Complex socio-ecological systems like the food system are unpredictable, especially to long-term horizons such as 2050. In order to manage this uncertainty, scenario analysis has been used in conjunction with food system models to explore plausible future outcomes. Food system scenarios use a diversity of scenario types and modelling approaches determined by the purpose of the exercise and by technical, methodological and epistemological constraints. Our case studies do not suggest Malthusian futures for a projected global population of 9 billion in 2050; but international trade will be a crucial determinant of outcomes; and the concept of sustainability across the dimensions of the food system has been inadequately explored so far. The impact of scenario analysis at a global scale could be strengthened with participatory processes involving key actors at other geographical scales. Food system models are valuable in managing existing knowledge on system behaviour and ensuring the credibility of qualitative stories but they are limited by current datasets for global crop production and trade, land use and hydrology. Climate change is likely to challenge the adaptive capacity of agricultural production and there are important knowledge gaps for modelling research to address.