Diagnosis of Food Systems Worldwide Provides Guidance for Ensuring Healthy Diets and Environmental Sustainability

July 29, 2022

Food systems worldwide need better governance and accountability to ensure that they deliver healthy diets while safeguarding the environment and natural resources. But decision-makers often lack data about achieving these goals and even where such information does exist, tools are lacking to assess food systems’ performance. A paper published today in PLOS is the first of its kind, drawing on more than 600,000 data points, to develop a methodology for diagnosing food systems’ performance to help inform food systems governance and accountability around the globe.

“This paper presents a diagnostic methodology for 39 indicators representing food supply, food environments, nutrition outcomes, and environmental outcomes to assess performance of national food systems,” said co-author Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Global Food Policy and Ethics at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. “This information can be used to generate actions and decisions on where and how to intervene in food systems to improve human and planetary health.”

Food systems include the people, places, and methods involved in producing, storing, processing and packaging, transporting, and consuming food. They can consist of either long or short supply chains and be global or local. Johns Hopkins University and The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) launched a Food Systems Dashboard in 2020 to provide a single platform for food systems data relevant to diet and environmental outcomes, and to enable the use of these data by policymakers, non-governmental organizations, civil society leaders, educators, and researchers. The Dashboard draws upon more than 30 sources to provide data from over 200 indicators across 230 counties and territories, to support informed policy making and other uses.

The authors of the paper, “Diagnosing the performance of food systems to increase accountability toward healthy diets and environmental sustainability,” drew upon the Dashboard to establish parameters for likely challenges within national food systems.

“We hope this diagnosis will aid the interpretation of food systems data, so that decision-makers can see what is going relatively well as well as what is challenging in each setting and consider a range of possible actions to address challenges and maintain successes. It can be used to identify an array of possible actions to improve food security, diet, health, and environmental outcomes,” said Anna Herforth, of Harvard University, the first author of the paper who led the study.

The paper includes a global assessment and country case studies to illustrate how the diagnostics could spur decision options available to countries. For example, in Tanzania, the paper’s authors identify the challenge of child stunting and recommend policy and actions that may be appropriate to addressing it, such as investing in market infrastructure to enhance access to nutritious food and utilizing social protection platforms to enhance the purchasing power of women, especially around pregnancy.

“No single action can fix food systems, but governments, NGOs, civil society and businesses can each start to take action. We hope these diagnostics are a step towards better monitoring of food systems performance that can lead to stronger governance and accountability of food systems and their transformation,” said Stella Nordhagen, co-author of the paper, and Senior Technical Specialist at GAIN.