Your browser may not be supported by this website. Please upgrade to the latest version provided by your browser vendor.

Insights / Event summary

27 Apr 2018 / 21 min read

Supporting Healthy and Sustainable Diets: How Do We Get There?

At this workshop leading experts discussed what action across government, business and civil society can steer us towards healthy and sustainable diets. Spanning technologies, policies and actors, an action agenda that can unlock ambition, increase resources and continue innovation to take steps towards a healthy and sustainable diet was identified.

Image: Hermes Images/AGF/UIG via Getty Images

The global food system is a primary driver of environmental degradation and biodiversity loss. It accounts for one-third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and for the single greatest use of land (40%) and freshwater (70%). At the same time, the food system is also failing to deliver nutritious diets. No less than 815 million people continue to suffer from hunger and 2 billion from micronutrient deficiencies, while 1.9 billion adults are overweight, of whom 600 million are obese.

Mounting evidence links overweight and obesity to diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers, resulting in a global economic burden amounting to some $47 trillion over the next two decades. Solutions to this complex challenge will require concurrent and coordinated responses to under- and over-consumption of (un)healthy and (un)sustainable food.

Absent radical changes in dietary trends, the dearth of spare arable land may mean intensified production is needed to meet the growth in demand in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, where significant yield gaps remain. Improvements in technical efficiency have brought significant productivity gains. The United States, for example, produces 60 per cent more milk today than in the 1940s, with around 80 per cent fewer cows. However, agricultural production today is over reliant on inputs – from land and freshwater to phosphorus- and nitrogen-based fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics, as well as fossil energy. Worse still, half of the world’s land surface area will need to remain uncultivated to maintain critical levels of biodiversity. This implies no further expansion of agricultural land (i.e. no net loss in terms of land use). It also means avoiding land-use change, especially deforestation.

Incremental change – through efficiency gains, regulating the use of harmful substances and practices, and better transparency and traceability – will not suffice. Achieving multiple objectives will likely require new generations of interventions and solutions. For example, disruptive technologies could help to realize ambitious estimates for carbon-sequestration potential in soils, with suggestions that up to eight times the existing carbon storage is possible. New technologies can also accelerate the decarbonization of food supply chains (through using renewable energy in crop, livestock and fertilizer production). Given the varied capacity in different geographies to provide micronutrients within planetary boundaries, other options may also be needed, such as increased trade of synthetic B12 to supplement naturally produced micronutrients.

The political economy of the current global food system, however, stands in the way of transformative policies and innovative interventions. Market power is highly concentrated. The agricultural sector is also core to national income generation in many countries. Even with the scientific rationale for reducing meat consumption, strong resistance from livestock-producing states will likely ensue, not least because the sector accounts for some 50 per cent of total agriculture-related national income. Incumbents in the private sector will also continue to challenge measures aimed at tackling childhood obesity amidst mounting health costs.

Public policy in land management, public health, agriculture, fisheries and other related areas also remains out of sync with the desired outcomes of a food system transformation. The allocation of high-biodiversity-value land for agricultural expansion – whether for grazing or the cultivation of staple crops and agricultural commodities – derails efforts to halt land conversion in order to protect biodiversity, conserve soil carbon and sustain the provision of myriad social and ecosystem services.

Ill-conceived farm and fisheries subsidies, together with biofuel mandates and food self-sufficiency targets, continue to prop up unsustainable production around the world. They encourage systemic wastage and inefficiencies, and they worsen environmental degradation. They have also driven greater concentration of agricultural production. Absent robust regulation and governance – whether on supply-chain transparency and traceability, land rights, labour conditions, marketing ethics, or environmental and social impacts – the pervasion of artificially cheap, nutritionally poor and environmentally unsustainable food products remains (including processed foods high in fats and sugar.)

Cows in the Langueiron farm, one of the largest farms of Galicia, Spain. Image: Xurxo Lobato via Getty Images

Against this backdrop, the public-health costs of diet-related disease will likely skyrocket, not only in high-income countries but also in middle- and low-income ones. This means that lower-income populations will remain disproportionately vulnerable to nutrient deficiency and malnutrition, despite increased food availability. Meanwhile, the contributions of unhealthy and unbalanced diets to rising public-health costs are rarely acknowledged by governments.

Experts and advocates are yet to converge around a shared vision for future food systems, with persistent ideological divisions among those calling for urgent and radical change. For example, the relative merit of grain-fed and grass-fed beef remains contentious, while some argue that the distinction is irrelevant as sustainable food futures would require minimal, if any, beef in future diets. Some experts question the universality of the need for dietary change. Some suggest it is a matter of protecting and maintaining traditional diets in developing economies, which are often rich in plant-based foods and relatively diverse compared with encroaching influences of the ‘Western’ diet. Others point to the lack of nutritional diversity across the developing world as a contributor to childhood wasting and stunting.

