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Planet-proofing the global food system

Here is an article from the new journal nature food:

Planet-proofing the global food system

Without a great food system transformation, the world will fail to deliver both on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement. There are five grand challenges to be faced, by science and society, to effect that transformation.

Food is failing us. The global food system is the single largest greenhouse-gas-emitting sector in the world1, and by far the largest cause of biodiversity loss, terrestrial ecosystem destruction2, freshwater consumption, and waterway pollution due to overuse of nitrogen and phosphorus3. It holds a firm grip over the stability of the Earth system and the future of humanity. Unhealthy food is the world’s biggest killer, with diet-related chronic disease estimated to be responsible for 11 million premature deaths in 2017 alone4. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of people — more than 900 million — are undernourished. This increase is due in part to armed conflict, but climate change and the water–food–environment nexus are increasingly identified as amplifiers of social instability5,6.

The global food system is a prime driver — and generally the first victim — of the Anthropocene. A swift global food transformation towards healthy diets from sustainable food systems is necessary, and without such a food transformation the world will not meet the targets set in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement7. Scalable solutions do exist, but the food sector lags 30 years behind the energy sector (despite the inertia in decarbonising the global energy system) in concerted efforts to transform the system towards a safe operating space on Earth.

Food and the state of the planet

Modern agriculture was able to develop through the benign climatic conditions and abundant biodiversity of the Holocene. In the Anthropocene, however, the food system is the primary driver of our current Earth trajectory, which follows a path at risk of creating a cascade of interacting non-linear processes that propel the planet towards a radically different climatic state. Where certain tipping points lie is not yet well understood, but it is now increasingly established that warming beyond 1.5 °C places us dangerously close to those red lines. The world has already warmed by 1 °C above pre-industrial levels; at 1.5 °C, tropical coral reefs are very likely to collapse; at 2 °C, Arctic summer sea ice would disappear and the Greenland Ice Sheet could tip towards disintegration; several glaciers of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet might already have passed tipping points, contributing over two metres of unstoppable sea-level rise in the long-term. The oceans have buffered the effects of global warming by absorbing more than 90% of human-caused excess heat. However, social and environmental costs are mounting and, as oceans grow warmer, more acidic and less productive, coastal extreme events and sea-levels are on the rise. Under climate change, the diversity of species and ecosystems is declining faster than at any time in human history. Increasing evidence shows that tipping elements are connected and can trigger cascading effects, for example, Arctic sea-ice melt amplifies regional warming, accelerating Greenland ice sheet melt, which in turn may have contributed to the recent 15% slowdown in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). The AMOC itself is connected to both regional rainfall dynamics in the Amazon and the West African monsoon, with a further slow-down potentially triggering drought, amplifying global warming and risking food shortages. Without a major transformation across sectors and scales, we risk crossing points of irreversibility that threaten the Earth system as we know it.

There is a critical need to scientifically define and move towards a safe operating space for food within planetary boundaries. This is a completely new positioning of the food system — a shift from the conventional focus on reducing environmental impacts at the ‘farming system’ scale towards defining science-based targets for food at the planetary scale, recognizing the global force that food constitutes today. A first attempt at this definition has recently been made for the planetary boundary processes directly associated with food — namely land, water, biodiversity, nutrient loading and climate change. Globally, food transgresses all five of these planetary boundaries.

Grand food challenges

Food production and environmental conservation have traditionally, and falsely, been pitted against each other. Food production, dietary health and environmental sustainability have, at best, been advanced as separate, siloed disciplines with limited explorations of synergies and trade-offs. Food-system science, policy and action continue to largely be pursued as local or regional concerns, despite food’s role as a global driver of planetary instability. Transforming food across the world might be our best bet in meeting the Paris Climate Agreement and the SDGs. The challenges we face call for rapid but thoughtful actions along five primary axes.

