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The importance of food systems and the environment for nutrition


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There is considerable ongoing debate around how food systems can better ensure the delivery of healthy, safe, nutritious foods in a way that is environmentally sustainable and resilient to climate change. Food systems are complex entities with many interconnecting drivers, stakeholders and outcomes. Furthermore, food systems and climate change have a cyclical relationship, as environmental change is both a driver and an outcome of food systems.

Climate change impacts the immediate, underlying and basic causes of undernutrition. As climate change progresses, optimal conditions for human health will continue to come under threat introducing instability into our food systems and ultimately decreasing access to nutritionally dense and healthy foods. While this is likely to affect the nutritional status of all populations, it will have a disproportionate impact on poor and marginalised populations.

The bi-directional relationship between food systems, environmental change and nutrition demands that nutrition scientists engage in food systems transformation. Nutrition is inherently a multidisciplinary science; however, within nutrition, scientists have been traditionally siloed into those studying undernutrition and overweight and those in humanitarian or development contexts. Given the global inter-and transdisciplinary nature of these challenges, the traditional boundaries need to be broken down to ensure relevant public health interventions, research and policies.

Current research gaps in this important area include:

  • Scientific consensus on definitions and metrics to assess the sustainability of dietary patterns and food environments
  • Limited scope of research e.g., research needs to be implemented across different stages of the supply chain, a wider variety of food products and on a wider range of nutrition outcomes
  • Limited topic base e.g., research is needed on food safety, food waste and loss and the role of consumer practices
  • Levers of change in the food system and how to utilise these
  • Accurate global and subnational data on topics such as dietary patterns, food loss and waste
  • Applicability of current literature to more localised contexts

1 Fanzo J, Bellows L A, Spiker L M, Thorne-Lyman L A, Bloem W M (2021) The importance of food systems and the environment for nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 2021; 113(1): 7-6. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqaa313.


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