Clearly, the heterogeneity of agriculture, socioeconomics and dietary preferences will necessitate tailored policy approaches as well as culturally and nationally appropriate dietary options. The challenge of shifting dietary patterns differs greatly from country to country. For example, in developed countries with high meat consumption and high waste, success implies a radical and rapid shift from a quantity-driven food environment to one centred around quality and moderation.

Safeguarding the planetary boundaries is a non-negotiable priority if we are to secure healthy diets. A recent analysis shows that four out of nine boundaries – climate, deforestation, biodiversity loss and nitrogen and phosphorus use – have been transgressed. The imminent challenge is to develop tailored roadmaps that have traction among policymakers and business leaders, that are palatable for consumers, and that act on the multiple and incontrovertible imperatives for wholescale transformation to emerge from the EAT-Lancet Commission.

A trader's boat in the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market in Thailand. Image: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Fostering an Action Agenda

Rallying multiple efforts under a unified goal, like that of the 2°C goal for the climate community, could help galvanize the range of voices and views. The question remains as to what constitutes an equivalent of the 2°C goal for healthy and sustainable diets.

Such alignment can direct investments and regulatory frameworks to encourage the much-needed roll-out of agricultural and behavioural innovation, while subsidies reforms together with bold policy targets can send the requisite signal that business-as-usual no longer applies. Investors that recognize the multiplying risks to assets in unsustainable and unhealthy food supply chains could help design finance-related incentives to reward sustainable production, processing and ethical marketing.

Governments need to step up their support for innovative solutions to drive delivery of these goals. Technologies and new supply models are already catalysing rapid changes along food supply chains, and many more are in the pipeline. Innovators within the food sector and beyond are beginning to explore a more diverse array of tools to decouple food production from land use and to set dietary trends on a healthier and more sustainable trajectory.

1. Setting the direction and pace of change through public policy and regulation

Regulation can stifle or catalyse innovation by industry; financial incentives can encourage stasis or reform; and economic policies can artificially raise or lower the cost of food.

While dietary choices are largely considered to lie with the individual, there are many strategies governments can adopt to advance healthy and sustainable diets. For example, they can commit to pricing that reflects the true costs of food production while protecting the vulnerable. They can also redirect public funds away from unsustainable and unhealthy food production, though it would be politically challenging. The EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for example, provides financial support for livestock and crop production in its member states, amounting to GBP£50 billion (US$69 billion) a year. Any redirection of public funds will be opposed by the 22 million affected farmers.

Greater policy coherence is needed to avoid unintended, negative outcomes (especially in low-income countries where food prices may increase as a result of policy change). Palm oil in Indonesia and Malaysia is a case in point. While commitments by multinationals and governments to reduce deforestation could slow emissions, it could also threaten the livelihoods of smallholder farmers as they become excluded from palm-oil supply chains, which also deserves attention.

An improved evidence base can help inform the design of effective policies that address both sustainability and public health challenges. Few policies to date attempt to improve both; fewer still have been evaluated on the basis of achieving the co-benefits. In 2014, the best available evidence was used in Brazil during the revision of the National Dietary Guidelines. Where scientific evidence was lacking, consensus established among the diverse range of stakeholders involved in the yearlong consultation process was deemed sufficient for the guidelines. This experience also points to the need to address the public as well as the expert community in communicating core messages around sustainable, healthy diets.

An early priority for governments could be the elaboration (and adoption) of clear, bold principles for a healthy and sustainable diet, based on scientific evidence, followed by a roadmap for implementation across all relevant branches of government. These could be developed by stakeholders through consultative processes to reflect national priorities and to tackle vested interests. The process of developing these principles or guidelines can help ensure coherent public policy development and industry reform.

2. Holy and unholy alliances

Systems-level transformation requires engagement with all actors – whether innovators and disruptors, incumbents and traditionalists, or those with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. An increasing number of food producers, processors and retailers are declaring their intention to reduce the environmental and/or social impacts of their operations. While this has brought positive outcomes, more engagement with companies and investors in the food sector will be needed to unlock system-wide change.

Effective outreach requires speaking to the priorities and constraints of each given audience as well as aligning incentives for change and disruption. Whoever the messenger, the vision for a future food system must be grounded in politically and economically astute analysis of the challenges inherent in food-system change and of practicable solutions. Narratives of global stewardship and equitable development should be accompanied by ones of economic growth and job creation.