Science-based targets

The ‘planetary health diet’7 is the first attempt to provide scientific targets for healthy diets from sustainable production systems. They provide a set of universally applicable scientific boundary conditions within which all diets should operate for both human health and Earth sustainability. Following the Paris Climate Agreement, there are 285 companies that have adopted science-based targets (SBTs) for climate through the SBT initiative. Now, there is a growing momentum to widen that initiative to set SBTs for the entire Earth system — that is, to establish quantitative science-based targets for all planetary boundaries to support business transformations towards sustainable development. Similar efforts are needed for cities and national governments. Food systems across the world can be the first sector to adopt system-wide SBTs for planetary health. Making the SBTs for food operational across scales, sectors and agents will require further development of the planetary health diet and major methodological advancements. Immediate challenges include defining the food boundary for atmospheric aerosol loading (air quality), and novel entities such as the contamination of land and water with plastics, antibiotics and biocides.

Practices and policies

Modelling analyses suggest13 that it is biophysically possible to feed 10 billion people a healthy diet within planetary boundaries, and in ways that leave at least 50% of natural ecosystems intact. Success hinges on triple action at a global scale: shifting towards healthy diets; increasing productivity while transitioning to regenerative production practices; and reducing food waste and loss by 50%.

Major policy and investment shifts toward this global transformation are central to turning the food system from a primary threat to a primary solution space for human and planetary health. Grand challenges remain in how to accelerate and scale the pace of change, reconfigure food value chains from ‘field to fork’, and support shifts in consumption. Overall, there is a need to test the planetary health diet hypothesis — that we can feed 10 billion people healthily within planetary boundaries — on the ground. The universal recommendation allows alignment across sectors and scales. However, what it implies for national transformation pathways is not uniform, but relies on the emergence of culturally and agroecologically diverse solutions14.

Human and natural capital

A recent assessment15 puts the ‘hidden costs’ of global food and land-use systems at $12 trillion, compared to a market value of the global food system at $10 trillion. If current trends continue, these hidden costs could rise to more than $13 trillion a year by 2030. Today, food is an exceptionally subsidized and socially sensitive commodity. Not only is the planet subsidizing the global food system at a level that probably exceeds its global market value, the food system is also receiving massive direct subsidies from governments around the world. The European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is perhaps most prominent, currently accounting for 37.8% of the total EU budget. Shifting these types of subsidies to reward the production of public goods (such as carbon capture, habitat creation and improved water quality) presents a ready option for securing the global commons while supporting farming communities.

Food security, social instability and conflicts

The human pressures put on the entire Earth system are causing a rise in frequency and amplitude of extreme weather events16 and a reduction in ecological resilience. Occurring simultaneously with decades of agricultural research and development that focussed on enhancing productivity over building resilience, this has resulted in heightened vulnerability as monocultures designed to operate efficiently under stable conditions are not adapted to handle shocks and stress amplified by global change.

Food production is the first victim of environmental pressures arising in the Anthropocene. Our immediate scientific preoccupation with this worrying trajectory has been on mapping impacts on food production and seeking strategies to build food-system resilience. This may not be enough. Real world examples are providing evidence, while still debated, of the amplifying role of food-system collapse on social conflict and migration, ranging from the Arab Spring to the Syrian war, the Sudanese crisis and the Sahelian instabilities17,18,19. This is an area in need of integrated analyses that couple big data and qualitative insights on social movements (physical and political), livelihood conditions, food security, and biophysical trajectories and shocks.

A new paradigm for our food future

Planetary boundaries for the food system define thresholds for the critical overuse of global commons. In the Anthropocene, when we are at risk of destabilising the Earth system, the global commons need to be expanded from including only global externalities (high seas, atmosphere, polar ice sheets) to also include all major biomes and element cycles, which together contribute to regulate the state of the Earth system20. This puts the onus on food, and requires an urgent shift in mindset to recognize agricultural ecosystems as possibly the Earth’s largest biome — and the biome with the largest impact on the planet’s elemental cycles: nitrogen, phosphorus, water and carbon.

