Efficiency or Effectiveness: How to achieve a sustainable food system

I was on a walk with my Dad a few months ago and, as we waded through marshes and clambered over mossy logs, we questioned the role of game theory in sustainable food systems. With burgeoning resource, health and climate challenges, we are in dire need of a sustainable path to follow both as individuals and as part of a global food system. My question was how can actors make individual actions for personal desire/want along with maximising the overall sustainability of the (capitalist) food system?

Which decision to make?
Source: davidduke.com

Game theory, very simply put, is the study of decision making. It helps to understand how actors – or ‘intelligent, rational decision makers’ – within a system cooperate and conflict  (Myerson, 1991). If one actor gains and the other loses, there are equivalent ‘pay offs’ to help create equilibrium. These pay offs are related to utility – i.e. the level of satisfaction and desire for a good or service. When looking at capitalist systems, utility is often in monetary terms and a willingness to pay, but can also be related to social norms such as what is right and wrong. Overall, it is down to efficiency and how the decisions of individual actors can help maximise the outputs (satisfaction, well being) and stability of a wider system.

The problem in the capitalist food system is that, by defining utility by efficiency, it dismisses the fact that the decisions actors make now will have longer term impacts or lag effects. We can relate this to sustainable development and the importance of making decisions that maximise the wellbeing and satisfaction of both present and future generations. A very obvious example is resource use: if we choose to act in a food system that intensively uses resources such as land, water and energy now, this will have adverse impacts on their continued availability and access, and the resultant wellbeing of future generations. However, by adopting a short-term view, we are often blind (or choose to be blind) to these longer term considerations when making decisions about what foods to produce and consume.

Furthermore, it assumes that every actor will make a rational decision, based mainly on monetary terms (after all, food is seen as a ‘commodity’). This is clearly not the case: take choosing what to eat as an example, which can also be influenced by emotions, your social surroundings, values and tastes. While these are not futile, they are not easily measured or quantified, and so can be called ‘gut feelings’ or irrational decisions.

With all this in mind, my initial reaction was ‘Let us just scrap the system all together and build a new one’. A radical, grassroots view. However, honestly, I do not think this is feasible. A transformative change is needed, but perhaps there is a way of doing so without utterly shattering the old. Suddenly a lightbulb went on: Why do we have to adopt a new system all together when we could just redefine utility? This way, individual actors could still make decisions for personal gain, but these feed into a global utility maximisation that is not defined by short-term efficiency but by effectiveness. 

To me, effectiveness is not simply about the relationship between inputs and outputs in a very short term ‘optimal’ sense, but a more holistic idea of ‘wants and desires’ that focuses more on the longer term outcomes and sustainability.

I then forgot all about this conversation until a few days ago, when an email pinged through titled: ‘New FCRN Paper: Lean, Mean, Green, Obscene..? What is efficiency? And is it sustainable?’ 

Greedily, I read through the 50+ pages and found that, just like my own little brainwave, similar conclusions had been reached. The Food Climate Resource Network paper started to unpick the claim that ‘food systems need to become more efficient’; a common narrative in light of ‘feeding the world by 2050’.

Tara Garnett and colleagues questioned what efficiency meant in relation to animal production and consumption. They found that, even within the same ‘global food system’, individual actors or institutions had contesting ideas as to what efficiency meant. This included: a) all animal production and consumption is inefficient (and immoral), therefore we should be vegetarian or vegan; b) pasture-fed, smallscale livestock production is efficient as it works with the land, giving you a ‘free lunch’; and c) intensive economies of scale are most efficient as they use less feed, less land, less labour for more output (‘crop per drop’). Overall, each have different hierarchies of value, understandings of what ‘utility’ is (profit, yield, livelihoods, socio-ethical welfare…), and as the paper aptly concludes: ‘efficiency [itself] has become intellectually, morally and aesthetically loaded’. 

livestock cow
Which livestock path to take? Which is most efficient? Is this sustainable?
Source: en.wikipedia.org

With this in mind, my question is how can an actor even make a ‘rational decision’ towards an efficient and stable food system? Not only are the decisions we make not as rational as we believe, but the output (efficiency) itself is politically loaded and biased. It is an illusion of efficiency, not a reality.

If we truly want stability (cooperation rather than conflict) in our food system, it is much more sustainable to start making decisions based on effectiveness – effectiveness of health, resources, economics, society, environment…

The FCRN paper does not define effectiveness, but suggests it is simply focusing on the outcome we all want, rather than the means to get there. Not only does this enable a longer-term view of food systems and our actions within it, but by “shifting the emphasis onto ends rather than means, [it] enables us to talk openly about our values. These are the ‘soft’ [often ‘irrational’] issues that are too rarely discussed openly even though they underpin so many of the disagreements we have”. 

I’m really looking forward to what will come of this paper, and hope that it sparks a debate and research in this area. In the mean time, I urge you all to read the full paper – not only for it’s underlying message, but also its content in relation to animal production and consumption.

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