. Systems are everywhere, once you start looking for them.
She also makes the crucial point that although systems thinking is about being ‘holistic’, nevertheless any system is defined by its limits, which means that something will always be left out. A system is after all an idea that we impose on reality; it cannot actually be that reality, or there will be no distance between it and us, no objective distance that allows us to talk about it. Staying silent in the face of reality is of course a very good thing which we should do more often, but it is not systems thinking.
Where then do we draw the limits of a food system? That all depends. A recent report from the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford, Mapping the Food System, defines it in terms of enterprises, jobs, production, sales and the general mechanics of getting food from farm to plate. These are important things to know about, so this document will be very useful. However this view says little about, say, human health. What use is a food system if it doesn’t nourish our bodies?
In other contexts, therefore, we might define the food system differently. For the organic movement food is the link between human health and a thriving ecosystem – there is a clue in the name of the Soil Association, and a recent seminar from Whole Health Agriculture explains this thinking very well. Still others wish to emphasize social justice and so look at food poverty, trade and working conditions, drawing their limits around those points. They may look wider and include environmental considerations, or they may not.
Sometimes the limits are drawn very tightly. This is often dismissed as reductionism, but there can be good reasons for it. The power of modern science lies in the way that it can isolate the tiniest element – the proteins that surround a coronavirus for instance – and extract from that an understanding that makes a whole world-changing technology work. Reductionist experimentation has produced many good things, in food and farming as in everything else.
The only problem, and it is a big one, comes when we think that because we have understood the small details – isolated the fungus that is destroying a crop for instance, or seen how nitrogen fertilizer makes plants grow faster – we have learnt all we need to know, and can now go forth and change the world. That is why the application of modern science to agriculture has had so many negative effects, from algal blooms in rivers to soil erosion and pesticide poisonings. We have mistaken the reductionist model for the greater reality.
Systems thinking reminds us to recognize our limitations and look more widely before we intervene. But it is not foolproof, because of the way it inevitably leaves something out. We will always draw the line around our own limited field of vision, excluding the unknown unknowns as well as the known ones. We have blind spots and biases that will always get in the way.
One of these blind spots is the way that we tend to see the food system in mechanistic terms, leaving out human (and non-human) experience. Too often, food is reduced to quantities, nutrients, supply chains and prices – things that can be measured – and we lose sight of the way that it is actually experienced. The taste of an apple, the feelings of a cow for its calf and the togetherness of a shared meal, for instance, are just as real as anything else. Our food systems have an interior, which includes the realm of meaning and values. This is key to understanding why we eat and farm the way we do, but it sits largely in our blind spot.
Donella Meadows was well aware of these pitfalls of course, of course, and one of the recommended resources on her legacy website is Theory U , which was developed by the German-American thinker Otto Scharmer. Theory U is a group work methodology that helps us to see these blind spots and allow new understanding to emerge. This is essential if we are to break out of the standard thinking which is ‘creating results that nobody wants’ – ecosystem collapse, social divisions and a crisis in mental health, in particular – and let something new come forth.
A crucial concept in Theory U is the ‘social field’. To illustrate this, Scharmer tells a story of his childhood on a biodynamic farm in Germany. His father would take the family on regular walks across the fields, pausing every now and then to pick up a clod of soil and inspect it. He explained to his children how soil health depends on the millions of microorganisms that live in it, and is of central importance to the farm. For Scharmer, the social field – invisible, and yet deeply sensed – is to human society what the soil is to crops and animals. We need to attend to the human, and non-human, interconnections that create our experience of life.
Some years ago, the Food Values project we ran from Aberystwyth University (later Bangor) held a series of conversations over shared meals in order to understand people’s experience of food. It was an investigation of the social field, although we didn’t call it that. Perhaps because of the very fact that we were sharing a meal, we found a high degree of care for the health of our society as a whole. The top concern was that everyone should have good food to eat; price was barely mentioned.
The social psychology on which that project was based is useful because it produces the sort of peer-reviewed evidence that is widely accepted in a modern secular society. But the mysteries of the social field have traditionally been expressed in religious language. As the Sufi mystic Rumi put it, “You think because you understand ‘one’ you must also understand ‘two’, because one and one make two. But you must also understand ‘and’.”
Similarly, the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh developed the concept of ‘interbeing’ to express the way that the relationships between people (and all other beings) are as real as the people themselves. Focus on the individuals alone, and you miss something vital. The Bible puts it more personally: “where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
How are we to till our social fields? The first step is to notice that they exist. The way into this is to connect with our own experience, perhaps by meditation but equally by going for a walk, baking bread or washing the dishes – anything that takes us out of our heads. From there we can start to become aware of the collective reality of the groups we are in, through dialogue, which Scharmer wonderfully defines not as people exchanging ideas – we know how badly that can go – but as ‘the capacity of a system to see itself.’
This is perhaps the true purpose of events such as the People’s Assemblies that were held across Wales last year, as well as the recent Wales Real Food and Farming Conference. By bringing together people who would not normally meet, and inviting them to share their views on food and farming, such events make the social field tangible, and that is transformative. With collective self-knowledge comes power.
Scharmer has a great deal to say about all this. But the social field is just another name for community, something that the pandemic has made very tangible. Food is a natural expression of this. Eating together has not been possible recently, but we are still able to swap recipes, exchange seeds and plants, and gather online. When we do these things we animate the ‘food system’ with a shared humanity that is the essential starting point for change.