A second major shift is to look beyond carbon and climate. Building resilient food systems requires a systems-approach integrating carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, water, soils, biodiversity and biome stability; and taking a truly inter-disciplinary planetary health approach by addressing food cultures, nutritional security and geopolitical stability, as well as the role of governance, trade and equity. In light of the significant lag time to drive global progress on climate mitigation, we cannot afford to have succeeded in tackling climate before moving on to other planetary boundaries. Approaches must be developed and tested at a scale that operationalises a global commons framework for the stewardship of all food-related planetary boundaries. The social costs of our current global food system are unprecedented in both inter-temporal and inter-regional scales15, providing crucial information for effective governance of the commons. Advanced methods of cost-benefit analysis and the application of the precautionary principle will allow the social costs of exceeding planetary boundaries for food to be used in the transition process of crafting and justifying government rules and interventions, such as agricultural subsidies and trade agreements, providing a new paradigm for navigating our ‘Common Food Future’.

Gone are the days when it was enough to ‘think global and act local’. All our actions aggregate and are interconnected with the global commons and the Earth system. The global food system transformation to a future where healthy, culturally appropriate and adequate diets are available for all, from food systems that operate within planetary boundaries, is one of the grand transformation challenges for humanity over the coming decades. We must act across scales and along the entire food value chain to enable a prosperous and equitable future for humanity on Earth.



Profits and Pandemics

The journal Lancet, in a series of reports on Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) control, more commonly referred to as chronic disease control, has issued a persuasive report: Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects of tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drink industries.  This report is a well-researched indictment of food and beverage industries as enemies of public health, following in the same footsteps as the tobacco and alcohol industries, with their irresponsible business practices.

Here are some excerpts from the report:

National governments, non-governmental organisations,academics, and civil society need to consider what the appropriate role of the private sector will be in NCD [Non-Communicable Disease] prevention and control.

Although there is now consensus that the tobacco industry’s conflict of interest with public health is irreconcilable, whether the competing interests of the alcohol, food, and drink industries are similarly irreconcilable is debated.

The science of the effect of corporate behaviour on health is an emerging area of public health that needs to be developed substantially; it studies the health risks of transnational corporations and the distribution of the unhealthy commodities that they make and market.

In industrial epidemics, the vectors of spread are not biological agents, but transnational corporations. Unlike infectious disease epidemics, however, these corporate disease vectors implement sophisticated campaigns to undermine public health interventions. To minimise the harmful effects of unhealthy commodity industries on NCD prevention, we call for a substantially scaled up response from governments, public health organisations, and civil society to regulate the harmful activities of these industries.

Ultra-processed products

Ultra-processed products are made from processed substances extracted or refined from whole foods—eg, oils, hydrogenated oils and fats, flours and starches, variants of sugar, and cheap parts or remnants of animal foods—with little or no whole foods.  Products include burgers, frozen pizza and pasta dishes, nuggets and sticks, crisps, biscuits, confectionery, cereal bars, carbonated and other sugared drinks, and various snack products. Most are made, advertised, and sold by large or transnational corporations and are very durable, palatable, and ready to consume,which is an enormous commercial advantage over fresh and perishable whole or minimally processed foods. Consequently, their production and consumption is rising quickly worldwide. In the global north—ie, North America and Europe—ultra-processed products have largely replaced food systems and dietary patterns based on fresh and minimally processed food and culinary ingredients that have less fat, sugar, and salt. In the global south —ie, Asia, Africa, and Latin America— ultra-processed products are displacing established dietary patterns, which are more suitable socially and environmentally. Ultra-processed products are typically energy dense; have a high glycaemic load; are low in dietary fibre, micronutrients, and phytochemicals; and are high in unhealthy types of dietary fat, free sugars, and sodium.When consumed in small amounts and with other healthy sources of calories, ultra-processed products are harmless; however, intense palatability (achieved by high content fat, sugar, salt, and cosmetic and other additives), omnipresence, and sophisticated and aggressive marketing strategies (such as reduced price for super-size servings), all make modest consumption of ultra-processed products unlikely and displacement of fresh or minimally processed foods very likely. These factors also make ultra-processed products liable to harm endogenous satiety mechanisms and so promote energy overconsumption and thus obesity.

