Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems (like lettuce we are told not to eat)

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Don’t eat the Romaine lettuce! 

The latest CDC announcement that our food is not safe to eat arrived just in time for Thanksgiving dinner this year!  No big surprise that California is likely the source


While we need to pay attention to warnings like this…. it is also important to dig for the root cause of the problem.  This post examines how we can use systems thinking to understand the root cause(s) of complex social problems (you know the BIG ones, like poverty, hunger, social inequity, environmental degradation, food safety…… and yet another recall of California lettuce).

Here is an example I use in my Agricultural Systems Thinking class at UMass.

An Example

A while back, I got an email from one of my “foodie” listserves telling me that the Dole Food Company had recalled thousands of bags of pre-cut salad due to concerns about contamination by the bacteria listeria.

In fact, the Blomberg Businessweek Report stated:

“Dole Food Co.’s fresh vegetable unit has recalled more than 1,000 cases of bagged salads sold at Kroger and Wal-Mart stores in six states because of the possibility of listeria contamination.

“No illnesses have been reported.

“A representative for Dole could not be immediately reached for further comment.”

Okay, so that is interesting but might easily be overlooked (as long as you were not in one of the 6 states where the bagged salad had already been sold).   If you looked a little closer you might learn from the FDA statement that…

Listeria monocytogenes is an organism that can cause foodborne illness in a person who eats a food item contaminated with it. Symptoms of infection may include fever, muscle aches, gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea.

If we look at the frequency of food recalls, we might be surprised.  The Dole salad recall was NOT an isolated event, but part of a larger pattern that has become “the new normal” in the American food system.

This recall provides an opportunity to use a systems thinking tool to discover possible root causes for the recurrence of food contamination.  .

Here is a simple model depicting the relationship among events (one recall), patterns (many recalls) and the structures (root causes “below the water line”) that create an environment in which these patterns persist (even when they may not be in our best interest).

the-goodman-iceberg-model If we apply the iceberg tool to this particular food recall, we can see that:

  1. The bagged salad recall is the event
  2. Multiple recalls of food every day is the pattern

So, next we will ask “what are the structures that result in the recurring patterns?”

Finding Structures

Structures are relatively permanent components of human organization that create patterns and events.  For example, a stop light at a cross roads and the government policy that requires drivers to stop at a red light are structures that result in a specific pattern of behavior.   Structures are powerful.  The general categories of structures are:

  1. physical things – like vending machines, roads, traffic lights etc.
  2. organizations – like corporations, government, schools…
  3. policies – like laws, regulations, tax incentives….
  4. ritual – like habitual behaviors so ingrained, they are not conscious.

In the case of fresh food recalls, these structures represent all that is good and bad about industrial agriculture, which is a system in which the farm is viewed as a machine (a very efficient and profitable one but still a machine) rather than a living system.  Some of the structures that result in food recalls are:

  1. Large corporate farms with the primary objective of making a profit
  2. Monoculture farming that creates large amounts of single food items
  3. Mechanically assisted harvest equipment (that spread bacteria)
  4. Washing and handling equipment that handles enormous quantities of fresh food quickly in shared water baths
  5. The corporately controlled global food distribution system that ships products by truck, rail, air and boat anywhere in the world
  6. The Food and Drug Administration inspection system and the policies that test, track and recall potentially contaminated food

These structures which support a very efficient industrial agricultural system will ALWAYS result in food recalls. To eliminate food recalls we have to change the structures that create an environment in which recalls are inevitable.

Recent efforts to do a better job tracking adulterated food have been proposed but do not address the root cause of the problem.   Proposals to irradiate food treat the problem after the contamination has occurred.  A recent British study on global food safety only focused on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the same structures that ALWAYS result in food recalls.  The influence of structures on behavior are poorly understood but unless we can change these structures….. it will be very difficult to change human behavior.

Unless we change the structures that ALWAYS result in certain patterns of behavior and events…. nothing will change. 


A printable version of this blog post may be found here.

4 thoughts on “Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems (like lettuce we are told not to eat)

    […] Post navigation ← Previous […]


    Madeleine Charney said:
    August 8, 2012 at 4:30 am

    FYI, John. I just shared this post with a friend who is organizing against big coal in Montana. Thanks!


    Lessons in Ag Systems Thinking | John Gerber said:
    September 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    […] two blogs, Digging for Root Causes of Global Crises and Finding the Root Causes of BIG Problems, we learn about the iceberg.  A very simple and useful tool for looking below the surface of […]


    My Sustainability Blogs – 2012 | John Gerber said:
    January 6, 2013 at 11:19 am

    […] Systems Thinking Tools: finding the root cause(s) of BIG problems […]


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