Blogs, Systems Thinking

Notes from the Field: Fueling the future of food using new narratives

Guest contribution by Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety with the World Health Organization

The 10th anniversary of the Global Alliance for the Future of Food comes at a unique time for food systems transformation.  In 2021, the Global Alliance and WHO collaborated to use the UNFSS platform to describe the interconnectedness of human, animal, and environmental health — and we emphasized the need to address the critical food systems determinants of ill health.

WHO is championing a new narrative through a One Health approach and a ‘menu of action’ for food systems transformation to harness the potential of nutrition labelling, improved food safety, public food procurement, food fortification and food reformulation, fiscal policies, and marketing regulations. Such actions are long-standing, proven, scalable, implemented by countries, and monitored by WHO with a growing body of cost-effectiveness data to support them and provide win-win solutions for human and environmental health.

The Global Alliance is a WHO ally to drive forward this vision. We are both aligned on the need for a holistic narrative and systemic action and have been jointly raising the stakes and challenging policymakers.

For WHO, this effort builds on a long history of work. Since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, the marriage of health and agriculture has been the focus to combat malnutrition. Over time, narratives on the what, how, and why have continued to evolve. 

A decade ago, at the inception of the Global Alliance, the global narrative was progressing towards the need to tackle ‘malnutrition in all its forms’ and global nutrition targets were adopted. This recognized the interconnectedness of undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and obesity. It also acknowledged their shared drivers which required urgent action under the emerging SDG agenda.

In 2014, Member States aligned behind the need to transform food systems to tackle malnutrition in all its forms, as agreed in the Rome Declaration on Nutrition, which was adopted at the Second International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2). Building on this, a Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016–2025) was declared. It recognizes that building sustainable, resilient food systems for healthy diets is fundamental to fulfilling the right to adequate food for all, at all times.

In 2021, the United Nations Food Systems Summit brought together stakeholders from around the world with the shared goal of harnessing the power of food systems to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

The evolving, shared, global narrative aligns actors behind the need to scale investments during the Nutrition Decade, though the ‘how’ has had a quieter voice.

The 60 ICN2 multisectoral policy recommendations provide a comprehensive list of strategies for impact. Many countries have made substantial progress in individual areas such as healthy school meals, increasing exclusive breastfeeding, nutrition-sensitive agriculture, and eliminating industrially produced trans fats from foods.

As encouraging as these results are, we cannot limit our actions to low-hanging fruits and quick wins alone. We need the implementation of holistic and integrated policy packages that are evidence-based, sustainable, and cost-effective. These are sometimes politically challenging, as their benefits to human health can only be measured beyond political election cycles. 

So many events, conferences, and declarations conclude with the call to “act now.” While this message is appealing, perhaps a more accurate statement would be “we are failing on our promises and are long overdue for action.”

We have enough information, guidance, and inspiration to take the required steps. What we need is public outrage demanding our governments to commit, invest, and accelerate policy efforts for impact. Guiding change through our food purchases, bolstering knowledge around the health-environment nexus, and taking win-win actions that will bring environmental, social, and economic benefits are achievable aspirations. We cannot let the strive for perfection hold back progress, and we cannot reach 2030 with unmet SDGs and the same messages to “act now”. It is simply too late.

COVID-19, the intensification of climate change, and the compounding impacts of global conflict must serve as a catalyst for the uptake and implementation of this new narrative. I look forward to continuing to work alongside our partners at the Global Alliance to challenge the status quo and move towards healthy diets from sustainable food systems guided by the principles of health, renewability, resilience, equity, diversity, inclusion, and interconnectedness.

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