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Changing Food Systems for Improved Health: Seeking Win-Wins

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By Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen, Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, 2001 World Food Prize Laureate, and Chair of the TCi Advisory Board

Food systems have much greater impact on our health and wellbeing
than they are getting credit for by the popular press and in the general
debate. In spite of economically well-functioning food systems,
nutrition-related health problems are huge both in the United States and
worldwide. These problems could be significantly reduced if
health goals are explicitly considered in the decisions made in the food
systems.

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Consumer choice at local farmers market in US (Credit: Harvest 2050)

Such decisions influence diets in a variety of ways, some positive
and others negative. Unhealthy diets contribute to nutrient deficiencies
and overweight, obesity and related illness. Every third non-pregnant
woman worldwide is iron deficient and the number is increasing and
one-fourth of the world’s preschool children do not grow to their full
potential, primarily because of unhealthy diets leading to malnutrition.
About 15% of the world population is obese; close to 10% has diabetes
and many more are added every day. The impact of unhealthy diets is
compounded by reductions in physical activity, both in high-income
countries and, increasingly, in developing countries.

In the U.S. alone, between 40 and 45 million Americans are food
insecure, while one-third of the total population is obese and another
third is overweight but not (yet) obese. Thirty million Americans are
diabetic, 86 million have pre-diabetes and the numbers are going up. The
costs of malnutrition and related illness, including those mentioned
above, are huge, whether measured in monetary costs to societies or in
welfare terms for the individuals affected.

So how can food systems be changed to improve health and nutrition?

The obvious answer would be to assure that food systems are driven
solely by health goals rather than economic goals. That is also a naïve
and unworkable answer. Failure to take into account basic economic
factors would lead to inefficient and unsustainable systems.

A better answer is to find ways to achieve both health and economic goals.
The specific win-win solutions will depend on the context and the
nature of the health problem. The following may serve as illustrations:

1) Joint efforts by the food processing industry, consumer-oriented
non-government organizations and government to simultaneously change
consumer preferences and the content of processed foods towards a more
healthy diet, e.g. more micronutrients and fiber and less sugar,
sweeteners and fat, while maintaining or increasing profits in the food
processing industry.  Such efforts, which would be relevant in
communities where obesity is the most important diet-related problem,
might include nutrition education, advertising and changes in
government regulations, subsidies and other policies, including those
that influence relative prices of various food commodities.  There is an
urgent need for the interested parties to get together to design and
implement a mutually beneficial solution to the obesity problem caused
by the current unhealthy diet.

2) Fortification of basic food staples with
nutrients that are deficient in the diet.  While industrial
fortification is widespread in the United States, benefitting both the
processing industry and consumers, it is much less common in developing
countries.  In addition, biofortification (breeding crops to increase
their nutrition value) offers opportunities for higher incomes for
farmers and better diets for consumers.

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Consumer choice at farmers market in India (Credit: Jessica Ames)

3) Expanded publicly and privately funded
research to increase the productivity and reduce unit-costs of
production of fruit and vegetables to encourage increased micronutrient
consumption and decreased intake of dietary energy while increasing
incomes to farmers, a win-win opportunity waiting to be exploited.

4) Investments in rural
infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and market facilities, in
low-income countries. This would reduce the post-harvest losses and
marketing costs for the benefit of farmers, consumers and traders.

Many other illustrations of potential win-wins could be mentioned. The
key point is that efforts to achieve health goals that are compatible
with economic goals pursued by the agents in the food system, will
succeed. Those that are incompatible will fail.

This blog originally appeared on the Harvest 2050 blog on January 11, 2016.  Learn more about the Global Harvest Initiative and follow them on twitter @Harvest2050.