Fragments of a theory of food systems
Local, regional, and global food systems self-assemble as ecologically-constrained trade networks that convey information, resources, labor, capital, and products. Decade-long trends in technology, energy supply, demand, price, and resource availability have sculpted the current systems and set the stage for future innovations along unknown pathways. Food systems face risks from growing demand, resource depletion, and ultimately geological shocks such as volcanic eruptions at scales of centuries, yet fundamental theory is needed to interpret data, characterize dynamics, gauge risks of failure, and prospect for resilient system designs.
Elaborating a theory of food systems deserves attention from several standpoints. First, there is need for a thermodynamic basis upon which to understand energy flows, both natural and industrial, and how they relate to the economy. Second, reconciliation of intensive and extensive variables through dimensional and part-to-whole analysis reveals constraints and the role of food waste that govern tradeoffs among resources at multiple scales. A theoretical framework can accommodate many needs for maintaining, adapting, and innovating robust food systems in the face of uncertainty across the full range of environmental conditions.