The Food System - Concept, Aims and Application Potential in Vietnam

The Food System - Concept, Aims and Application Potential in Vietnam

Published: 2021.05.21
Accepted: 2021.05.19
Université Bourgogne Franche Comté, France
Vice President
Vietnam Academy of Agriculture Sciences (VAAS).


This paper reviews the scientific literature over the concept of food system. The food system is built from 4 components: farming; food processing; food distribution and consumption. The market of agro-food products is not perfect. A systemic approach allows to observe its failures. In particular, two most preoccupying problems when food operators pursue their own interest are bad impacts of food on public health, and the climate change that goes with the destruction of our ecosystem. Changing the food system to deal with the problems while ensuring food security is a challenge of many countries in the future. In Vietnam, the food system approach should become a priority because of three issues: (1) the maintenance of food security, (2) the assurance of food safety, and (3) with the adaption to climate change. But the scope of research on the issues is still modest. Connecting researchers and databases to handle the problem nationally is an objective.

Keywords: climate change, food security, food system, nutritional security


In recent years, the food system concept has been mentioned in many studies in the fields of agriculture, food, and the environment. This concept is present in scientific reports, as well as the action program of NGOs, and is used by many international organizations when advising on policy. Large volumes of documents outline the problems of the Modern Food System. The two biggest problems are the effects of food on health (HLPE, 2017), and the effects of the production - processing - consumption of agricultural foods on the environment (Ingram, 2011).  Even though the effects on health have been known for a long time, the adverse effects of the food system on the environment have only been mentioned since the late 20th century. Now facing existential threats from climate change, many countries around the world are supporting new agricultural policies to gradually replace unsustainable specialized farming practices with organic agriculture (Badgley et al., 2007)⁠ or ecological agriculture (Altieri, 1983).

For Vietnam and many other developing countries, food security is considered the primary concern. Ensuring nutrition for the people is still the first criterion for a government policy. However, it is important to recognize that food security does not just mean quantity assurance such as the calories per capita; but also quality assurance (safe food, rich in micronutrients and nutrients), and towards long-term sustainability (farmers have a living income, guaranteed environmental quality). According to United Nations, food security is defined by four dimensions: (1) food availability; (2) access; (3) utilization; and (4) stability. That is, to some extent, in order to aim for sustainable development, it is necessary to consider whether it is possible to produce less at a sufficient level, but by means of improving product quality and safety, and being more environmentally friendly. If it does, it will ensure more long-term benefits for the country. The approach through the food system concept opens new directions to this problem.

From a macro perspective, in the market economy, economic sectors engaged in the production and supply of food is dominated by the law of profitability. Therefore, issues related to common interests such as food safety, consumer health, or ecological environment, are not considered concerns of private sector. It is one of the four types of market failure (Bator, 1958) ⁠for situations where the invisible hand rule of the market network became less effective. In this case, the state needs to intervene to remedy it. The overview approach in the form of a system allows the state to have an overview, and to have appropriate policies to deal with shortcomings of the agricultural and food market.  

How should the Food System concept be understood? What problems does the world use this concept to solve? Whether grasping the food system help us overcome the shortcomings of Vietnam's agricultural and food market – such as unsafe food or adverse environmental impact – or not? This article sums up scientific literature on this topic to answer the above questions. The main purpose of the article is to give Vietnamese readers a concept that opens up a new research direction, which can become the policy foundation for important issues of the country such as improving people's health and food regime, and combating climate change.


Research subject

The paper overviewed studies published in the world and in Vietnam related to the Food System.

Research method

The article applied the method of specialized research at the table.

Time and place

The research was conducted from March to August 2020.


