Blogs, Health

From policy to plate: Pathways to secure the health of people and the planet

Unhealthy diets and food security are a primary way in which food systems impact human health. This understanding has perennially factored into the annual State of the Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, including the 2022 edition published this week. 

The UN-authored report has long been raising the alarm on the unaffordability of healthy diets and the connection to malnutrition. These challenges are intrinsically connected to practices and processes that characterize industrialized food systems. This year, the war in Ukraine and the high cost of fuel have dealt a further blow to the house of cards that is industrial food systems, further exacerbating the impacts of supply chain disruptions from COVID-19 measures and more frequent and severe climate events. In 2020, nearly 3.1 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2020 – 112 million more than in 2019, reflecting consumer food price inflation from the economic impacts of COVID.   

In this year’s SOFI report, authors have done a stocktaking exercise that explores the predominant food and agricultural policy supports currently in place around the world, the amount of support provided, the activities and actors supported, and the extent to which this support is pushing up the relative cost of nutritious foods and promoting unhealthy diets. 

It comes down to this: the way we grow, process, transport, and sell food has been designed for profit and productivity — not to optimize the health of eaters and the nourishment of the Earth. Around the world, fields are planted with non-food crops, the likes of which may be exported to bring in valuable foreign exchange, processed into biofuels, or converted into animal feed. The increased competition for shrinking land resources threatens to create shortfalls in the amount of diverse, nutritious food available to people, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Meanwhile, supermarkets assemble their displays of biscuits and sweets, tempting shoppers who may struggle to afford or know how to prepare fresh produce. And in North American and European kitchens, meals are more often than not prepared around a serving of processed meat — a dietary choice that comes with consequences for people, animals, and the planet. 

Global food systems are not delivering on Sustainable Development Goals, commitments made by countries around the world to promote prosperity while protecting the planet. 

So, where does policy fit into this? 

Making healthy and sustainable diets more economically accessible for everyone is critical. The authors of the SOFI report found, however, that most government support for agri-food systems distorts market prices, harms the environment, and hurts small-scale producers and Indigenous Peoples, while failing to deliver healthy diets to children and others who need them most. To move toward global nutrition and climate targets, governments must examine their policy support for the food and agriculture sector in order to identify the most needed policy reforms fundamental for equitable, healthy, and sustainable agri-food systems.

Our recent survey of global health professionals reveals that unhealthy diets are of top concern to those in the sector and that government policies – from subsidies to marketing restrictions – are recognized as a key lever of change. Commissioned by the Global Alliance and delivered with partners at the European Public Health AllianceGlobal Climate and Health AllianceInternational Federation of Medical Students Associations, NCD Alliance, and the World Organization of Family Doctors, respondents answered that the availability and marketing of ultra-processed foods was the main way in which food systems affect health. Alongside climate and inequities, they ranked non-communicable diseases and unhealthy diets as the top global health threats. 

From farm to retail to home, the food environments mentioned above pose health risks and can contribute to malnutrition in all its forms, including micro and macronutrient deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, and obesity. Seen through a more positive lens, however, these are each an outlet for intervention — points where we can take action to improve the health and well-being of all. This is the focus of the Global Alliance’s latest release, Creating Better Health for People, Animals, and the Planet. By exploring 10 food-focused initiatives around the world, the report shares examples of how health professionals, food systems actors, and others are collaborating to lead transformational change. 

Focusing on nutritious diets is just one way to improve planetary health, but it’s central in several of the case studies: 

  • In Nigeria, a non-profit initiative trains government primary healthcare professionals to articulate the link between malnutrition, poverty, and health. 
  • In the Netherlands, an organic fruit and vegetable wholesaler partners with doctors and dieticians to promote nutritious produce and healthy diets as a way to combat common ailments and improve overall health. 
  • And in Taiwan, a medical foundation promotes plant-based diets as a way to not only improve the health of hospital patients and community members, but achieve the country’s environmental targets, too.

These stories demonstrated that ensuring everyone can enjoy nutritious and culturally appropriate meals is one way to serve up better health, equity, and climate action. 

We hope this new report and the accompanying survey of global health professionals can provide valuable evidence and insight into how food-health action can be taken at local, regional, national, and international levels — with a focus on nutrition and beyond.

Patty Fong
Program Director – Climate and Health and Wellbeing, Global Alliance for the Future of Food