Securing proactive and collaborative engagement from stakeholders is also key to kick-starting pilot projects and generating practical knowledge for implementation. Suppliers and retailers have tremendous influence over our food choices, shaping the ‘choice architecture’ in shops and restaurants alike. In addition to financial resources and marketing capacity, the food industry also has an ever increasing amount of data on purchasing behaviours and opportunities to test, monitor, evaluate and quantify the impact of a given product or approach. Several food retailers have offered their retail space as testing grounds to pilot interventions to help shift consumption habits.

Governments could play a more proactive role in ‘upskilling’ the agricultural and food processing workforce, whether through financial support, investment in accelerators or training programmes. Farmers in low-income countries face major economic and practical constraints in accessing the skills and resources required to adopt new production methods. Such ‘upskilling’ will be equally necessary in developed countries as sustainable energy management, GHG monitoring, precision agriculture techniques and blockchain-ready traceability standards are increasingly incorporated into the basic responsibilities of food sector stakeholders.

3. Financial flows and economic incentives

Translating qualitative visions for food-system transformation into quantifiable targets may be critical to achieving corporate and investment support. Corporate disclosure initiatives can help marshal engagement from more conservative elements of the industry through the use of market forces, as initiatives like CDP have shown with respect to climate change, by enabling comparison of performance between companies.

The private sector can play a key role as the scale of private agri-food investment far outweighs that of governments. In recent years, more private-sector initiatives have sprung up to help reshape the investment landscape for the sector. Forty-five multinationals and investors are involved in the Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, for example, to decouple food production from land clearance and deforestation. A coalition of 21 funders has united under the Global Alliance for the Future of Food to promote sustainable food production. Over 50 investors under the FAIRR Initiative – with a combined asset of $2.3 trillion – called on 16 multinational food companies to diversify their investment portfolios (to reduce the financial exposure from investments in intensive animal protein production). More engagement with investors could help direct investment away from unsustainable and unhealthy products and practices.

Transparency and traceability in supply chains can also help create demand for sustainably produced food, using tools like voluntary certification schemes and product labelling. These schemes, when used in concert with public or private procurement policies can help generate momentum for sustainable products while avoiding punitive regulation.

4. Focusing global efforts

There is growing support for an adaptive global framework that will help set concrete targets for governments and for industry. The evidence and knowledge collated and generated by the EAT-Lancet Commission – among others – could act as the basis by which different stakeholders from governments, industries and civil society will explore and implement the delivery of sustainable and healthy diets. The Paris Accord has been an important means of establishing trust among countries at different levels, and between governments and industry, providing assurance that all parties are moving in a common direction and diminishing the risk of ‘free-riding’ and unfair advantage on the part of protectionist governments. Could a common framework of measurable targets, indicators of progress, accountability mechanisms and guiding principles be adopted in the push for food-system transformation?

Childhood nutrition could be one important entry point for wider policy changes relating to food systems. Opportunities for embedding long-lasting healthy and sustainable behaviours and attitudes are also greater at a young age. For governments, policy interventions on diets to improve childhood nutrition are less likely to face resistance while effecting potentially transformative change. Ending hunger and tackling childhood malnutrition is also vital to the achievement not only of SDG2 – to end hunger and achieve food security – but also much of the post-2015 sustainable agenda, including good health and wellbeing (SDG3), quality education for all (SDG4), reduced inequalities (SDG10).

Restrictions on advertising of unhealthy foods to children could be part of a broader strategy, should the private sector fail to rally around voluntary approaches. Commitment to regulating the food environment for children could be coupled with additional policy strategies that bridge political divides, which may include penalties for unmanaged food waste in the food-services industry, ending public procurement of ultra-processed foods and removing subsidies for unsustainable production.

Experts engaged in conversations around healthy and sustainable diets should call for high-level action in the public domain. Commitments to food-system transformation are unlikely to develop organically from existing institutions and structures. This is in part due to environmental sustainability, food security and public health often remaining separate competencies among international and national institutions. With momentum building through continued evidence gathering and civil-society pressure, a catalyst is needed to elevate this issue to the highest echelons of government, business and the investment community. Concerted efforts and a coherent policy push from those leading and supporting the initiatives discussed here should be an early priority to effect the change desired.

This workshop was organised as part of the Land Economy for Sustainability Strategic Dialogue Series co-hosted by the Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy at Chatham House and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation (CIFF), in collaboration with the EAT Foundation and Oxford University’s Food Climate Research Network (FCRN).