Concept and history

The food system is not a new concept. It has been mentioned since the late 1950s, but it was not widely used until the late 1990s and early 2000s. One of the most important references is the book of Davis and Goldberg, Harvard University, published in 1957 called “An agribusiness concept” (Davis and Goldberg, 1957). In this book, the first time authors showed the relationship between agriculture and other sectors of the economy, especially with the agricultural input industry, the food processing industry, and trade & distribution industries. Through the US economic data, presented in the Leontief matrix, the authors showed why the agricultural & food sector was not an independent market. In contrast, it was an area where agriculture is interlinked, dependent on both inputs and outputs. The overall observation showed that farmers' profits were gradually decreasing because they were lost by input and output companies. The concept of "Agri-food system" was used to cover the entire process of producing and distributing agricultural products to supermarkets and consumers. It showed the shift of the value-added distribution in the chain.

A lot of big questions were asked after that. Davis and Goldberg's findings showed that if large firms emerged in these areas, it could be able to "regulate" agricultural production, and indeed it did. For example, a large pesticide and seedling company have also the procurement, processing and distribution of agricultural products from client farms. In this case, the company will control both the production materials and the farmer's products. Examples are animal feed and meat companies that are part of a multidisciplinary business group. When these cases happen, the group will "regulate" the agricultural market because they hold the variables both in the inputs and outputs of the farmers. The biggest question to be asked here is what mechanism must be used to re-establish a fairer distribution to the farmer? And how do we avoid large businesses from using strategies to gradually control the whole market that leads to monopoly?

The concept of agri-food system is quickly adopted by many other authors when advising policies to governments. The name agro-food system is shortened to a food system. Malassis (1996) ⁠ defined it as follows: "A food system is a way by which people organize themselves to produce and consume food." It includes the following stages: (1) farm production; (2) preliminary processing of agricultural produce to food; (3) distribution of food; and (4) food consumption. The majority of these authors used the concept with political economic implications, that there needs to be a regulation of the agricultural and food market from the State. If the State is absent, large enterprises will actively regulate as they like. In addition, the concept is also used to show the organic relationship between the fields of materials with the steps of field production, preliminary processing, distribution and consumption of food. Because agricultural products are characterized by weather-dependent production with many risks, and the finished product needs to be consumed immediately, it cannot be stored for a long time. It is very important to ensure continuity between stages. If just one stage is interrupted, it will face the risk of product spoiling, rotting, leading to price falls, or even loss. In a way, it is understandable why large companies seek to acquire many steps before and after field production. This allows to ensure a seamless process between stages, minimizing risks, thanks to the consistent strategy of a single company.

Although the concept is defined quite clearly, the application of the concept into practice has many variations. On the one hand, there is a certain relationship among economic actors, not a chaotic competitive collection as pointed out above. On the other hand, this is not a completely coherent whole. Economic actors are linked only through framework contractual commitments, and still have certain freedoms. Farmers can still change purchasing companies if the benefits are not guaranteed. Processing enterprises can also change the input supply if the quality is unstable. State intervention in the system therefore has to depend on actual circumstances. Too much intervention kills the creativity and dynamism of the private sector. Insufficient intervention will be "displaced" by big businesses, causing damage to the community.

Food system and sustainability goals

  • Effects on environment and health

In the early 21st  century, the issue of monopoly and farmer rights in the food system had to give way to another problem at a global level: climate change. Scientists say this will be the biggest problem that humankind faces right now. The earth heats up due to human-introduced emissions causing greenhouse effect. The main component of the exhaust layer is CO2, produced by humans burning petroleum-derived organic compounds to serve energy needs. Chandler et al., (2010) offered the prospect of the global surface warming from 4 - 6oC by year 2100 if we continue to maintain the current high level of emissions into the environment. Natural resources, land, water, ecology will be seriously affected. The continental area will decrease as sea levels rise when ice melts. Depleted water resources and existing ecosystems will be destroyed in many areas.

