Rachel Laudan recently published a piece on her website arguing, I think, that there is no food system and that it is unhelpful to talk about it being broken. No, and yes.

Her title — Words Matter. Declaring “The Food System Is (or Isn’t) Broken” Does Not Help Understand or Improve the Food Supply — indicates that she comes at the question at least partially from a semantic point of view and in the context of improving the food supply. She then offers a long list of “multiple cris-crossing supply chains, some connected, some not” which are functioning well or not so well, before reaching her conclusion:

“In short there is no system but a complex of constantly and rapidly changing chains, some interconnected some not.”

I take issue with this characterisation of what “the food system” is. It is much bigger than a supply chain here or there, bigger even than all the supply chains, bigger even if they were all interconnected. It includes the policy environment that allows certain players to flourish. It includes regulatory agencies, some of which, like advertising and education, may seem a million miles from food. It includes the people who plan supermarket shopping aisles and many others.

I know Rachel Laudan recognises all these factors, and more besides, so I am mystified by her decision to regard the food system solely as those supply chains.

As for whether it is helpful to describe the food system, in either her sense or mine, as “broken,” on that we agree. Every one of the supply chains and other components of the actual food system surely includes bits that work well and bits that could be better.1 We all have different priorities as to which bits need fixing first, and obviously that’s fine too. So yes, just saying “it’s broken“ does not tell you what to fix or how.

But it does make for a fine rallying cry. Isn’t that enough?

  1. In a kind of hand-waving way I think of a better food system as one that consistently and for the long-term delivers to everyone a nutritious diet that is affordable, safe, convenient and maybe even tasty. 

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