Geoff Tansey

The food system - An overview


The five main sections of this half hour talk - the first to be developed for the virtual academy on transforming our food systems - cover the basics of the food system, the various actors operating in it, the changing world and key trends, the varying tools for control used, food policy and practice.

"Building upon The Food System: A Guide--which Tansey co-authored with Tony Worsley in 1995--this video provides a succinct overview of food in our world today, critically analysing the dynamics of our global food system and identifying key issues for discussion. The video will be an invaluable tool for educators wishing to prompt reflection and debate among students and to foster the kinds of debate necessary to reshaping the future of food." says Harry G. West, Professor of Anthropology and Chair of the Food Studies Centre,SOAS, University of London.

These issues are covered in more depth in the book, which is still a 'an indispensable reference point for students of food policy", says David Barling, Reader in Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, City University, London. The running order for the video is given below.

Please respond to a 60 sec survery after watching - Click here to take survey

Running order:

Introduction: 0 - 49 seconds

The basics: 49 sec - 5 minutes 32 sec

Key actors: 5 min 32 sec - 11 min 50 sec

A changing world: 11 min 50 sec - 15 min 55 sec

Tools for control: 15 min 55 sec - 25 min 59 sec

Food policy and practice: 25 min 59 sec - end (31min 38 sec)

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This video is a public good, open education resource that is unrestricted in non-commercial use (for commercial purposes or in commercial organisations permission is needed). If in doubt please contact me. Please respond to the survey as this feedback will help in taking this 'virtual academy' work further. Suggestions for further materials to be linked to this page or added to this series are also welcome. If you want to arrange for follow-up discussions with me via the internet – over Skype or some other service - after using the talk in a class, please contact me.

Further reading

There are huge numbers of books and papers about the many aspects of the food system. A few books that give a broad overview of the food system or key aspects of it since publication of The Food System – A Guide, include:

Daniel Charles, Lords of the Harvest – Biotech, Big Money, and the Future of Food, Perseus publishing, Cambridge Mass, 2001.

Jennifer Clapp, Food, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2012

Evan DG Fraser and Andrew Rimas, Empires of Food – Feast, Famine and the Rise and Fall of Civilisations, Random House, London, 2010.

Wenohan Hauter, Foodopoly – The Battle over the Future of Food and Farming in America, The New Press, New York, 2012.

Tim Lang and Michael Heasman, Food Wars – The Global Battle for Amounts, Minds and Markets, Earthscan, London, 2004.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics – How The Food Industry Influences Nutrition And Health, University of California press, 2003, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2003.

Raj Patel, Stuffed and Stuffed – Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for the World's Food System, Portobello, London, 2007.

Colin Tudge, So Shall We Reap – What's Gone Wrong with the World's Food – and How To Fix It, Penguin, London, 2003.

One out of print book well worth seeking out is:
Dan Morgan, Merchants of Grain – The Power and Profits of the Five Giant Companies at the Centre of the World's Food Supply, Viking press, New York, 1979.

For a more recent overviews of economic concentration across the food system see the work of the ETC group, notably “Putting the Cartel before the Horse...and Farm, Seeds, Soil and Peasants etc: Who Will Control the Agricultural Inputs? The State of Corporate Concentration, 2013”


There are also huge numbers of website of relevance, here's just a couple to start with.

Food First is the better known name for The Institute for Food and Development Policy based in Oakland, California, USA, which works to end the injustices that cause hunger through research, education and action.

The UK Food Group (UKFG) is the leading UK network for non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on global food and agriculture issues. Its vision is a world in which hunger has been banished by food security.




A first version of this video was shown at a workshop at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on 18 April 2013 with potential prime users. Feedback from there and others who saw the first version helped in production of a pilot version that was uploaded in July 2013. That version has been viewed by several hundred viewers and used in a number of courses. I have taken part in Skype Q&A's with students in Canada, Denmark and the UK following these uses. This version has been re-edited to fit the format developed for the 'vitural academy' on transforming our food systems, on which I am currently working. It and the other talks will be hosted on a dedicated site in due course.

Comments and feedback

From the pilot workshop:

"I would use this for the online course I am teaching at St. Lawrence College in Ontario, Canada. I would use this in classrooms as well."

"I teach a second-year undergraduate course on food and culture.  This is a great video to demonstrate the complexity of the food systems. I will certainly use it on a reading list.  It will be required viewing."

"This video hits the right balance – being both a comprehensive yet concise introduction to the global dynamics and complexities of food systems, that would serve as a fine base for upper-level undergraduate or introductory graduate-level courses. While particularly appropriate for courses focused on food and food systems, this video would also be fantastic as a synopsis of food systems in a course looking at environmental / resource governance, or questions of ‘sustainability’ more broadly"

From users of the July 2013 edit in Canada, Denmark and the UK:

"I teach our 2nd semester Integrated Food Studies MSc at Aalborg University Copenhagen course on food governance. I use the virtual academy's "Food Systems – an overview" as an introduction to our course. The video is a great introduction to what we mean by food systems and why we need to think in systems. Because the course mainly centers around governance – so the lecture’s finale on tools for control is highly pertinent and a great point of entry for our discussions on food governance. Looking forward to seeing the virtual academy developed." Robert Pederson, Research Fellow.

Students who took part with a Skype Q&A with me after watching the video in their Global Food Systems (GES362) 3rd yr undergraduate course at Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada:

Susan Turner: "It is a rare opportunity to connect with an individual  whose works we are reading (or viewing) and discussing. I appreciated the chance to formulate questions and responses to your talk Your openness to engage with us by connecting over Skype, responding to our questions, asking us a few questions, and seeking our feedback was refreshing and appreciated... "
Lisa Cressman: "Being able to hear from Geoff live was quite beneficial and something I have not experienced in other classes. It was interesting to have a talk from him that was catered to our group, as it was our questions he was answering... Overall, I thought it was a beneficial experience and a method that could be used in the future!"
Samantha Davies: "I would say that this type of communication between the class room and an author is incredible! By having a personal conversation via skype makes the readings more interesting and come to life, and being able to ask questions is even more effective coming from the author themselves."

"Thank you very much for the skype linkup with the 'Taste of War: The Role of Food in Human Conflict' cohort at Liverpool Hope University. The students found the session genuinely engaging and many remarked that it was 'the best' and 'most interactive' means of engaging with an author / text that they had ever experienced at university." Dr Bryce Evans, Lecturer in History, Liverpool Hope University, UK