If a large portion of the effects of climate change comes from industrial activity, it is necessary to see agriculture as co-perpetrators, to a lesser extent. It is estimated that agriculture and the food system contribute significantly to this process (Weber and Matthews, 2008). Why does agriculture contribute to climate change? First of all, intensive agriculture uses a lot of petroleum-derived inorganic fertilizers. Urea nitrogenous fertilizer is a petroleum extract product that is used for rapid crop growth. Since matter is neither self-produced nor lost, the carbon contained in inorganic fertilizers is absorbed by plants and animals, and then released into the environment when humans consume these agricultural products (food, or preparation such as bio-gasoline). According to this cycle, carbon inherent in the ground is converted during agricultural production, and ends up in the atmosphere as CO2, causing the greenhouse effect.

In parallel with the generation of emissions, specialized agriculture converts nitrogen from inorganic nitrogen fertilizers into nitric acid and nitrate salts and releases them to the environment. In high concentrations, these compounds cause pollution that destroys ecosystems in the soil and in water sources. It was the need for fast growing crops and animals to indirectly cause this. At the same time, specialized production also comes with the use of chemical drugs such as pesticides, herbicides, etc. In 1962, Carson warned that DDT herbicides kill all microorganisms, insects on and in the ground in America in Quiet Spring (Carson, 1962). Bird population shrinked quickly in the following year of pesticide spread is due to quickly accumulated toxin in bird via food chain. Meanwhile, residues of drugs on agricultural products go into the human body when we eat processed foods from agricultural products. In 2015, research by Inger et al. (2015) ⁠confirmed what Carson said in the US using European data: the number of birds in European fields decreased by a third from 25 years ago. Meanwhile Hallmann et al. (2017)⁠ reported that 75% of the insects in European farmlands disappeared. The quiet bird-quiet springtime is no longer a completely fictional future. Residues of the herbicide glyphosate were also found in many supermarket foods, and ultimately in the urine of those studied. Since then, there have been countless questions about these substances on health (Myers et al., 2016).⁠

Finally, the modern food system aims to guarantee calories per capita at a low cost. Food is mass-produced so that the poor can also easily buy it. Statistics on the level of spending on food on the total family income in developed countries are constantly decreasing. In France in 2015, a family spent an average of 14% of its total income buying food, while 30 years ago it was 30%. This would be ideal if this was not inversely proportional to diet-related diseases; that is, the number of people with the disease increases over time. The three main diseases of people in developed countries such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases are believed to be directly related to processed foods, containing a lot of salt, sugar and fat. A report by the United Nations Senior Expert Group (HLPE, 2017) confirmed the link between the food system and the aforementioned diseases. The question is whether we can have a system that enables mass production of healthy, even a little more expensive, food to avoid disease.

  • Food system - the key to understanding the great and lasting effects

Spatially, with the growth of international trade, a country's food system is increasingly dependent on supplies located far away in another. As for the time, pollution or health effects are only discovered after many years, so it is difficult to establish a causal relationship. However, along with access through food systems, and thanks to the connection of large databases, science has clearly outlined these connections. According to Ingram (2011), it is necessary to connect the concept of the Food System with its effects in many aspects: production, processing and packaging, distribution and retail, consumption.

 The central consequence group is food security, including ensuring food in terms of quantity, quality, safety, and stability for humans. In parallel, there are two groups of environmental and social consequences. In particular, the social consequences group includes incomes and livelihoods for farmers, ensuring social welfare and allowing the construction of social capital sources, or human capital. The group of environmental consequences relates to ecosystems, the benefits that ecosystems bring to humans and natural capital.

This entire association is then placed in a new observation frame (Figure 1). The food system interacts with macroscopic variables: one is global environmental conditions, and the other is socio-economic conditions. Figure 1 describes the consequences of the food system. Here among the three groups affected by the above consequences (food security, environment, and socio-economic), there are trade-off interactions. This means that changing the food system toward one goal in one group could lead to further departure from another. For example, if we aim a lot towards environmental goals, we have to trade off economic goals, or vice versa. What needs to be done is to develop a policy towards balance between groups.

