Modeling the Nation’s Food System

Institute: AIM     July 2015

With over seven billion people living on our planet, how do we ensure a secure food system? How do we manage to produce, harvest, process, transport, sell, and eventually prepare the food we consume and do this better so that over one billion people are not hungry? Food system activities, like those described above comprise a highly complex system, with complicated feedback loops.

To address some of these questions in a mathematically sophisticated way, a unique set of participants met at an AIM workshop in April of 2015, with the goal of forming a research agenda for developing a mathematically-robust conceptual model of the U.S. food system. The participants, led by organizers Mary Lou Zeeman and John Ingram, included experts and stakeholders from different levels of the food system, social scientists, economists, and mathematical modelers.

The focus of the workshop was to begin to understand the overall structure of the food system network, and the relative strengths of inherent feedbacks. Using a participatory process approach, the workshop participants divided into teams, each considering a different specific set of questions or topics. For example, one group considered robust transformative strategies for urban food production, healthy diets, and social capital. Another investigated what currently drives dietary inequality in the US. And another studied how can market systems be designed and implemented so that food prices embody the social and environmental costs of food choices?

As the week progressed, themes emerged to help define a research agenda for the food systems modeling community. One promising technique is hybrid modeling that couples conceptual dynamical systems models, agent based models, and Bayesian uncertainty models. Other aspects of the agenda include making connections and collaborations with food system scientists, urban social scientists and demographers, data and behavioral scientists, and agri-economists to capture the data required. On-line gaming simulation for food systems modeling might prove useful to help understand the logic of how human decision makers evaluate trade-offs that occur throughout the value chains of the food system.

Efforts are already underway to extend this important work into the future with news articles, student projects, and additional meetings. The goal is to interest and engage enough of the scientific and mathematical community to make a real difference in tackling one of the most crucial problems of our planet.