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Exploring Boundaries in Food Systems Research: Implications for Projects on UK Food Security

Helfgott, Ariella; Midgley, Gerald


Ariella Helfgott


Executive Summary

This report describes the Global Food Security (GFS) Boundaries Project, which represents the first systematic attempt to apply critical systems thinking and practice to a food systems research programme (as opposed to a single food system project). The focus was the Global Food Security – Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context (GFS-FRS) Research Programme, made up of 13 projects looking at different aspects of the UK food system.

The GFS Boundaries Project conducted reflection on boundary judgements within and across the 13 projects in order to support the systemic practice in those projects; situate them in relation to one another; and provide a means to make sense of the various conclusions and recommendations for action generated through the programme. The boundary reflection methodology used in the project drew on both Critical Systems Heuristics (CSH) (Ulrich 1983, 1987) and Systemic Intervention (Midgley 2000a). The findings from the research, which are being reported before the 13 projects have all concluded, can be summarised as follows:

Each of the 13 projects takes a distinct lens on the resilience of the UK food system. Though there are overlapping elements, each has distinct purposes, operates with different scopes, scales and resolutions, and each makes different boundary judgements. Accordingly, the various projects are generating different forms of knowledge, conclusions and recommendations for action, conditioned by their contrasting boundary judgments. There are synergies and tensions between the recommendations for action coming out of some of the projects.

The seemingly contradictory results from the different projects actually highlight where tensions exist across sectors, scales and levels within the broader system. Once they are identified, these tensions can be consciously managed. It turns out that applying multiple, contrasting lenses to ‘the UK food system’ provides valuable insights, precisely concerning where tensions and synergies exist.

In terms of food system activities and outcomes, there is a focus on production across the projects, though most projects include some other food system activities, and all consider other social and environmental outcomes of the food system. No projects include all food system activities. Few projects consider nutritional security. The majority are commodity focused. Only one project focuses on post farm-gate food waste, but this is just looking at phosphorus in waste water.

The projects also differ greatly in their specification of ‘outcomes’. Some projects define socioeconomic outcomes in terms of the economic viability of farms; others in terms of ‘thriving communities’ or ‘better food choices’. Some projects see food security in terms of maintaining tonnage of supply, while others look at it as maintaining the ecosystem services that underpin ongoing food production into the future. The concept of ‘outcomes’ of the system in all of the projects is relative to their choice of purposes and values, which in turn directs the setting of a boundary around what is seen as being in the food system (and consequently what comes to be excluded or marginalised).

There is also a distinction between projects that focus on maintaining or improving an existing system architecture and its activities, and projects that seek to maintain and improve outcomes, which may be emergent from multiple systems. For example, one project focuses on maintaining and improving the existing fresh fruit and vegetable supply system, whereas another is focused on maintaining pollination services as an outcome of food system activities more broadly.

A key conclusion is that there is not one single food system (or even a single system comprised of interacting sub-systems), but rather multiple ways of looking, with a systems-thinking lens, at what is 3 going on with food. Whichever ‘whole’ (and constitutive parts) we attend to, whether it is a relatively large one or not, we are potentially marginalizing or excluding certain people or concerns. This is because there is no such thing as a ‘whole’ that includes everything within it. It is therefore imperative that we attend, not simply to the good of a single whole, but rather to the good of multiple nested and overlapping wholes, visible to different stakeholders, and to the richness of detail and the value conflicts this inevitably reveals. Boundary reflection is a process that can help food system researchers pay attention to just these things. It can never be comprehensive, but it can help researchers do better than just take a single boundary for granted. It can therefore help researchers anticipate possible unwanted economic, social or environmental side-effects of their recommendations for change.


Helfgott, A., & Midgley, G. (in press). Exploring Boundaries in Food Systems Research: Implications for Projects on UK Food Security. Swindon: RCUK Global Food Security Programme (subcontract to University of Oxford)

Report Type Research Report
Acceptance Date Jul 22, 2020
Online Publication Date Aug 7, 2020
Deposit Date Jul 23, 2020
Publicly Available Date Aug 7, 2020
Pages 40
Keywords Food Security, Resilience, Critical Systems Thinking, Systemic Intervention, Boundary Critique
Public URL
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GFS Boundaries Project Report FINAL (1 Mb)

Copyright Statement
© 2020 The Authors.

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