The concept of sustainable food systems quickly prevailed in the context of the United Nations setting sustainable development goals - SDG (UN, 2015). As mentioned above, the sustainability of the system does not lie in achieving all the goals, but in finding a balance between one goal and another, so that future generations can continue to live and use today's resources.

The whole logic above implies that the concept of the food system itself is not a goal that must be achieved at all costs, but is just a tool that helps to succeed the SDGs. The concept of sustainable development itself is not invariant, but depends on the local context, geography and time. Among countries, the understanding of a sustainable food system is not necessarily the same. The definition of a sustainable system is therefore highly dependent on the country's priority goals, and will change as the country changes its priorities. The Food System approach has a primary role as a monitoring system, towards the SDG goals, objectives and indicators. Building a system becomes a goal only when it is integrated with the UN Sustainability Goals (SDGs) (CIAT and NIN, 2018).

For a simpler understanding, it is important to see that the food system is both the cause and the solution to the problems mentioned above. Related to climate change; agriculture is the culprit, but changing farming methods is the solution to the ecological environment problem. Food crops, even short-term crops, also contribute to the uptake of CO2 through photosynthesis. If there is a smart model – for example through eco-agriculture - we will be able to ensure food security and livelihoods for the people on the one hand, and on the other hand maintain CO2 levels by using only carbon sources which are available on the ground instead of taking underground sources into the atmosphere. After that, the effects of the entire system can be changed, if there is research on sustainable diets and agriculture that ensure nutrition. If consumers aim to use local, organic, environmentally friendly products, then the pressure on production will decrease and the impact of the whole system on the environment will also decrease.

Food system in Vietnam

Research on Vietnam's food system is still very few because the concept is new and requires an interdisciplinary approach with the participation of many scientists in different fields such as economics, agronomy, environment, etc. together to supplement research, which is not simple. Recent International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) research has shown that the challenges facing the Vietnamese food system are that although good agricultural growth and rapid growth in agricultural exports, the problem of child malnutrition remains high. High food safety issues are not well controlled, the rate of food loss in the value chain is high, the ability to tolerate the impacts of climate change is weak, and the information about the food system is lacking (CIAT and NIN, 2018). The major challenges related to sustainable development will drive research and policy-making in Vietnam to use a food system approach through the following research directions:

  • Access to the Food System is at the heart of the Zero Hunger Action Program in Vietnam: Food and Nutrition Security Strategy

In recent years, Vietnam has achieved many achievements in food security, but nutrition issues still face many challenges, especially the high rate of malnourished children in some rural areas. The National Plan of Action No Hunger to 2025 (2018) with the overall goal to ensure enough food and nutrition for people to improve the physical and intellectual stature of Vietnamese people have adopted the food system approach to contribute to the implementation of the strategy to ensure national food security until 2030. The main contents of the program are: (1) Having enough food for households to ensure nutrition all year round; (2) Reducing malnutrition in children under two years of age; (3) Developing a sustainable food system; (4) Increasing productivity and income; and (5) Striving to no longer lose or waste food. The National Program of Action No Hunger to 2025 uses the Food Security and Nutrition system approach to promote interdisciplinary cooperation, especially in Agriculture and Health to address nutrition, children, in poor and difficult areas. The solution orientation is to focus on developing agricultural model to ensure nutrition in poor communes and difficult areas, ensuring livelihoods for people.

