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Food Systems!!
by Mike Allan on Thu 19 Jun 2014 12:20:09 PM EDT

Hello EWBers!

     My name is Mike Allan and I am a Systems Change Fellow working on Food Systems. As many of you know, Food Systems is one of the five portfolios EWB included in its 5 year direction last year. But this portfolio is kind of unique: while many of our chapters are involved in promoting fair trade, and while EWB historically has worked on agriculture extension and agribusiness through projects and ventures in Ghana, Zambia, Burkina Faso, Uganda and Kenya, our overarching objective for the next five years—the part of food systems we want to focus on—is open-ended. It’s something that as a community we’re going to figure out together.

     To help us get started, I will be creating a series of posts on myEWB to provide an overview of Food Systems with the goal of equipping EWBers with the necessary tools to create change regarding food. The overview won’t include everything, nor will it represent “the EWB view” on food. Instead, I’ve tried to cover a good range of topics that should challenge us to dive into the complexity of food: fair trade, environmental impacts, local food, organic farming, industrial agriculture, food waste, accessibility, and exploring some perspectives from Ghana. I am planning on co-writing this with an EWBer working overseas in agriculture (Kumvana staff, APS, JF, who knows)! I’m hoping to explore some key polarities in each topic.

     I’ll share the posts either every week or bi-weekly. I’ll try to keep them fairly short. If you are interested in contributing to these posts, have questions/comments, or just want to chat about food systems, please contact me at At the end of each post there will be additional resources, a “did you know” section, and a question to provoke some thinking and reflection. Share your comments and thoughts—the idea is to inspire EWBers and to equip ourselves to take meaningful action within food systems.

     One last thing before diving into the first post: I’m also hoping that these posts help get you and your chapters (and my chapter at Western!) ready to engage with the 10 food systems innovations challenge launched at the 2014 national conference. I’m working on a toolkit that builds on these posts and can help chapters get active on campus and in cities across Canada. Stay tuned for more details at regional retreats, on myEWB, and in September!

     The importance of creating a sustainable and resilient food system is undeniable. Food is a big factor in many systems - the economy, climate change, a growing population, poverty, and politics, among many others. On top of being a part of the majority of systems, food is an essential part of every person’s life. People talk about different elements of food security in different ways (see some resources below). I personally really like the five A’s of food security that the Centre for Studies in Food Security at Ryerson describes as a great way to begin to understand the complexity of food systems:

Availability - sufficient food for all people at all times
Accessibility - physical and economic access to food for all at all times
Adequacy - access to food that is nutritious and safe, and produced in environmentally sustainable ways
Acceptability - access to culturally acceptable food, which is produced and obtained in ways that do not compromise people's dignity, self-respect or human rights
Agency -  the policies and processes that enable the achievement of food security

     Availability, accessibility, adequacy, acceptability and agency all cover different aspects of food systems, but it you think about any food issue, it is relevant to at least one of the A’s, and almost always to multiple A’s. It’s helpful to keep them all in mind—including how hard it can be to achieve all of them simultaneously—when looking at doing something in the food system. It’s helpful to keep them all in mind—including how hard it can be to achieve all of them simultaneously—when looking at doing something in the food system. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has them listed slightly differently, including only four pillars. Check them out here if you’re interested in seeing the differences.

     Evan Fraser works at the University of Guelph and he came to talk with EWB in the beginning of April. He spoke about four dominant narratives about food systems:

Science & Technology – we need to increase production to feed a growing population. Science and technology can help us get there
Distribution – we don’t need to produce more, we need to ensure better accessibility to food… this is an issue of equity, accessibility, and distribution, including in times of crisis
Local Food Systems – we need local food sovereignty. We need to empower local producers to produce in sustainable and ethical ways
Regulations – We need policies and regulations that enable sustainable agriculture, including organic agriculture and production methods that are good for the planet

Fraser argues that that we’re not making more progress globally on sustainable agriculture because these narratives are in opposition to each other. He cites the example of “the famine that wasn’t” in Southern Africa in the 1990s in this video, and attributes this triumph to the region incorporating all of the four narratives into a successful response to a major drought. So here’s a great start point for an engaging conversation: can the 5 A’s and the 4 narratives work together? What do we gain or lose when we consider them all or when we focus in on only one or a few.

