Transforming food systems for health for all: Key recommendations for the World Health Assembly

As the 76th World Health Assembly gathers in Geneva this week under the theme of ‘Saving lives, driving health for all,’ it is essential to recognize the critical role that sustainable food systems play in promoting our health, well-being, and the preservation of our planet 

Currently, how we grow, process, market, consume and dispose of our food is driving disease and ill health through many interconnected pathways. We must transform our food systems by first acknowledging that both malnutrition and obesity – as well as Type Two diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other non-communicable diseases – are fuelled by unhealthy diets and the consumption of low-priced ultra-processed foods in almost every country

Systemic social and economic inequalities are preventing low-income and marginalized communities from producing and consuming healthy, nutritious, sustainable, and culturally appropriate foods. Communities that are most impacted by systems of oppression such as racism, colonization and capitalism bear the greatest health and financial burden of diet-related illnesses, further widening the economic and health disparities. 

Structural inequalities driving poor health among Indigenous Peoples and local communities are the result of colonial legacies that have led to extractive economic practices. One example of this is overfishing by European and Chinese companies in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic, which is leaving local communities across West Africa with depleted fish stock levels, and higher levels of food insecurity. 

The health sector needs to play a leadership role in food systems transformation. Public health thrives when people are able to enjoy nutritious, sustainable, whole-food diets that are adapted to local ecosystems and socio-cultural contexts. There are numerous steps World Health Assembly delegates can bear in mind to ensure that food systems result in better human and planetary health around the world.

Recommendation 1: Create a healthy food environment 

 Simply telling people to eat healthier isn’t enough. Exposing people, especially children, to ultra-processed foods advertising makes it more likely they will see these foods as desirable. 

There are a number of things governments can do to ensure a diet of healthy, fresh food is more affordable, accessible and desirable. Policies can enable citizens to grow, purchase, prepare, and cook healthy foods. A coherent approach is required to promote healthy food environments, including public procurement and restricting the marketing and sales of ultra-processed food. 

We urge governments to redirect subsidies and spending away from unhealthy, ultra-processed food towards healthier food – as well as restrict advertisements of unhealthy food. 

Recommendation 2: Protect workers

Many farm workers are from migrant or poor communities, and aren’t able to advocate for their own rights, even when regularly and continually exposed to harmful chemicals and antimicrobial-resistant pathogens. Governments must support practices that address the structural inequalities contributing to these risks, particularly within chemical-intensive farming. 

Health advocates must emphasize the importance of improved working conditions and fair wages for farm workers, particularly those who are migrant workers. By doing so, these workers can afford nutritious foods and have the autonomy to make choices regarding their diets. In turn, this will improve their health and put them at lower risk of developing non-communicable diseases such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. 

Industry also has an important role to play in driving up pay for workers. We know that fair pay – along with better working conditions – contributes positively to workers’ access to healthcare and food security

Recommendation 3: Adopting agroecological practices 

Climate change is harming human health – rising temperatures, floods and droughts, affect food production, and in turn, the availability of healthy food. 

Governments must transition away from agricultural policies that support chemically-intensive farming that is harmful to the climate and nature, towards policies that support agroecological and regenerative approaches to food production. Agroecology and other nature-friendly farming practices support climate adaptation and mitigation.  

Governments must also phase out chemical use in agriculture, which is inextricably linked to poor human health outcomes. Exposure can affect farm workers’ health in numerous ways – increasing the risk of heart disease, harming reproductive and nervous systems, and resulting in neurological problems.

Recommendation 4: Integrate food issues, including food systems and nutrition, into training for health professionals

Health professionals often don’t have sufficient knowledge to integrate food systems priorities into action in their professional work. Those working in healthcare are well placed to communicate the important relationship between food and health, and advocate for people and governments to make better choices – personal and policy – to improve health outcomes.

In order to move towards a health prevention approach, we must shift from silos of health professionals to a systemic approach. This means that medical professionals must embrace a  preventive and holistic perspective that recognizes the interconnectedness of patients’ health with their dietary choices. It acknowledges that individuals’ diets are shaped by their broader food environment, including the accessibility and affordability of nutritious food, as well as the impact of global food systems.

It also means that those working in health, and those working in food, collaborate in ways that promote, support and encourage healthy diets. There are numerous opportunities to do this, like supporting the availability of healthy food for patients, including in hospitals. In the Netherlands, for example, an organic fruit and vegetable wholesaler collaborates with doctors, dieticians and retailers

Part of the answer is cross-sector collaboration. In Uganda, the non-profit organization Conservation Through Public Health facilitates collaboration between those working at the intersection of human, animal, and ecological health to stem zoonotic disease by recognizing food insecurity and poverty as drivers of poor health and ecological degradation. 

It can also mean influencing government policy and programmes to better support communities to improve health. In California, US, primary healthcare providers work alongside farm workers, environmental groups and local communities to promote the regulation of local pesticide policies. 

The World Health Assembly is an opportunity to take meaningful steps toward food systems that acknowledge how inextricably intertwined health and diets are. The well-being of populations worldwide relies entirely on sustainable food systems to ensure a healthy life; health professionals and policymakers must make meaningful, bold decisions that reflect this. 

– Ends 

Vivian Maduekeh
Program Coordinator: Climate and Health