  • Food safety and sustainable agricultural value chains

Over the past years, Vietnam has made great progress in food safety management with the introduction of the 2010 Law on Food Safety and many policies on food safety management to implement the Law and have contributed to improving safety.  The Law on Food Safety 2010 has regulated the chain of food safety management from farm to table, but when implemented in practice, there are still many confusions (Pham Hai Vu and Dao The Anh, 2016). At present, the low operational efficiency and competitiveness of agricultural value chains are due to high transaction costs, lack of close linkages between actors, and outdated post-harvest and processing technologies. Therefore, the actors in the chain have not applied scientific and technological advances and regulations on ensuring food safety in production. Meanwhile, food safety remains a hot topic (World Bank, 2017). Improving the system to ensure food safety is the desire of many people. Vietnam's characteristic is small business and production entities that, the state does not have absolute management and control. Due to the lack of understanding of the organization of the food system, although the Law on Food Safety has mentioned the traceability of routes, it is practically impossible to implement (Pham and Dinh, 2020) ⁠.

Research on the safe agro-food value chain management model and policies promoting the sustainable development of chains is a solution. The value chain is an integral part of the Food System. This model has been supported by the State through Decree 98/2018/ND-CP of the Government, both ensuring output for products and ensuring food safety of products in the chain. However, the implementation of the policy still has many problems. Therefore, it is necessary to apply the value chain approach along with reviewing the sustainable development policies of the chains (Dao The Anh, 2020). As this is an important point, we present more clearly the concept of the agro-food value chain below.

According to the International Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the safe agricultural food value chain is organized and managed to ensure food safety and quality of food at all stages of the chain. Modern management model has been specified in international food safety laws as well as the 2010 Law on Food Safety of Vietnam which is a management approach from farm to dining table. The basic logic here is that food safety risks can occur at all stages of the food route going from the farm to the consumer, so the risk management must be aware of all the actors present along the way, i.e. value chain management. The model of safe management of the food value chain helps production and business establishments increase output, value and build brands, and improve their competitiveness. On the State side, it also helps to find out the stage where there are food safety violations through traceability, allowing the right person to be handled in a timely manner.

In Vietnam, the proposed institutional model for the safe management of the food chain through the food system approach is composed of three main groups of actors: value chain actors, governement agencies and public or private value chain services. The group of value chain actors such as input suppliers, production agents, purchasing, preliminary processing, processing, transporting agents (wholesalers, retailer) and consumers. They share the same implementation of state regulations and market (processing, consumer) requirements on food safety. They build production, processing and trading systems that meet state standards and voluntary food safety standards, certified by a third-party certification organization or a participating certification. This is also a group that has a strong technology application, such as using electronic traceability on websites using QR codes in accordance with GS1 international information standards, or on digital platforms such as blockchain.

In addition to the principle of promoting voluntary, the group of goverment agencies also needs to perform the role of inspection and supervision of compliance with standards, based on risk assessment of safety monitoring and final product analysis. However, the State may directly perform, or authorize through contracts, some private organizations. For example, the control of food safety quality certification bodies in Japan through The Food and Agricultural Materials Inspection Center (FAMIC).

Group of private actors and public services are providing chain support services such as third-party certification organizations or private sector communities, regulators, research agencies, .... Service delivery organizations include certification bodies. Third-party certification organizations have the role of issuing certificates of food safety standards (GAPs, GMP, HACCP, ISO, Organic, etc.) to manufacturers, processors and traders of food safety products as well as inspect, monitor and analyze the regulatory compliance of their food safety standards.  Private sector can be service providers such as risk assessment, traceability services, food safety analysis, and cold logistics services.

In general, the model of managing the value chain of safe food agricultural products is an application of access to food systems, feasible in the condition of small-scale owners. The dissemination of this management model will reduce the state's pressure on food safety assurance and more effective food safety management.

  • Climate change adaptation: Food systems and ecological agriculture

According to recent calculations, climate change will have a devastating impact on Vietnam (Kulp and Strauss, 2019). A large portion of the Mekong Delta area from Ho Chi Minh City to Ca Mau cape is projected to be 1m below sea level by the end of 2050 (New York Time, 2019). Not only will the mangrove land be unable to cultivate agriculture, but also more than 20 million people will lose their homes and jobs. Although this is only a calculation model, but with the dramatic changes in climate situation in the world, it can be seen that Vietnam will suffer heavy consequences in the next 30 years.

