Blogs, Health

Food systems recommendations to advance the World Health Assembly agenda

Sustainable food systems play a critical role in our health and well-being and that of the planet. The Global Alliance urges delegates to keep this in mind as they convene in Geneva later this month for the 75th World Health Assembly.

Several items on the agenda could connect human health and food systems, yet few do so explicitly. In line with this year’s pillars, transforming industrial food systems could prevent public health emergencies, reduce the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), contribute to nutritional security and food safety, and improve the health and well-being of all. Addressing food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste would also support countries in reaching national climate goals and mitigate the cascading health effects that will come as a result of climate change. 

To set the stage for the World Health Assembly (WHA), it’s worth reading the Global Alliance’s Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems guide which calls on local and national governments to take food systems actions that promote human, ecological, and animal health. Developed across countries, cultures, and contexts, the Guide includes 14 recommendations to harness the interconnectedness of food-health systems through policy and practice. 

Here are three of the recommendations and how they can advance the WHA agenda.

Recommendation 1: Assess existing food-health policies and implement mandatory health impact assessments to ensure future policies deliver on multiple health outcomes. A systems approach to governance and cross-sectoral impact evaluations will help to better understand the true health costs of what we eat and where our food comes from. To maximize relevance, these assessments should be context-specific and consider the unique epidemiology of the disease, food environments, and local inequalities that exist in accessing good health and nourishing diets. 

This recommendation and others from the Guide would make inroads on a major WHA priority: managing and preventing the rise of NCDs, including diabetes, heart disease, and cancers.

It also aligns with a recent policy paper from The Lancet imploring the global health community to prioritize action around NCDs. Among other interventions, it calls for cross-cutting intersectoral policies on tobacco, alcohol, and unhealthy diets as an efficient strategy to reduce early deaths and improve overall health and well-being. 

Such an approach was adopted by the Chilean government, wherein in 2016 a set of regulations were implemented to tackle the escalating obesity epidemic and growing health inequalities. Changes to labelling, marketing, and rules regarding the sale of unhealthy foods helped consumers make more educated choices about items high in sugar, salt, calories, and saturated fats. The result has been a significant decrease in the consumption of unhealthy foods in the Latin American country and an overall shift towards healthier eating patterns.

Recommendation 2: Food systems research and innovation should focus on research for the public good. Public health research and innovation, including that related to food systems, is crucial to understanding and preventing future health emergencies. COVID-19 revealed how the destruction of natural habitats, wildlife trade, and intensive livestock farming increases the risk of diseases spreading to humans. Further food-health research is needed to monitor and thwart the emergence of future pandemic-causing viruses.

Additionally, governments must look at how to ensure the continued delivery of nutrient-dense, culturally appropriate food in light of a climate crisis and global conflict. Further research into agroecological and regenerative agriculture approaches, circular practices, and responsible animal husbandry will bring positive health outcomes and should be central in any policy updates.

Germany is a leader in this regard. Among other actions, the country’s Federal Scheme for Organic Farming and Other Forms of Sustainable Agriculture (BÖLN) supports research and development spending to improve the productivity of organic agriculture and promote knowledge transfer among farmers. The program makes it easier for farmers to transition from conventional to organic practices, for the health benefit of all.

Recommendation 3: Take an integrated and inclusive approach to ensure that policies relating to food, food safety and quality, environment, trade, agriculture, and nutrition promote human, ecological, and animal health and well-being. This recommendation is particularly topical as the draft Global Strategy for Food Safety 2022–2030 is discussed at the WHA. The vision of the strategy is to reduce the incidence of food-borne disease and ensure everyone has access to safe and healthy food.

As indicators and targets are set for the new strategy, we encourage delegates to seek the perspectives and evidence of farmers, women’s groups, Indigenous communities, and others whose voices often go unheard. Collating the food-related challenges and solutions from these diverse groups will help make the food safety strategy more effective.

Inclusive engagement was key to the success of a community-led initiative in Kenya that improves food safety standards in informal food markets in dense urban settlements. The project focuses on clean water provision, sanitation, communal storage, and refrigeration facilities for street food and produces vendors. By gathering the experiences of these vendors, the initiative has been able to create interventions that respond to community needs and are more effective at protecting peoples’ health. 

This trio of recommendations and others in the Government Guide are priorities to consider and food for thought. A companion case studies publication offers further inspiration and examples from around the world — insights for any government seeking evidence that change is possible. 

The World Health Assembly is an opportune time to put forth a refreshed positive vision that focuses on food systems transformation as a way to prevent health emergencies, curb the rise of diet-related diseases, address the climate crisis, and ensure more people enjoy better health and well-being. It’s time for government delegates to seize the moment.