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Towards a new global research agenda for nourishing—rather than just feeding—people

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A new research paper and commentary in the science journal Nature advocates a new global research agenda for nourishing—rather than just feeding—people. What follows are some excerpts.

Around 57 of the 129 countries that have data on undernutrition and obesity are struggling with both. . .

Global food systems are failing to keep us all fed, let alone healthy. How food is grown, distributed, processed, marketed and sold determines which foods are available, affordable and desirable. These factors have a crucial role in the quality of people’s diets, and hence play a vital part in health. . . .

Poor diets are responsible for more of the global burden of ill health than sex, drugs, alcohol and tobacco combined. . . .

Across Africa and Asia, the impact of undernutrition on gross domestic product is 11% annually. At the same time, 2 billion adults worldwide—more than 1 in 4—are overweight or obese. . . .

[M]iddle- and low-income countries are now following the well-worn, highly damaging path from undernutrition to obesity. . . .

[O]ur conclusion from compiling a report commissioned by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition and published in September . . . includes a call to scientists, governments and donors to work out how to craft and sustain food systems to provide nutritious diets for all. . . .

[R]esearchers, governments, industry experts and funders must commit to meeting these challenges—which are inextricably knitted with the Sustainable Development Goals, especially goal 2 (zero hunger) and goal 3 (good health and well-being). Piecemeal action will not do: the trends are so large and interconnected that the entire food system needs overhauling. . . .

Ten research priorities

‘Identify entry points for change. . . . Donors and funders should promote initiatives that are interdisciplinary, involve consumers and policymakers, and analyse which incentives cause actors in the food system to behave differently.

‘Make more data on diets widely available. It is currently difficult to compare diets across cultures, geographies and time. . . . What is needed are open-access portals for diet data . . .  for documenting progress and holding stakeholders accountable.

‘Agree on what constitutes a healthy diet. People do not choose nutrients, they select combinations of foods in differing amounts. . . . Food researchers need to be more creative and research funders bolder in assessing the health implications of common combinations of foods.

‘Tackle different forms of malnutrition simultaneously. Credible information on what works to reduce both undernutrition and obesity (and related diseases) is essential if governments and industry are to scale up investments aimed at improving diets. . . .

‘Understand the role of chain length. What combination of [short- and long-chain food] systems ensures high-quality diets—enough of the right kind of food at the right price, for all? . . .

‘Analyse business incentives. . . . [T]he private sector could help to tilt food systems towards higher-quality diets, and could respond innovatively to targets and regulations. We need to understand what incentives will tip these levers in a healthier direction. . . .

‘Account for climate. . . .

The consumption of some of the most micronutrient-dense foods—including fruits, vegetables and animal proteins—must be increased in poor communities, but such foods place substantial demands on environmental resources. Research on less-polluting production of these, in the context of rapidly changing livestock systems, is crucial. Research could also identify ways of achieving big wins for environments and diets. . . .

‘Study supply and demand. . . . Funding in global public-sector research institutions is still focused mostly on rice, wheat, maize (corn) and other grains. About 45% of private-sector agricultural research investment is on maize.

Public and private research on neglected nutritious commodities . . . needs to increase with a focus on their yield and resilience to pests, diseases and climate change. This is an important message for the global research community, broadly led by . . . CGIAR.

Donors should support the CGIAR’s 2014 commitment to mainstreaming nutrition in all crop-breeding programmes, and its attempts to direct more research to healthy agriculture and food systems. . . . 

‘Identify the economic levers for change. Every US$1 spent on successful nutrition programmes offers roughly $16 of benefits. But we do not know enough about where in the food system we should invest in any one policy, regulation or programme to generate the largest net pay-offs. . . .

‘Fix metrics.

Raising diet quality through food systems cannot be at the expense of other Sustainable Development Goals.

‘. . . We urgently need effective methods for measuring both the sustainability and nutritional value of diets. Current work on the carbon footprints of commodities should be extended to analyses of the whole food system. . . .


What now?

The era of commodity research aimed at feeding a starving world is over. A new era has begun that requires us to nourish everyone in ways that can be sustained environmentally, economically and culturally.

‘Policymakers urgently need to recognize that diets are compromising economic productivity and well-being as never before. Delegates to the upcoming G20 and G7 meetings in 2017 should take collective responsibility for fixing our failing food system.

Funders who support agriculture and nutrition research must focus much more of their resources accordingly, doubling their current allocations to more-nutritious food systems by 2020.

‘Scholars and journals must become more pluralistic in the methods and approaches that they support. We can only fix problems in our food systems if we diagnose them correctly. If we do not, the world’s future health and economic problems will be very much greater than they are today.’

Read the whole article in Nature: A new global research agenda for food, by Lawrence Haddad, Corinna Hawkes, Patrick Webb, Sandy Thomas, John Beddington, Jeff Waage, Derek Flynn, 30 Nov 2016.

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