The architecture covers the five thematic areas of diet, nutrition and health; environment and climate; livelihoods, poverty and equity; governance; and resilience and sustainability. Each thematic area is described by several different domains, under which there are specific indicators identified to be tracked.
Thematic Area 1: Diets, nutrition, and health
A healthy diet is “health-promoting and disease-preventing. It provides adequacy without excess of nutrients and health-promoting substances from nutritious foods and avoids the consumption of health-harming substances.” Diet quality is measured at the individual level to characterize individual dietary consumption.
Food security exists when “all people at all times have physical, economic, and social access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”
Food environments encompass availability, affordability, and properties of food (including safety, quality, convenience, and sustainability), as well as food messaging and vendor properties.
Thematic Area 2: Environment, natural resources, and production
Greenhouse gas emissions
Food systems account for 21-37% of total GHG emissions, two-thirds of which come from crop and livestock production, land use, and land use change, and the remainder from processing, transport, and packaging. Specific emissions of concern relevant to food systems are methane from enteric fermentation (in ruminant animals) and rice paddies; carbon dioxide from land use change, transport, and processing; and nitrous oxide from fertilizer application and manures.
Agriculture dominates global land use with approximately 1.5 billion hectares of cropland, of which 30-40% is used to produce feed, and 3.5 billion hectares of grazing land. Together, these lands cover approximately 40% of the world’s ice-free land. Tracking land use change is essential, as it is at the center of many environmental processes. Halting deforestation and land conversion will reduce GHG emissions, improve water cycles, and protect biodiversity; together with restoration, this action has the potential to store 200-330 gigatons of carbon. The concept analogous to land use for aquatic systems is the spatial expanse of inland waters and oceans used for aquatic capture food production.
Water scarcity constrains food systems and human well-being; an estimated 1.2 billion people experience physical water scarcity and another 1.6 billion have insufficiently developed water resources. Food production is responsible for 70-80% of global freshwater “consumptive use”—surface and groundwater removed from the local water cycle—which can drive water scarcity if not locally replenished.
Environmental pollution from food systems can be classified into four major categories: (1) nutrient loss and run-off (e.g., nitrogen, phosphorus) from food production into water bodies, land, and/or air, and soil degradation; (2) novel entities, notably biocides (e.g., pesticides, antibiotics) used in agricultural production systems; (3) particulate air pollution from food systems (e.g., burning residues or land clearing, air pollution caused, to a large degree, from manure and nitrogen fertilizer application); and (4) solid waste across food value chains (e.g., non-degradable plastics, other non-degradable unrecycled materials, excess animal waste not used as fertilizer, food waste of which 95% is estimated to be sent to landfills).
Biosphere integrity is a measure of the quantity and quality of natural systems and resources required to maintain nature’s contributions to people and halt species extinction. Within food production systems, it is nature’s capacity to support food production.
Agricultural productivity measures agricultural outputs per a given quantity of inputs – in other words, it measures the efficiency with which inputs are used to produce agricultural output. The expansion of farmland and the intensification of resource use needed to meet the growing global population’s food demand places a heavy burden on natural ecosystems. Raising the productivity of existing natural resources is thereby considered a critical path to meet food and nutrition security needs of current and future generations.
Thematic Area 3: Livelihoods, poverty, and equity
Poverty and income
Agriculture employs a disproportionate share of the world’s poorest people, and poverty affects workers throughout food systems, across the rural-urban divide, and at all country income levels. Wages in food systems are commonly below minimums established for other sectors, particularly for migrants, women, and other minoritized groups.
Tracking employment quantity and quality is essential to improving equity and livelihoods in food systems. Existing data can capture the scale of primary employment in agriculture, food manufacturing, and food and food-related hospitality services. Coverage is uneven in other food-based jobs, such as trade and transportation, or where it is difficult to capture the contributions of family labor, seasonal fluctuations, and secondary employment.
Universal social protection, i.e., guaranteed minimum access to healthcare, pensions, income or food by vulnerable or low-income citizens regardless of their employment status, is particularly important to support the livelihoods of many food system workers due to the widespread vulnerability and poverty described above. Further, many social protection programs are tied to food, and therefore may play multiple roles in food system transformation.
Ensuring the human rights of all is key to transforming food systems from their current state to one that is equitable. The most basic right in food systems is the right to food, codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas. The rights to water and participation in public affairs have also been codified by the UN. Specific rights that affect the livelihoods of food system workers include land and property rights, especially for women; rights to unionization and collective action; and rights to public space, which are crucial for informal workers.
Thematic Area 4: Governance
Shared vision refers to inclusive, participatory processes to identify priorities and provide guidance on desired outcomes across all the thematic areas of food system transformation. It can be measured by, for example, whether governments establish multi-stakeholder platforms incorporating relevant stakeholders at regular intervals. Where they have been used, such platforms uncover hidden power dynamics and informal relationships that constrain progress. Achieving shared vision also requires redressing power imbalances, which include market competition and asymmetries in influence that different actors hold in negotiations. A growing body of literature measures the level of concentration and market power in global food value chains, highlighting how such concentration of power in the hands of a few corporations has a wide range of negative consequences for food systems.
Strategic planning and policies
Strategic planning and policies must underpin the shared vision, including relevant legal frameworks and multi-sectoral policy documents that holistically address food systems and reconcile trade-offs. The general degree of public sector policy coordination is indicative of the potential to develop well-aligned food system policies.
