Small Farm on Nistelrode

Working to Remake Food Systems – Into What?

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a broken food system, writes Miriam Nelson in the Boston Globe. But she is hardly the only one. A UN Study last week told us that food systems account for a full third of global carbon emissions. The Lancet Commission on Obesity in 2019 morphed into a Global Syndemic commission with a big focus on dysfunctional food systems. This shift came because of the link between food systems and obesity. Without a doubt, many people with many different agendas want to remake global food systems to better serve human and planetary health.

However, a shared concept of what this new order might be is clearly lacking.

Competing Goals

To begin with, the goals vary widely. One obvious goal is to reverse the growing global prevalence of obesity. Our food supply appears to be responsible for more obesity in more susceptible individuals every year.

But other goals for the food system cannot be ignored. Food security remains a problem all around the world – a problem the pandemic has made much worse. Of course, carbon emissions are a key issue. Related to that are concerns about animal agriculture. These concerns relate to both the environment and to animal welfare. Finally, sustainable economic prosperity is a goal that reformers dismiss at their own peril.

These diverse goals for improving global food systems give us a jumble of competing proposals that are at best confusing. At worst, they sometimes produce irreconcilable conflicts.

Food Formulation and Substance

Much of the dialogue about food systems, obesity, and health has focused on the formulation and substance of the food itself. In the 1980s, excessive fat in the food supply seemed to be a problem. That gave way to a preoccupation with refined carbohydrates. But now the focus seems to be on the problem of food systems dominated by ultra-processed foods.


Food marketing is also part of the system. The goal of marketers is to increase sales and profits by stimulating demand for a food producer’s products. Folks who would reform food marketing tend to focus narrowly on advertising. For example, the UK has been working on a junk food advertising ban for some time now. However, it’s worth noting that marketers are quite creative, leading us to believe that regulatory constraints will lead them to find new ways to build demand for their products. Marketers and their products adapt.

So consuming ever more “healthy food” may simply fuel continued growth in the prevalence of obesity.

Pricing and Costs

Taxing foods and beverages that seem to promote obesity and other health problems is a popular strategy right now. It serves to raise the cost of products and reduce their consumption. However, it’s entirely possible that other untaxed products will come in to replace that consumption.

Another popular concept is to re-orient food production subsidies to favor foods that might promote less obesity. A recent simulation study tells us that four percent of the population with obesity is attributable to subsidies.

Production and Distribution

Another dimension of food systems is production and distribution. Reformers want us to shorten the supply chain for foods by shifting toward more local and sustainable models. The farm to table movement aims to promote a high standard of nutrition while reducing the carbon emissions that come from transporting food from thousands of miles away.

Work in Progress

Clearly, the reform of global and local food systems is a work in progress. People are offering up wildly different solutions that range from fake meat to urban gardens. Many of them have merit; some of them directly conflict with each other. Some will turn out to be fads that will fade into oblivion.

If we want to make progress, we will need more objective consensus about our goals and a good dose of curiosity about the approaches that might or might not help us achieve them.

Click here, here, and here for more on some of the ways that activists want to reshape our food systems.

Small Farm on Nistelrode, watercolor by Piet Mondrian / WikiArt

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March 15, 2021