homemade burger

What is good food?

Food is the F in FED. It’s all about food production, how and what is grown to supply the human population with 22 trillion kilocalories each and every day. Clearly a miraculous achievement, but can we keep it going?

Food production, or agriculture if you prefer, began recently in the human experience just 12,000 years ago. Today food production is staggering across a dizzying array of commodities — 2.7 billion tonnes of grains, 342 million t of meat, 154 million t fish, are just a few.

Global food production generates US$ trillions in revenue.

A quick google search on food production reveals the most commonly associated contexts are 

  • What is food production
  • Will food production keep up with population growth
  • Where is food produced
  • Who produces and benefits from food production

At Sustainably FED we think of food as the system for feeding everyone.

There is a demand-side to this challenge. Exactly how much food is needed every day and where it is consumed. This is primarily the distribution and supply chain problem that goes from the relative hand to mouth of subsistence agriculture through to global commodity supply chains.

There is also a supply-side of food. How much food can be grown, where and how? Currently, much of the global food supply is produced in small scale enterprises and subsistence farms by farmers using their labour as primary inputs. Whereas in developed economies, production is typically intensive and at scale.

Wherever production happens there is a range of efficiencies that typically follow the 80:20 rule. That is 80% of production comes from 20% of producers.

This introduces the economics of food where food becomes commodities, the financing of production, and the financial risk associated with a volatile production and market system. 

Not everywhere does food production make a profit even in the more intensive systems. There are many issues here from investment, cost and farm debt to vested interests.

Food production is the F in FED.

What is good food? 

Good food production is efficient and sustainable.

However, there is no one good food. There will always be any number of production methods and many can be sustainable with efficient use of the ecological engine. Indeed there are nearly as many systems of production as there are producers.

For sustainably FED good food production is understood scientifically, is flexible, and works with the constraints of the producer and the production environment. 

In short, good food is all about ecology and context.

Good food is also about what kind of food is produced. The nutrient density and calorific content determine the quality of the collective diet. This is as much about what is grown as it is about demand.

Good food must also be accessible. There is no point in producing food at $10 a kilo if half the population cannot afford to buy it. Good food must therefore meet demand equitably. This is about price but also about availability and distribution.

Good food must also address the 80:20 rule to benefit the 20% of producers who are getting it right and delivering 80% of the food supply. It should also get some of the 80% of weaker producers up to speed.

Good food is complex.

fresh vegetables set out for a banquet

The size of the food challenge

Achieving the definitions of good food is a staggering challenge. 

So far humanity has delivered a miracle. We have kept up with demand through food supply but without a full understanding of the ecology of nutrients and energy, the resilience of production and the fragility of supply chains.

Future global food security will mean at least 22 trillion kilocalories a day for another 100 years — sustaining this level of food production will be another miraculous achievement.

It will require an ecological focus even in the intensive systems of developed and emerging economies. And like many of the sustainably FED issues, there is no one answer.

What sustainably FED suggests…

Our concept of food production requires concerted effort, radical change, and evidence.

We believe that knowledge of the demand and supply side of food needs to be spread widely, especially the role of the ecological engine that allows farmers to grow food.

Science needs to tell us how the ecological engine works. What fuel does it need? What is its optimal and repeatable running temperature? And when will the engine reach its local and global limits?

Knowledge can be distilled to provide producers with the evidence to make smarter production decisions from the smallholding to the large commercial properties. It can help investors with their returns and policymakers provide rules to help feed everyone.

Current vested interests and a profit-driven system of production will not take us beyond 2050, the trajectories are in the wrong direction. New financial instruments that prioritise long-term production over short-term profits are just one of the many options.

Good food production must happen for a long time to come. So we also need to know what happened in the past so as to predict what future food production will look like.

Afterbefore is handy too.

If this concept grabs you browse around the sustainable FED site for more information and ideas on food production, ecology and diet

sustainably FED

Hero image modified from photo by Lidye on Unsplash


Charlie keeps quiet about his extensive economics, modelling and IT skills but can’t help sharing his knowledge of applied ecology and agriculture. He can be the quiet one but watch out when he lobs another truth bomb into the discussion to stop us all wandering off into the weeds. There is always surfing if the audience is cantankerous.

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