July 30, 2015

Global Agri-Food Systems: Where We've Come from, and Where We Are Going

Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series
By Kelly J. Hodgins, MA Candidate and the University of Guelph and 2015 Next Generation Delegation.
Understanding today’s enormous, globalized food system can be overwhelming. As a student of food systems who has spent her entire life in agriculture, I cannot claim to know half of these complex systems: my comprehension of the global food system is an ongoing, intentional, and iterative endeavour.

Grasping the food system at its global level is arduous, but I have found a useful framework: “global food regimes,” conceptualized by Phillip McMichael and Harriett Friedman. These scholars boldly offer a comprehensive account of the evolution of food systems globally and historically, which helps us to understand American agriculture and the hegemonic role the US and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) play today. McMichael and Friedman’s insights on agriculture, food, trade, and aid, along with my experience as a Next Generation Delegate at The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Food Security Symposium have convinced me that this “food regime” theory provides the best way of understanding where American agriculture has come from and where it is going.
Where We’ve Come from:

Knowing the characteristics of the first food regime helps us understand that American agriculture has always been on a large-scale and primarily driven by capitalism. Since colonization in the early 1800s, farmers in America have been commercial, growing as an extension of the European agriculture system. This gives American agriculture an entirely different historical context than that of Europe and other native agriculture systems that existed for centuries outside the bounds of capitalism. 

After World War II, global food and agriculture systems organized into a new, second food regime. The US became the dominant exporter worldwide and earned its status as the “breadbasket” of the world. The US also dramatically increased exports of food aid, helping “underdeveloped” countries as they emerged from colonial rule. This strategy, however, has sometimes been criticized for undercutting the development of local agricultural economies in those countries.  

At present, food aid from the US and USAID is far more strategic than it was in the years following World War II. The US is more intentional about creating aid programs that promote—not undercut—local agricultural economic development, and that truly do deliver good. The newly released Chicago Council report, Healthy Food for a Healthy World, also provides recommendations for a more positive future, in which the US continues to harness its power and resources to help other nations build capacity and food security. 

Where We Are Going

Today we enter a third major food regime, which is characterized by a coupling of environmental concerns with food. We see manifestations of this new regime blossoming in the rising popularity of organic food, farmers’ markets, debates around nutrition guidelines, and demands for high-level attention to these issues, such as campaigns lobbying the United Nations Framework for Climate Change Convention to incorporate agriculture.  
Like the regimes which preceded it, however, this third regime is developing unevenly. The ways in which “environmental sustainability” are understood vary enormously—a fact highlighted by the numerous perspectives at The Chicago Council’s Symposium. What allows us to grow nutritious food under climatic-stress: family farms choosing to grow using agro-ecological methods, or globally-oriented technologies? Such is the new climate-smart agriculture paradigm.

The key to a food-secure future is determining how to harmonize these different ideas—which all, ultimately, work toward the same end-goal. The next big challenge for the US is to figure out how to best take account of environmental concerns which can no longer be decoupled from food systems, in order to move toward a food-secure globe.

  • “Food Security.” Cargill. Accessed July 28, 2015.
  • Friedmann, Harriet. "The Political Economy of Food: A Global Crisis." New Left Review 197 (1993): 29-57.
  • Greene, Richard. “5 Questions with USAID's Richard Greene on Nutrition and Food Security.” Global Food for Thought, April 24, 2015.
  • “International Symposium on Agroecology for Food Security and Nutrition.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Accessed July 28, 2015.
  • Lee-Gammage, Samuel. “Who Will Win in the Battle over Sustainability in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Science or Special Interests?” Food Climate Research Network. Last modified April 3, 2015.
  • McMichael, Philip. “A Food Regime Genealogy.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 36, no. 1 (2009): 139-169.
  • Zvomuya, Fidelis. “No Agriculture, No Deal.” Food Agriculture and Natural Resources Policy Analysis Network, November 30, 2011.
Read previous posts in the Next Generation Delegation 2015 Commentary Series:  


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA