The Organic Food System Programme (OFSP)



This document was started in mid-2017 with a view to providing some explanations first and foremost for the Organic Food System programme website. The purpose of these explanations is twofold: (1) to be used as a means of finding common understanding between the actors and within the activities of the OFSP, (2) to be used in communication about the OFS(P) with others via our website and anywhere else they may prove useful. The explanations refer to the understanding of terms used in the context of the OFS(P). This is a living document, i.e. it is subject to edits, changes and updates; provided with a ‘last updated on’ field for easy reference. We welcome any comments or suggestions to any terms explained in the glossary.

What do we mean by “organic” (O)?

The word organic is used here as an adjective to describe food (organic food) and farming (organic farming) and any entity or process related to that (e.g. organic certification, organic standards, etc.), i.e. any production or processing practice or system that conforms to organic production practices and standards. Within the work of the OFSP we consider anything organic that is recognised as such by IFOAM-OI, by the relevant Codex Alimentarius standards and guidelines, and by national or private regulations[1] around the world. This includes in conversion and also wild[2] harvested products and common/public land management as recognised by IFOAM-OI. We furthermore align ourselves with the understanding that producing or processing an organic product or handling a product in compliance with organic standards is a conscious and active choice and therefore there cannot be an organic by default.

[1] see 3. What is behind an organic label?

[2] Wild crops are plants growing from a site that is not purposefully cultivated.

What do we mean by “food” (F)?

The word food here means human food; any substance eaten or drunk by humans as nourishment as a part of their diet, but disregarding medicinal or therapeutic use of foods; anything plant, animal or mineral that is edible to humans, whether as a mono-product or as a processed, fermented or mixed product, e.g. an apple, dried apple rings, apple cider, apple chutney, apple sorbet, baked apple pie.

“Food means any substance, whether processed, semi-processed or raw, which is intended for human consumption, and includes drink, chewing gum and any substance which has been used in the manufacture, preparation or treatment of “food” but does not include cosmetics or tobacco or substances used only as drugs.” FAO for Codex Alimentarius

“ (…) ‘food’ (or ‘foodstuff’) means any substance or product, whether processed, partially processed or unprocessed, intended to be, or reasonably expected to be ingested by humans.” Article 2 EU Food Law Regulation (EC) No 178/2002

What do we mean by “system” (S)?

A system is a set of interconnected and interdependent elements together forming a whole that has properties unique to it. A system has a boundary that delineates what is inside or part of a system and what is outside of and not part of a system. A mental image that perhaps portrays the network of elements aspect of a system well is a biological neural network, i.e. the nervous system. However, a system as used here is also dynamic. It has spatial and temporal dimensions. Forms and functions are emergent properties.

What do we mean by “food system” (FS)?

A food system must contain all interdependent elements that together as a whole serve to feed one or more people. The purpose of a food system is to feed people.

We refer to the definition of a food system according the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS) as:

“A food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes”. (HLPE 2014: 29)

What do we mean by “organic food system” (OFS)?

The organic food system is the whole network of interdependent elements that together as a whole serve to feed people organically. We can speak of an OFS or of the OFS. If we speak of the OFS then it is the entirety of all interconnected elements around the world which together as a whole are involved directly or indirectly in the organic feeding of people. If we speak of an OFS then we mean a subsystem of the global OFS that serves to feed a specific group of people organically.

What do we mean by “the organic food system programme” (OFSP)?

The organic food system programme is an umbrella under which a collection of independent but formally linked projects and commonly agreed undertakings are gathered and given a common frame; it is the container for the development of the OFS concept and to study cases of OFSs around the world. We use the word programme according to the common English language usage to mean a set of related measures or activities with a particular long-term aim.

The OFSP aims to contribute to global initiatives, especially the 10-Year Framework of Programmes on Sustainable Consumption and Production (10YFP) with its action programme on sustainable food systems (SFSP) as well as IFOAM International’s Organic 3.0 by describing ways how to transform food systems towards enhanced sustainability as well as by approaches how to achieve the UN 2030 Agenda with the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Following this the OFSP identified eight deliverables to be realised until 2022.

Why do we follow or suggest a “food system approach”?

A food system approach uses the construct of a food system as a means to allow us to change our focal depth and therewith discover new findings. In this way we can move our focus from the proverbial individual tree(s) to a focus on the whole forest. It is an instrument to see the/a whole (or try to). It is a way to return wholeness to what we look at.

Typically recent approaches for increasing our knowledge have taken a reductionist approach, i.e. assumed that the parts of a phenomenon can be studied independently. Using such an approach trains the focus on the proverbial individual tree or maybe even a branch or a leaf, rather than on the forest. A food system approach is not about studying individual elements but about studying the whole.

Yet again other approaches allow one to take on different perspectives. Taking on different perspectives is a further way to study and learn about things. For example as a farmer one may use the approach to take on the perspective of a processor or a consumer in order to learn about their perception. A food system approach is not about changing any perspective by taking on other perspectives; rather, it is about seeking to learn from a study of a whole.

The food system approach we follow is not intended to replace other ways of seeing or learning such as these described here; instead it is adding to the ways we usually use to see and learn. Usually we choose to see or focus on depth, depth is our focal point, in this way we gain expertise about an individual element. Using the food system approach adds to our repertoire for discovery since other features come into focus; it provides an opportunity to see properties or phenomena arising out of a whole rather than studying the properties of one individual part.

Why do we present the idea of the OFS and suggest studying the OFS?

