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Importance of government policies and other influences in transforming global diets

Summary of published article1

Location: Global

What we know: There have been significant global dietary and nutritional changes over the past 20 years or so due to a multitude of factors. 

What this article adds: Stable food prices and rising incomes have stimulated overall increases in calorie intake and transition away from staple foods to animal and processed foods. Income growth and modernisation of food systems have been the dominant forces of change, linked to urbanisation and participation of women in the workforce. Income growth has had both positive (hunger reduction, improved dietary quality) and negative (overnutrition) impacts. It appears that food aid/assistance programmes have assured calorie requirements in emergencies but not dietary quality.

The aim of a recently published article is to describe and discuss the dietary and nutritional changes that have occurred since the 1992 International Conference on Nutrition by attempting to untangle the multitude of factors that have contributed to such changes, in particular the role and importance of public policies that influence food prices and/or food availability, especially agricultural policies (e.g. reform of the Common Agricultural Policy), trade and investment policies (e.g. the Uruguay Round Agriculture Agreement), and consumer-oriented policies (e.g. domestic and international food-assistance programmes). A wide range of literature, from detailed global trade models to country-specific descriptions of change, was utilised with analysis conducted through an economic lens, although the approach used for identification and assessment was much broader than the traditional neoclassical economics approach2

The framework for influencing factors of dietary change is divided into two broad sets. One set, categorised as ‘trending factors’, captures the important developments over the last 20 years in technology, globalisation, population, urbanisation and other socio-demographic factors such as the increased participation of women in the workforce. Another set includes the range of government policies that impinge on diets. These are divided into trade policy, domestic policy relating to agriculture and food, and consumer policy.  Both sets of factors influence food consumption and dietary quality via two pathways. One pathway operates through ‘income effects’ wherein socio-demographic trends or government policies induce changes in income and its distribution, thereby influencing people to change their consumption patterns.The second pathway operates through food prices, food availability, and consumer preferences, all of which can be altered by trends and policies. 

The review finds that over most of the past 20 years, stable or falling food prices combined with rising incomes have stimulated increases in calorie intake (see Table 1) and promoted the dietary transition away from starch staples and toward consumption of livestock products and processed foods, although, in the developed world and among the middle classes in developing countries, these same factors have hastened the obesity epidemic. The main forces behind these changes have been technological changes in agriculture, food processing, food distribution and international trade, along with economic growth (aided by international trade and liberalisation of investment).

In the many regions in which dietary change has been observed, the balance of evidence indicates that income growth and modernisation of food systems have been the dominant forces of change, and these changes are closely linked (through cause and effect) to urbanisation and the increased participation of women in the workforce. The liberalisation of international investment, when linked to trade reform, has been an important precondition for globalisation, which in turn, has been an important force driving changes in food systems. The impact of these changes on preferences and lifestyles is critical, as is their impact on the availability of a range of foods that satisfy new demands. 

Income growth, in tandem with globalisation patterns, has exerted an important influence on dietary change since 1992. This includes positive effects in the form of hunger reduction and improvement in dietary quality, as well as negative effects associated with overnutrition. Although direct evidence remains scarce, the available information suggests that countries experiencing increases in income inequality are most vulnerable to overnutrition problems.

The price effects of trade and agricultural policy reforms have not had a major impact on diets. Consumer policy vehicles, like food aid and food assistance programmes, do not seem to have major effects on dietary quality, but they have been effective in their basic goal of assuring minimum calorie requirements are met, particularly in times of widespread emergencies.  

Table 1: Regional per capita calorie availability, 1992 and 2007

Geographic region



Least-developed countries









North, Central and South













Data from FAOSTAT

Show footnotes

1 Traill. W et al (2014). Importance of government policies and other influences in transforming global diets. Nutrition Reviews Vol 72 (9): pp 591-604. Doi:10.1111/nure.12134

2 An approach to economics that relates supply and demand to an individual's rationality and his or her ability to maximise utility or profit.

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Reference this page

Importance of government policies and other influences in transforming global diets. Field Exchange 49, March 2015. p24.