Inclusive Transformation of Food Systems for Healthier Diets is More Crucial than Ever, for Better Health, and for Our Planet

July 13, 2022

After decades of progress, since 2015 the downward trend in global hunger has reversed. The recently released UN State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 Report says no different. It estimates that as many as 828 people are going to bed hungry and calls for “repurposing food and agricultural policies to make healthy diets more affordable.” Key findings are summarized in FAO’s interactive tool.

Among these key findings are repeated evidence we are failing to address the challenges of our food systems. First, inequities persist in current food systems, such as the ones related to income and gender. Food insecurity remains concentrated in rural areas, where 80% of the world’s extreme poor reside, and who depend in large part on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihoods. Food insecurity and malnutrition affect the poor, rural, women, adolescent girls, children, and those in conflict and geographically isolated areas the most. Second, diets are a top risk factor for disease, and 11 million deaths and 255 million disability-adjusted life years occur every year due to dietary risk factors. Non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are on the rise and are estimated to cause almost 75% of deaths around the world. Food systems transformation towards more nutritious, safe, affordable, and sustainable diets is key to overcoming malnutrition and diet-related NCDs. Amidst COVID-19, it has become even more vital to ensure nutritious, affordable food is accessible for all, and invest in sustainable, resilient, and holistic food systems, and ensure affordability and accessibility of such nutritious diets for all. It is crucial to shift toward healthy eating patterns and improve food production practices to ensure sustainable food systems reach everyone with healthy diets and to reach global goals such as the SDGs, or the Paris Agreement.

Research and evidence are essential to move beyond the current food systems stalemate. The annual Agriculture, Nutrition and Health (ANH) Academy Week showcases new knowledge and multidisciplinary research, providing opportunity for collaboration, exchange, innovation, and learning. It provided an accessible, equitable, and unique learning/knowledge mobilization experience through this year’s 15 learning labs and three-day research conference. In the context of the “new normal”, the event happened as hybrid, bringing in multiple benefits such as reduced travel-related CO2 emission, and more equitable and wider access to resources.

ANH Academy is a place for a multidisciplinary, multicultural, and equitable research community to foster collaboration to break down the barriers and silos across all nodes of the food systems to facilitate the knowledge and evidence uptake in policies and programs, and capacity enhancement to improve food systems, nutrition, agriculture, health, and resilience for all, and improve our planet.

Research indicates inequities in the knowledge ecosystem in nutrition and food system in the world

According to the 2020 Global Health 50/50 Report, despite the rise in gender equality and diversity among health organizations’ employment strategies, only 5% of the leaders are women from low- and middle-income countries.

Inequities in the production of academic knowledge related to global health, nutrition, food systems, and research persist, particularly based on geography, institutions, and individual factors including gender,” said Swetha Manohar of Johns Hopkins’ Global Food Ethics and Policy Program (GFEPP). Purnima Menon of the International Food Policy Research Institute called on every single member of the research community to “i) recognize who you are in a knowledge system; ii) what inequities exist around you; iii) where on the research continuum you can do something; iv) and to then do it.

Other takeaways we heard at the conference

  • Major concern is that the current global food system does not feed people equitably or sustainably. Transforming our agri-food systems is key to nourishing all.
  • Food systems are not delivering in terms of livelihoods and environmental impact, and for the most vulnerable in terms of nutrition and well-being.
  • Governments should invest in child nutrition surveillance systems and need to champion child-centered food systems.
  • Sustainable Food Systems toolkit aims to support the integration of sustainable food systems in the work of dietitians and nutritionists. Food and nutrition policy improvement is among the expected contributions. Training modules, key resources such as briefs on relevancy to SDGs, or case studies including LMIC contexts, and a community of practice are part of what the toolkit offers.
  • In South Africa, stunting is still an important issue. Children are losing physical and cognitive capacity, leading to an intergenerational impact.
  • A circular food system design to reduce excess resource consumption, food loss, and waste, include the best production and agro-processing practices, and catalyze recycling. 60% of the waste from African urban centers is biodegradable, and 20% is recyclable. According to UN’s Environment Programme, Africa is missing an opportunity to get back this waste back into the system.
  • Food Systems Countdown to 2030 initiative has the ambition to track food systems and their performance to meet SDGs and beyond. “Food systems transformation is urgent. Covering all aspects of food systems and their interactions requite a comprehensive framework of metrics” said Kate Schneider of the GFEPP. There are 60 collaborators, additional 65 experts, and collaboration with policy people in selecting the indicators. The next steps include finalizing the indicators, performance assessment, tradeoffs and synergies, sustainably.

There are many opportunities to establish a thriving society by creating sustainable food systems that respect the environment and provide sovereignty to communities around nutritious and culturally appropriate food. With the advancements in technology and communication around the globe, food system stakeholders can coordinate and collaborate toward a just food environment. Though the future of sustaining nutritious food is unknown under the influence of crisis and shocks, we have the power to shape it.

Destan Aytekin is an International Health Human Nutrition Ph.D. student at Bloomberg School of Public Health and a Research Assistant at the GFEPP, of Johns Hopkins University (JHU). At the GFEPP, her research focuses on analyzing governance for food systems transformation, and diets, nutrition, and health aspects of the food systems metrics. Prior to joining JHU, she worked at HarvestPlus, International Food Policy Research Institute, in Washington DC.