Burning Tares in a Wheatfield

Value, Volume, and Health in Food Systems

Global food systems are putting more food – and more nutritious food – within within the reach of more people than ever before. But what are the outcomes for human and environmental health? For nutrition and equity? Frankly it’s a mixed picture. Food systems have evolved all over the world to crank out sufficient calories for billions of people at an affordable cost write Ramya Ambikapathi and colleagues in Nature Food. Their new analysis also leads them to conclude that many people around the world can afford higher quality diets. But still, the value, volume, and health delivered by global food systems fall short.

Failures of Evolving Food Systems

Simply cranking out and marketing more food all over the world does not mean that people will be well nourished, as Ambikapathi et al explain:

“The vast majority of people living in rural and traditional countries, and over three billion people globally, cannot afford a nutritious diet. Moreover, affordability has not always translated to accessibility or actual consumption of a healthy diet. Hunger and poverty are on the rise, and obesity and diet-related diseases are rising as well. Inequality is still rampant and unattended. Environmental degradation has increased beyond safe limits by many metrics, and climate change is leading us towards a major catastrophe. These are the current and potential future failures of food system transitions.”

Falling Short on Answers

We have no lack of food policy experts offering their own version of the answer for more sustainable global food systems. The EAT-Lancet Commission published a template in 2019. But it took little time to find flaws in that template. It presents a view of experts “from the rich, industrialized countries of the Global North” that has not proved to be relevant or useful in other parts of the world says Matthias Kaiser, a professor of ethics and philosophy in Norway.

So work is underway on version 2.0. for EAT-Lancet and surely people will line up to find problems with it. This is because everyone, quite literally everyone on this planet, has an interest in the value and health that food systems deliver. But people really don’t do well in listening to others with diverse views, needs, and interests in these systems.

This is why balancing social, environmental, and economic goals for sustainable food systems is so hard. But it’s worth the hard work it requires. Because our survival and the planet depend upon it.

Click here for the robust analysis by Ambikapathi et al and here for further commentary.

Burning Tares in a Wheatfield, painting by Jules Breton / WikiArt

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September 20, 2022

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