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It is not easy to describe systems thinking. After all, the very heart of a systems approach is the opposite of simple: complexity. That is exactly why IATP chooses a systems approach — because in complexity, we find the possibility of transformative change. Beware “win-win” solutions and silver bullets. The simpler the proposed answer, the more likely it is that no one has asked about the inevitable costs.

Although systems thinking is complex, it is not hard to find illustrative examples. One of the systems that dominates IATP work is animal agriculture. Animal agriculture in industrialized countries is a problem. It is a climate problem because the concentration of animals in factory farms generates significant greenhouse gas emissions. It is a market problem because the industry is effectively subsidized by the number of costs it dumps at public expense, such as ineffective or absent environmental regulation to control pollution, weak and poorly enforced agricultural labor laws, and a complete failure to protect competitive markets. Animal agriculture is a political problem, too. The concentration of wealth that is a result of concentrated market power has corrupted public decision-making. Democratic access to setting and implementing public policy has been eroded, a problem exacerbated by the collapse of independent local media. Lastly, animal agriculture is a public health disaster where factory farms have contaminated drinking water, polluted the air and generated a surfeit of poor-quality calories that have undermined nutritional outcomes (and the life expectancy) of those of us living in industrialized countries.

How do we tackle a problem that is so huge? Systems analysis encourages us to understand that these problems are interconnected — they create both vicious and virtuous circles, with the costs and benefits spilling over from one policy arena to another. Power at the decision-making table reinforces regulatory outcomes and the distribution of public investment in ways that favor entrenched interests. At the same time, systems analysis is what offers unexpected solutions. Breaking the relationships that reinforce entrenched power in one area — for example, by enforcing polluter pays models, or creating a seat for rural communities at the decision-making table — can start a process of transformational change that gets to the structures of power, not just at individual symptoms of the larger problem.

Systems thinking is a way to look holistically at how distinct components are related and how, when combined, they create a particular outcome. Systems thinking helps people make sense of complex phenomena. It also helps us to make predictions — under a given set of circumstances, how should we expect the outcomes we care about to change? And if those given circumstances change, what then? A systems approach helps to elucidate what a forecast should consider and how different scenarios might unfold.

Systems are concerned with interactions and with context, including timing. If a trade spat between the U.S. and China prompts a tariff on China’s import of U.S. soybeans, the price effect will depend on other factors that might amplify or muffle the outcome, such as how big a harvest Brazil has (the U.S. and Brazil dominate the supply of soybeans to international markets between them) and how much inventory the major grain traders are holding.  

Why does IATP use systems thinking?

Systems diagrams can appear to lack agency — as if no one was involved in determining outcomes. They may appear to be driven by invisible but inescapable forces like gravity. But this is not a necessary dimension of systems thinking; In fact, coupled with a political analysis, systems thinking creates a potent tool to understand how power works. When assessing a policy proposal, IATP asks: Who will gain from this change? Who will lose? Whose voices were heard in the agenda setting and decision making? How will the policy be implemented, and who will evaluate it? A systems approach is a way to check that we analyze the answers to these questions.   

To understand power dynamics, we have to look beyond what is presented and ask questions about what might be out of sight but important. In the mid-1980s, IATP founder Mark Ritchie had the insight that if farm organizations wanted to understand what was happening on Midwestern farms, and why the government’s response was effectively to let the wave of farm bankruptcies go unchecked, then they would have to study trade policy and understand what those who held power in agricultural markets wanted from trade deals.

What is a food system?

A food system comprises all the elements of what we eat. From the source (a seed, the soil, an animal, a plant) and the inputs they may need, to the harvest, processing, storing and distribution of the food; to the retail, preparation, and consumption of a meal; to the disposal of the resulting waste. All these elements are part of the food system. But the interactions that shape how the systems works and what it delivers are also part of the system. A food system includes the economics, politics, culture and ecology of food.

In 1987, Ritchie published a short history of the farm crisis called Crisis by Design, co-authored with Kevin Ristau. The booklet demonstrates systems thinking in action. The authors briefly explained the history of U.S. farm programs, including the introduction of price support and production volume controls in the 1930s, coupled with soil conservation methods that had been given urgency by the Dust Bowl, which destroyed 100,000,000 acres of U.S. farmland in the 1930s. The booklet describes the agribusiness interests that pushed for the dismantling of those farm policies from the mid-1950s, and the think tanks and researchers who supported them at the expense of the interests of farmers. The dismantling of parity culminated in the wave of bankruptcies and farm foreclosures that marked the 1980s.

In 2021, IATP staff published an online update of that analysis, called Revisiting Crisis by Design: Three Decades of Failed Farm Policy. The publication is a collection of papers that look at technology, climate change, globalization, land tenure, agroecology, financial instruments for commodity trade, corporate concentration, and race, ethnicity and gender. These are all components of the food system where IATP sees the potential — and the necessity — for transformation.