The consumption of energy-dense ultra-processed foods, unlike low energy foods such as fruits and vegetables, promotes obesity. Similarly, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with increased rates of obesity and diabetes,childhood obesity,long-term weight gain, and cardiovascular disease. In addition to the deaths caused by tobacco and alcohol, more than 18 million deaths every year are caused by high blood pressure (9·4 million), high body-mass index (3·4 million), high fasting blood glucose (3·4 million), and high total cholesterol (2·0 million),much of which could be attributed to the consumption of ultraprocessed foods and drinks.

Almost all growth in the foreseeable future in profits from the sale of these unhealthy commodities will be in low-income and middle-income countries. Saturation of markets in high-income countries and the high global average of income that people spend on food (20%) has caused the alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries to rapidly penetrate emerging global markets, as the tobacco industry has done. Transnational corporations are major drivers of the acceleration
of the nutrition transition—i.e., from traditional diets of whole or minimally processed foods to highly processed foods and drinks. The substantial growth of ultra-processed products has paralleled and contributed to the increase in obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related chronic diseases,especially in low-income and middle-income countries.

In the USA, the ten largest food companies control more than half of all food sales. Worldwide, this proportion is about 15% and is rising rapidly.

Strategies by industry to undermine effective public health policies and programmes:

Industry documents released because of tobacco and asbestos litigation show how these industries affect public health legislation and avoid regulation with both hard power (ie, building financial and institutional relations) and soft power (ie, influence of culture, ideas, and cognitions of people, advocates, and scientists). There is now evidence to show that the food, drink, and alcohol industries use similar tactics and strategies to the tobacco companies to undermine public health interventions.

The first strategy is to bias research findings. For example, Philip Morris International implemented the Whitecoat project to hire doctors to publish ghostwritten confounder studies purporting to negate links between environmental tobacco smoke and harm. The tobacco companies created quasi-independent organisations to publish biased and partial scientific reports, deny harm, and suppress health information. Similarly, funding from transnational food and beverage corporations biases research. A meta-analysis of research publications showed systematic bias from industry funding, with articles sponsored exclusively by food and drinks companies four-times to eight-times more likely to have conclusions favourable to the financial interests of the sponsoring company than those that were not sponsored by food or drinks companies. The International Center for Alcohol Policies, an organisation established and funded by large global alcohol producers, commissioned reports from scientists that resemble WHO documents. These reports were “incomplete, not subject to traditional peer review, and either supportive of industry positions or emphasizing high levels of disagreement among scientists”

The second strategy is to co-opt policy makers and health professionals. To undermine tobacco control research, the US Tobacco Institute promoted partnerships with scientists. They hired researchers and disseminated health promotion strategies to mislead the public about the harmful effects of smoking. Like the tobacco industry, the food and drink industry develops customers as young as possible, using tactics such as early-childhood health promotion schemes. SAB Miller and the International Center for Alcohol Policies have assisted the Lesotho, Malawi, Uganda, and Botswana Governments to write their national alcohol control policies. The four draft National Alcohol Policy documents were “almost identical in wording and structure and that they are likely to originate from the same source”,and were designed to “serve the industry’s interests at the expense of public health by attempting to enshrine ‘active participation of all levels of the beverage alcohol industry as a key partner in the policy formulation and implementation process’”