Additional Resources:
         If you read through all of the resources and still are looking for more, I will be happy to try and help.
10 things to know about food systems
National Food Strategy

Did you know?

  • Between 1940 and 1991 mineral levels in fruits and vegetables fell by up to 76% in the UK, and a similar trend was found in the US1
  • Agriculture is the largest contributor of non-CO2 GHGs and Food Systems as a whole are responsible for 19-29% of GHGs2
  • Agriculture is responsible for 75% of global deforestation2
  • In 2006, only 27% of Canadian households composted but in 20113, 61% of households participated some form of composting4
  • Food that is labelled “Natural” actually does not really mean much. “Organic” requires a certification, “Fairtrade” requires a certification, but “Natural” does not5

Food for thought:
         How can we balance the true cost of food with affordability?

‘Til next time,

Mike Allan

P.S. - There are always more resources if you want them, don’t hesitate to ask or to explore more yourself. I have done a fairly large amount of research, and I am trying to pick out what is most interesting to stimulate each of us to get more curious and to start asking questions about the food around us! Think we should cover additional or different topics? Great, let me know and let’s figure out how to make it happen!


Oxfam. Building a New Agricultural Future, p.3. April, 2014.
2 Vermeulen SJ, Campbell BM, Ingram J SI. 20120. Climate change and food systems. Annual Review of Environmental Resources 37. July 30th, 2012.
Stats Canada. Food in Canada. 2012-12-19.
Mustapha, I. Composting by Households in Canada, p.1. July, 2013.
5 FDA. What is the meaning of natural on food? April 10th, 2014.

Evan Vassallo, Sat 21 Jun 2014 02:04:33 PM EDT

Hi Mike! Good first post. I really like how you introduced the complexity of the global food system so clearly and succinctly.

For those of us who are relatively new to EWB, would you mind sharing those ten food systems innovations launched at conference this year? They aren't easy to find via internet search.

In future posts or in the "chapter toolkit" you're developing, you may want to explore how chapter members can efficiently understand local food systems for the purpose of developing community-level system interventions. While mapping the Greater Montreal food system this summer to develop EWB McGill's Food Systems venture, I've had some difficulty determining on which types of system actors and system actor connections to prioritize my research.

Thanks for your diligent work on this. Looking forward to reading more from you!

Mike Allan, Mon 23 Jun 2014 11:38:55 AM EDT

Hi Evan,

Thank you for your feedback. The 2014 goal for the Food Systems portfolio is to have the network come up with 10 food systems innovations. As it is stated in the 5 Year Direction, sucess would be that by 2015 "we will have identified 10 innovations across Canada that have the potential to change how Canadians relate to their food and the global agricultural landscape." I understand that this is a little ambiguous, but we want to leave it open for peoples' imaginations to run wild. The goal is that through both the toolkit and these posts chapters will at least have an idea of where to start, because currently there seems to be a fair bit of uncertainty. 

In the toolkit there will be a "What is an Innovation" piece to also help clear up any other questions that may be remaining and I'll be providing a few examples as well. I can most definitely provide some guidance on how/what to research in a local food system! I'll be sure to include it in the toolkit. I am hoping to have some action learning items to help with that as well. 

Miriam Hird-Younger, Mon 18 Aug 2014 06:57:54 AM EDT

Thanks so much Mike for continuing this important conversation on articulating EWB`s food systems portfolio and giving chapters and members resources to inform these discussions and ideas for our own actions. 

As an organization centred on systems change for addressing poverty in Africa, we also need to ask ourselves what is the impact of these 5 As and 4 pillars on the average smallholder farmer, the most marginalized farmers, small agribusinesses and development policies? 

Please check out AgEx`s 10 year anniversary booklet. On page 6, we outline three big reasons why investing in food systems in so important for EWB. I think it provides a little more food for this discussion! 


Looking forward to this discussion continuing,



James Thorogood, Thu 18 Jun 2015 05:11:22 PM EDT

Hey Mike!


Just wanted to check in on the status of the chapter toolkits for the food systems portfolio... is there something like this available yet? This is a major area of interest for me personally, and I'd love to integrate it into our chapter in more ways than just Fair Trade. Any workshop materials, texts, or action guides would be hugely appreciated!




Yale Wang, Wed 29 Jul 2015 02:48:10 PM EDT

I also have some background on Food Systems. Please check out my recent post!