24 September 2016

Our Food Systems = 3 billion with low quality diets. Let's start fixing it. Now.

Yesterday, at FAO, we launched the Global Panel report on “Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Century".  About 120 people gave up their time to hear about the report. 

The Global Panel is co-chaired by John Kufuor, the former President of Ghana and World Food Prize laureate and by Sir John Beddington, former Chief Scientist to the UK Government and it is hosted well at the London International Development Centre.  The independent report was support by UKAid and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report basically says the following things:

1. Diet is by far the main risk factor for the global burden of disease
2. Diets are not getting better with income
3. The consequences of poor diet go well beyond poor health and undermine sustainable development
4. The food system is a big part of the problem – and a big part of the solution

5. Policymakers have many options to move food systems from villain to hero, and the report attempts to expand this set of options

6. The wide set of options and the incomplete data and evidence base make the selection of the right set of policies a real challenge

7.  New data, new tools and new ideas (all provided by the report) are needed to help policymakers develop a set of food system policy responses that are right for their diet problems

8.  Policymakers need to make more compelling arguments for why this issue is so important—so they can bring other stakeholders into the picture, and the report aims to help here.

Perhaps the biggest message from the report to policymakers is: wake up!

Diets are the main cause of illness, they are not going to get better any time soon, and the consequences of inaction are staggering.

Members of the audience corralled me after the talk.  Perhaps the most glaring omission in the report is the treatment of consumers as shapers of food systems.  It is true that we don’t spend much time in the report on nutrition education and behaviour change of consumers.  This is definitely an important area and one where we need more answers.  But we decided to focus more on the behavior change of policymakers in the public sphere and decision makers in the private sector.  They too need to change their behavior if food environments are to make it easier for people to make healthy choices.  Consumers base their purchases on culture, income, prices, food quality, taste, nutrition and desirability, but if they are priced out of healthy foods there is not too much they can do about it individually or even, perhaps, through consumer collective action. 

Anna Lartey the Director of Nutrition at FAO said we have all missed an opportunity to get a diet quality indicator and goal into the SDGs, but let’s try to get them into national goals. I agree.  If we don’t know whether food systems are diet quality friendly and if we don’t know what diets look like, then we cannot hold public and private decision makers accountable -- and that hampers change. 

These days it seems like everyone is writing reports on food systems and diet.  The Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts has empowered a team (which I am a member of and which is led by Jessica Fanzo) to guide CFS members in this policy area.  The challenge for this report will now be to add value to the Global Panel one.  Unfortunately this will be easy.  Why unfortunately?  Because the problem is so wide ranging there are areas that the Global Panel did not highlight (such as consumer behavior change and collective action). In addition, this area is so dynamic that new challenges, opportunities, data and evidence can be factored into the HLPE report due out in mid-2017. 

This diets and food systems problem is so big and so long in the making it is not likely to be fixed quickly, but let’s start to get serious about it now.  


Ana Islas Ramos said...

Congratulations on this excellent report and thank you for adding the consumer perspective to this discussion as shapers of the food systems. We tend to think of consumers as the recipients of everything everyone else does, but when talking about food, actors in the food system at all levels are consumers themselves. Their views and actions are shaped by their experiences with food as well as many other mediators of behavior that have nothing to do with food. Collectively, consumers are a strong driver in what is available by what they do, but also, by what they omit to do. Looking forward to a deeper discussion into this complex aspect of the food system.

Oliver Dowding said...

Dear Lawrence, that's a fascinating report is a lot of good information in it.

We should be making every effort in order to persuade consumers to shift their diets to something that is both healthier and more sustainable. People in the West tend to eat three times/day, and therefore make decisions about how the world's food will be produced three times/day. They just don't realise the power they have. We need to empower them to make the right choices as soon as possible.

The basis needs to be much less meat consumption, and most of that to be produced without the use of grains. Therefore we would preserve soils, dramatically curtail the need for chemistry within agriculture, give the chance to protect forests and plant a new ones, grass down huge areas of fragile soils and rebuild ecosystems (also enabling more livestock to be kept as grazing livestock not in corralled pens) etc. We would also by doing this dramatically curtail the use of fossil fuels of which c.25% are used within agriculture and food processing/distribution, including for the manufacture of fertilisers and agrochemicals. We will also then not need to pillage the dwindling water resources to irrigate many of the corn and soya crops used to feed livestock. With water scarcity being one of the big instigators of global conflict, this can only be a good thing.

So, it starts with every one of us who eats! But it also requires those of us involved in policy to lobby at every opportunity to get these fundamental changes to occur, and quickly. The impact upon climate changing human activity would also be significant and advantageous. One final advantage would be a dramatic reduction in the demand upon our health services to deal with the consequences of over-consumption plus consumption too much meat.
Oliver Dowding

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