Effective implementation requires the alignment of strategic planning and policies with state, private sector, and civil society capacities that are supported by sufficient human and financial resources. Governments must allocate relevant human resources—including agricultural extension agents, food safety and quality regulators, cadastral agents, and health providers—to ensure policy actions can be realized. And in more decentralized countries, where autonomy and authority for functions critical to food systems have been devolved to subnational actors, multilevel coordinating bodies are necessary for effective implementation.
Accountability mechanisms use tracking and evaluation to learn what policies work or not, and reward (or sanction) public and private sector actors who deliver on commitments (or fail to). Food system transformation requires so many actors to work coherently toward the shared vision that collective action problems—when all stand to benefit from coordinating for a collective outcome but individual incentives favor acting in one’s self-interest—can emerge, making accountability particularly necessary.
Thematic Area 5: Resilience and sustainability
Exposure to shocks
Assessing food system resilience requires first assessing and documenting the adverse events that can affect those systems. Some events have been mentioned previously: droughts and flooding, but also typhoons/cyclones or natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes). Others include local or regional economic crises, political unrest, pandemics (e.g., avian influenza, COVID-19, war in Ukraine or Myanmar), pest outbreaks (e.g., desert locust, fall armyworm), and protracted crises (including population displacements and migrations). Internationally available country-level data (e.g., International Disaster Database, Global Disaster Information System) capture the nature, frequency, and intensity of the main shocks that affect food systems, thus providing one indicator relevant for food system resilience.
Though issues of resilience measurement are still being debated, the most widespread approach is to measure resilience capacities. These are the features that are expected to make a system or its actors more resilient. Though evidence remains sparse, they are generally accepted to include characteristics such as redundancy, diversity, flexibility, connectivity, anticipation, self-efficacy, or access to insurance or formal credit. A challenge with these indicators however is that they are not monotonic, and that scale of measure must be identified (household, national, global). Lack of connectivity, or hyper connectivity for example can reduce resilience; similarly low redundancy is an important risk, but overly high redundancy reduces efficiency and can conflict with diversity. Potential indicators of resilience capacities include food system actors’ adaptive capacities (e.g., connectivity to information or to markets, social capital), social cohesion, or measures of value chain or trade flexibility, such as the new FAO Dietary Sourcing Flexibility Index that measures the diversity in the different pathways to source a unit of food. From a food system perspective, focusing on resilience capacities has the advantage that proxies can be envisaged at different scales, tailored to available data, and interpreted as a contribution to resilience at the relevant scale. Resilience outcomes are often measured as reduced variability over time, for example, maintaining access to affordable food basket in North Africa despite the Ukraine crisis would be a key outcome indicator of resilience.
Agro- and Food Diversity
There is a large, well-established body of evidence that agrobiodiversity and food diversity play important roles. Agrobiodiversity in and around cropping systems build resilience in crop, livestock, forest, fishery, and aquaculture. Interactions between genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity at different spatial scales maintain stability in the face of increasing occurrence of shocks and stresses, enable adaptation, and support recovery from disturbances. Moreover, agrobiodiversity secures the resilience capabilities of food systems for future generations and yet-unknown shocks. Food diversity underpins healthy diets with most food based dietary guideline recommending a diet that is high in food group diversity.
Not all responses adopted by individuals, communities, or societies to anticipate or mitigate/buffer the impact of shocks and stressors result in positive outcomes, either in the short- or longer-term. For instance, at the household level, it is well documented that certain coping strategies (e.g., distress selling of assets, reduction of expenses or food consumption) can have very detrimental effects on the immediate or long-term wellbeing of households (e.g., nutritional status, food security). These detrimental long-term outcomes can, however, also be observed in the case of adaptive (or even transformative) responses, leading to what is referred in the climate change literature as “maladaptation” (Barnett and O'Neil 2013). What this implies is that, understanding and measuring resilience also requires to document and track these responses as an attempt to strengthen the ability of households and society to choose what they perceive at that time as the “right” response(s), rather than being forced by circumstances or lack of information to pick options which might be detrimental overall. This approach is also in line with the definition of resilience as proposed by Constas et al (2014): “resilience is the capacity that ensures stressors and shocks do not have long-lasting adverse development consequences”.
In line with the point above, if we accept that the ultimate goal of building resilience is not to achieve resilience per se, but rather to improve (or at least, to maintain and protect) long-term individual and collective wellbeing in the face of shocks and stressors, then the indicators used to measure those long-term outcomes should reflect these improvements in human well-being. In the context of food systems many of those improvements will revolve around food security and nutrition. Tracking the stability of the different pillars of food security (food availability, access, and utilization) could therefore be an important element in measuring food system resilience, but it could include other indicators such as the stability in the livelihoods of these involved in food system activities (e.g. protecting informal street vendors jobs following the shut-down of open-air/wet markets during the COVID-19 pandemic). The emphasis, however, should be on measuring (in)stability over time rather than absolute values. In that context, the FAO Price volatility index measuring stability of food access and the per capita food supply variability index measuring stability of food supply availability are two other possible indicators of long-term resilience outcomes.
Food system sustainability index
We propose developing two complementary indices to capture the various elements and relationships of sustainable food systems. The first would aggregate all the indicators in the preceding thematic areas into an all-inclusive, unidimensional composite index. The second would incorporate a parsimonious set of emblematic indicators (still covering all thematic areas). This dual approach aims to balance and benefit from the strengths of each type of index, with comprehensiveness from the first and ease of interpretation from the second. Both indices can build on well-established methodologies already used in international initiatives (e.g., Human Development Index [HDI] and the more recent Planetary Pressures Adjusted-HDI, Global Hunger Index), and recent analysis of food system sustainability, with attention to the need for decomposition to make the data useful and interpretable by policymakers over time.