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Making the case for food systems that promote health

Unravelling the food-health nexus

New report outlines health impacts of food systems and potential levers for change

In October 2017, the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food launched “Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus: Addressing Practices, Political Economy, and Power Relations to Build Healthier Food Systems”, a report outlining the health impacts – and ballooning costs – of unsustainable food systems practices.

“The Global Alliance recognized the need to not only better understand and bolster the evidence for the health impacts and externalities of food systems,” says Executive Director, Ruth Richardson, “but also engage diverse stakeholders in a dialogue about putting health at the centre of food systems.”

In the report, IPES-Food assesses the negative health impacts of food systems and explains how the system is locked into cycles that produce poor health. Together, the Global Alliance and IPES-Food worked closely to: understand the broad range of evidence that informs the report’s findings; analyze how and why food systems are making people sick; expose the health costs externalized by food systems; understand how to internalize these costs through healthier food systems practices; and, explore potential levers for change.

Richardson says the members of IPES-Food brought their collective wisdom and diverse perspectives to this challenge in a powerful way, outlining the unacceptable harm caused by our current food systems, and calling for precaution, prevention, and collective action. She emphasizes, “In short – we know enough to act.”

The report was launched in Rome at a Committee on World Food Security (CFS) side event, co-hosted by the Global Alliance, IPES-Food, and the governments of Italy and Nigeria. As well, the Global Alliance has had the opportunity to present the report at the International Nutrition Congress in Argentina with IPES-Food, and the WHO Global Conference on Non-Communicable Diseases in Uruguay.

Stakeholders are connecting the links between food systems, health and compounding factors like climate change, poverty, and unsanitary conditions.

The Global Alliance recently hosted a webinar – during which Lead Author Cécilia Rocha presented the paper and its findings – and facilitated a lively discussion from respondents to the report: Roberto Ciati, Scientific Relations & Sustainability Director of the ‎Barilla Group; Dr. Simon Poole, Cambridge-based medical doctor, author, broadcaster and commentator; and, Olivia Yambi, nutritionist and Co-Chair of IPES-Food. A recording of the webinar will be available on our website shortly.

Highlights from the report

The contributions of the report are significant. Here are five from the Global Alliance perspective:

1. Costs: As the report highlights, the negative impacts of current food systems practices are severe, and their associated costs are exorbitant and rarely examined together, systematically. Across the food system there are ways that human health is threatened. Each impact appears as discrete and unrelated to the next, but a systems view reveals their interrelationships, linkages, and complex associations. The true costs of these impacts are staggering. Maintaining an equity-focus is of central importance when taking account of the costs, as the most vulnerable are disproportionately affected.

2. Evidence: The Global Alliance is deeply interested in the evidence challenges explored by IPES-Food in the report. In many cases we can’t make direct causal links between the food system practice and the impact. However, when viewed holistically, the diverse and substantial evidence available on the health impacts of food systems – from scientific evidence to lived experience and culturally distinct knowledge systems – points to a critical need to better understand the problems and generate creative solutions for transformational change.

3. Prevention and precaution: The precautionary principle was developed for situations where there is a high level of uncertainty and risk, requiring policymakers to weigh the collective evidence on risk factors and take a precautionary approach to protect the public from exposure to harm. The report points to the need to apply an “upstream” public health lens that pays attention to the ecological, social, and cultural determinants of health, and focus on policy/systems change for maximum impact.

4. Action: An urgent case for reforming food and farming systems can be made on the grounds of protecting human health. Transformational change is needed, with change at all scales through deep collaboration and a systems-level, principled approach. Working collectively to create a food system that produces health and wellness is a shared responsibility upon which we, as a global community, simply must act.

5. Systems thinking: Unravelling the food-health nexus requires a holistic food systems perspective to inform decision-making. The health impacts of food systems are often complex, mutually reinforcing, and compounded by factors such as climate change and poverty. Confronting this complexity and interconnectedness is one of the greatest challenges in order to pave the way for making choices about the future of our shared food systems, to avoid siloed approaches, unintended consequences, and limited, narrow, short-term solutions.

Looking forward to solutions

We have received positive feedback on the Food-Health Nexus report from key stakeholders who appreciate the systemic analysis, the compilation of costs and impacts, the articulation of the impact channels, and the promise of the levers for change. To harness the potential of the report, both the Global Alliance and IPES-Food are pursuing opportunities to engage diverse actors from across disciplines in dialogue, about how we can work together to activate the levers for change identified in the report.

As well, the Global Alliance will be pursuing opportunities to: explore the positive benefits and impacts of sustainable food systems; identify opportunities for policy change; and, together with our member foundations, amplify the fundamental role that food systems play in creating health and well-being in all ecosystems, human and non-human communities, address the most harmful practices, and find new pathways forward, together.

Unravel the Food-Health Nexus and find out what you can do to activate levers for change by downloading the report and sharing messages about the intrinsic links between food systems and health.