Meanwhile, the food system in Vietnam has transformed rapidly and its impact on the environment is enormous. The local intensification of agriculture has resulted in deforestation, water pollution, reduced soil health, soil erosion and regional landscape degradation. At the national level, it has resulted in a lack of trust in food safety and has fostered modernization that neglects small business or traditional markets. The global impact of the Vietnamese food system is also notable as it both exports and imports. In this context, the assessment of the impact of the food system on the environment is essential, and the issue of food security is of utmost importance. But currently there is not a comprehensive study that allows calculating the effect of the whole system. In the future, this is definitely a research direction that should be prioritized.

  • The future of Food System research

Currently, research on the Food System in Vietnam is still at the beginning stage. Overview information about the System can show the lack of quantitative results, and basically lack of data. But step by step, the studies at small level, with geographic scale of city, province and district, are conducted sporadically by different research groups. The major future challenge is to connect these research groups, and existing databases, to advance a national, and even regional, perspective. Among the studies, two examples of ongoing projects can be found. One is research on the food system of cities. The second is the project to build a food system profile for the product. Both projects have reported preliminary results in this issue.

The City Food System Research Project (Food2C) explores the practical conditions of vegetable production and distribution to urban residents in Hanoi and Hue. Through field surveys at all production - distribution levels in the value chain, the aim is to estimate the total vegetable consumption demand of the city, the amount of vegetables transported through distribution channels, local amount of vegetables and origin of non-local vegetables. The ultimate goal is to capture the food system in a quantity, so that it can be measured by indicators through greens products. Distribution channels include both traditional market systems and modern distribution channels such as supermarkets, clean food stores.

The Food System Profile for Products Research Project (CIAT and NIN, 2018) provides an overview of the main results of the food system, constituent elements and motivational factors. The research takes into account all aspects of diet, nutrition and health, socio-economic and environmental of residents. Through a set of indicators that highlight key challenges and provide a base line for measurement, the profile allows to track future system changes. Recent studies by CIAT in Vietnam have focused on developing a Food System Profile of Moc Chau district (Son La), Dong Anh district and Cau Giay district (Hanoi) to propose activities and key development of diets and sustainable food systems (CIAT, 2020).

In addition to the above two studies introduced in an illustrative way, solutions related to ecological agriculture are also being researched in cooperation with international organizations. Vietnamese agriculture is intertwined between intensive agricultural models that are highly dependent on chemical materials and capital, and new eco-agricultural systems, less dependent on chemical materials, but on environmentally and socially sustainable practice (e.g. conservation agriculture, agroforestry and crop diversification, integrated crop and livestock systems, organic farming). Traditional agricultural intensification is leading to the simplification of agricultural landscapes, degradation of land and biodiversity, and increased health risks for farmers and consumers. Agricultural productivity and profits are increasingly vulnerable to climate change.

Ecological agriculture practices have been developed to respond to these challenges. The main challenge is how to support the transition from a specialized farming model, to a diverse production model with increasingly diverse connections to export markets, domestic value chains and food systems. Eco-agriculture will solve important problems such as soil fertility and biodiversity decline, water scarcity or increased biological restrictions on farming and livestock. These are also appropriate and effective ways to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), enhance agricultural biodiversity, improve farmers' resilience, and pre-climate change production systems (CIRAD, 2020).


The food system is an increasingly commonly used interdisciplinary approach in the world to answer the challenges to sustainable development in the face of climate change, market fluctuations and disease effects. The two biggest issues in the world that the food system is expected to address are climate change and people's health. In Vietnam, this is a new approach, but there are many prospects to open up integrated research directions related to food security, nutrition security, food safety value chains, food system development and sustainable organic agriculture transformation, and adapting to climate change. Applied studies of access to food systems can study the overall or individual constituent components of the system such as technology, environment and socio-economics.


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