We believe that the OFS is a model for and, indeed, a living example of a sustainable food system. The jury may still be out on whether it is in all respects a fully sustainable food system but we certainly believe it is today one of the most sustainable food systems around in practice around the globe. This can be argued on the basis of already existing knowledge, even if it is not yet comprehensive. Hence we think there may be much to learn from observing and studying a living sustainable food system. We think this concept and approach can be shared with all peoples irrespective of whether they are or perceive themselves to be a part of the organic community or not. The OFS is about ‘feeding people organically’. So additionally it is an instrument for the organic community to check or reflect on whether it is doing so according to its own precepts (the 4 principles[3]) and perhaps it may discover areas that need to be addressed. This connects it with the original intent of the founding persons, namely to feed people healthy and palatable food sustainably (i.e. keeping food producing systems healthy & fertile and intact and ideally even self-regenerating).

[3] Principles of Organic Agriculture (IFOAM)

  1. Principle of Health: Organic Agriculture should sustain and enhance the health of soil, plant, animal, human and planet as one and indivisible.
  2. Principle of Ecology: Organic Agriculture should be based on living ecological systems and cycles, work with them, emulate them and help sustain them.
  3. Principle of Fairness: Organic Agriculture should build on relationships that ensure fairness with regard to the common environment and life opportunities.
  4. Principle of Care: Organic Agriculture should be managed in a precautionary and responsible manner to protect the health and well-being of current and future generations and the environment.

What is a “sustainable food system” (SFS)?

The OFSP has promised to deliver on 8 points to the 10YFP SFSP within 5 years of being endorsed as a Core Initiative on 21st February 2017. So for the purpose of the OFSP we refer to the definitions used by the 10YFP SFSP. The definition of a SFS as published by the HLPE (2014: 31) is as follows:

“A sustainable food system (SFS) is a food system that delivers food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition for future generations are not compromised”.

This draws on the definition of a food system according to the same source (HLPE 2014: 29) as:

“A food system gathers all the elements (environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions, etc.) and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food and the outputs of these activities, including socio-economic and environmental outcomes”.

It may be inferred that SFS should give rise to sustainable diets (SD). These are defined by FAO & Bioversity (2012: 7) as:

“Sustainable diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets protect and respect biodiversity and ecosystems while being culturally acceptable, accessible, affordable, nutritionally adequate, safe, and healthy.”

Why are you guys using a system or a food system approach? What is it useful for?

We can look at the flows through a system – what flows (matter, energy, information) and the nature of those flows (speed, ease, paths) through it. We can study relationships between the elements of the food system and the nature of those relationships, whether they are equitable, fair, etc. We can study outcomes such as health or food literacy or ecological literacy. We can look at structures and forms of organisation – by design, by evolution, by self. We can study the dynamics of a system, the nature of change and adaptation or the levers that contribute to the greatest change with the least effort. We can even study impacts on other systems (e.g. the textile system) or interactions with other systems (e.g. the energy system). And, of course, we can actively contribute to transforming food systems from less sustainable to more sustainable and monitor how successful the transformation processes are.

A few more words about systems and food systems

This adds to the explanation of “system” above. A system has a boundary that delineates what is inside or part of a system and what is outside of and not part of a system. In living systems the boundaries are permeable – things can come in and pass out, usually this is a regulated or facilitated flow. Through this a system maintains itself as a distinct entity; it preserves its identity and it provides protection (think O in OFS here).

Within the boundary of a system there is a network (like a neural network) of (re)actions, a metabolism, by which the system sustains itself. “Metabolism is the chemistry of self-maintenance”. The metabolism of a food system will achieve self-maintenance. A system continually creates, repairs and perpetuates itself. This can be applied to any food system.

A network is a pattern that is common to all life. The life of a food system cannot be ascribed to individual elements but to the entire metabolism of the network of elements together. It produces the boundary itself. Forms and functions are emergent properties. Systems are dynamic, in constant motion, fluid, changing, and undergoing change. A system encounters physical and chemical constraints of its environment. Living systems are organisationally closed but energetically and materially open. Creativity, meaning the generation of new forms, is a key property of all living systems.

To look at a system you must connect the food with the people and/or the people with the food. Food systems serve the basic human needs of food and drink necessary in order to sustain human life. If the function or purpose of a global food system is to feed the global population, then there is something wrong if it is not doing that. It may be that the purpose of the global food system has changed. We know it is not doing that because millions of people worldwide suffer food insecurity and hunger, resulting in ill-health and premature death. This observation precedes the observation that our global food system is operating unsustainably. This is true if we take as the measure that we (wish to) maintain what is left of the environmental bases.

We can look at the full food system on a global scale, we can look national food systems (feeding nations), we can look at food systems feeding populations or groups of people (this is the link to Public Health Nutrition). Another argument for pursuing food system studies is the biological concept of species niche and that some experts now describe humans as occupying the planetary niche.

Can a food system be regional or can we speak of a regional food system? We can if the focal point, if what is in focus is the people of a region. It’s about feeding the people of a region, not about the region itself, so where a construct has elevated region above feeding a people or above people or has lost the people it is flawed. Feeding a people also means covering all or almost all food and drink (nourishment) needs, so that the study of a regional food system may show how (in)complete it is in this respect (and how much it needs imports into its region in order to achieve comprehensive feeding status).

A school food system, for example, will feed the pupils and perhaps the teachers, those members of that (social) organism. The edges of the school food system may be fuzzy so individual school food systems may also feed further members of that community such as visitors or parents, but its function or purpose is to feed the school pupils.

We can also describe very large companies like McDonalds or Nestlé in terms of food systems as their reach is globally so wide and deep. A McDonalds food system or a Nestlé food system can be thought to have the purpose to feed people McDonalds food or respectively Nestlé food. It is the system that you need to feed people McDonalds food or Nestlé food.