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Food systems and diets: Facing the challenges of the 21st century

Poor diet is the number one risk factor driving the world’s disease burden. Over 800 million people are undernourished, two billion consume diets that are lacking in one or more essential minerals or vitamins, and 1.9 billion people are overweight and obese; that means the diet of one in three people on the planet is inadequate. But there is a lack of information about the specific components of our diets; how their consumption varies by country, income, rural/urban residence, and age– and how diets are changing over time.

This Report, from the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (GLOPAN), takes a fresh look at the diverse challenges that decision-makers will face as they try to ensure healthy and nutritious diets, particularly in low and middle-income countries. It also sets out priorities for action to prepare for the future.

Key messages from the report:

1. Diet is by far the main risk factor for the global burden of disease

If current trends continue, by 2030 nearly half of the world’s adult population will be overweight or obese, up from one third today. And the poorest countries are not immune to these trends. For example, by 2030 Bangladesh will  have more adults with diabetes than Mexico or Indonesia.

2. Diets are not getting better with income

Consumption of foods that are part of a high-quality diet (e.g. fruit) does increase with income, but the consumption of foods that are harmful to a high-quality diet (e.g. processed meat) also increases. Urbanisation is a driver of poor diets, because it encourages the demand for and supply of highly processed foods that require less preparation time and which tend to be energy-dense and high in salt, sugar and unhealthy fats.

3. The consequences of poor diet go well beyond poor health and undermine sustainable development

These trends have huge mortality and morbidity costs, but they also have enormous economic costs, estimated to be an annual loss of 10% of global gross domestic product– equivalent to a global financial crisis every year.

4. The food system is a big part of the problem – and a big part of the solution

The food system covers everything that governs the flow of food from farm to fork: production, storage, transport, trade, transformation, marketing and retailing. Actions in these parts of the food system shape the food environment that consumers face at the point of access.

5. Policy-makers have many options to move food systems from villain to hero. The report attempts to expand this set of options

The report highlights some of the interventions, policies and actions that have been tried to improve diet quality, ranging from bio-fortification to increasing the micronutrient content of staple food crops; behaviour change to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables; taxes on the consumption of foods that are thought to be especially damaging; and regulations on the marketing of certain types of foods to children.

The report provides new data, tools and ideas to help policymakers develop a set of food system policy responses that are right for their diet problems. According to the chair of the lead expert group, enhancing the ability of food systems to deliver high-quality diets is a choice that is well within the grasp of policymakers – and one that will help achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goal of ending malnutrition in all its forms by 2030.

Reference

Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition 2016. Food systems and diets: Facing the challenges of the 21st century. London, UK. glopan.org/sites/default/files/ForesightReport.pdf

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ENN (2017). Food systems and diets: Facing the challenges of the 21st century. Nutrition Exchange 7, January 2017. p4. www.ennonline.net/nex/7/foodsystemsanddiets

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