The third strategy is to lobby politicians and public officials to oppose public regulation. Tobacco transnationals lobby policymakers and fund campaigns of politicians who support tobacco use. The lobbying power of alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink corporations is also substantial. According to US Senate records, the largest alcohol companies spent $150 million lobbying compared with $40 million for tobacco between 1999 and 2011.58 US Senate Office of Public Records shows that PepsiCo alone reported spending more than $9 million in 2009 to lobby the US Congress. On the basis of filings with the Federal Elections Commission, in the 2008 election cycle, the company’s Political Action Committee so-called Concerned Citizen Fund alone contributed $547 700 to candidates for federal office. Its policy emphasises contributions to candidates who are “pro-business”, and who have a “commitment to improving the business climate” pending the “candidate’s position on key com mittees where legislation of importance to PepsiCo is considered”. In another example, the Sugar Association threatened WHO that it would lobby the US Government to withdraw its funding because WHO strategy on diet, physical activity, and health highlighted a strong link between sugar and NCD risk. Several people from these industries were billed in the official agenda of the September, 2011 UN high-level meeting on NCDs as the lead representatives of civil society, and gave keynote statements designed to guide policies. One was a former US Ambassador who is now Vice President, Global Public Policy and Government Affairs, at PepsiCo. The high-level meeting civil society list also included representatives from alcohol transnationals such as Diageo, SAB Miller, and Molson Coors Brewing.

The fourth strategy is to encourage voters to oppose public health regulation. For example, the tobacco industry has, and continues to campaign for, a restricted role of government, and against taxation and regulation. Their campaigns emphasise that tobacco use is an individual responsibility and raise arguments against so-called nanny state governments. Contrastingly, public health highlights the importance of social, economic, and political factors, and ethical considerations. The differences between high-risk individual and population approaches underline the gap between public health and industry perspectives. Similarly, blame-the-victim campaigns by transnational food corporations reduce public support for govern ment interventions. As an alternative to regulatory measures, alcohol and food industries promote ineffective individually-targeted information and educational approaches, and sometimes employ counter-productive covert marketing. Their social-marketing campaigns place responsibility for the purchasing decision on the individual, and in doing so, separate these choices from the circumstances in which they are made. The media regularly emphasise personal choice and responsibility and convey government intervention as coercive and oppressive. Despite the industries’ professed faith in these information-based approaches, they avoid disclosure of relevant health information to consumers. From the denial of tobacco addiction as late as 1994 to the obstruction of traffic-light labelling of unhealthy food and the recent detraction of alcoholic drinks from EU labelling legislation, the tobacco, alcohol, and food industries have all tried to block access to objective health information and to manipulate channels of communication. To deflect criticism, corporations promote actions outside their areas of expertise. For example, tobacco corporations promote the prevention of violence against women and ultra-processed food and drink corporations emphasise physical inactivity. Tobacco and alcohol producers also highlight illegal distribution and smuggling to deter policy makers from introducing regulation that will curtail their own activity. The similarities between strategies used by the tobacco, alcohol, and food and drink corporations are unsurprising in view of the flow of people, funds, and activities across these industries, which also have histories of joint ownership—eg, Philip Morris owned both Kraft and Miller Brewing; Altria is a lead shareholder in tobacco and food companies that have shared directorships; SAB Miller Board includes at least five past or present tobacco company executives and board members; and the Diageo Executive Director, responsible for public affairs, spent 17 years in a similar role at Philip Morris. Additionally, tobacco and food and drink corporations use the same public relations firms to lobby worldwide and to design stakeholder marketing campaigns such as Pernod Ricard’s drink Responsib’All Day. The alcohol and food and drink industries are united in intense opposition to the development of an equivalent to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. Article 5·3 of this convention outlines the protection of public health policies for tobacco control from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry and is relevant to the alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries. The actions of transnational corporations have generated such major concerns in the public health community,that there is now an emerging willingness to address these issues with scientific methods and systematic analysis.

The case for public regulation

The precautionary principle argues against public–private partnership because there is no evidence that the partnership of alcohol and ultra-processed food and drink industries is safe or effective, unless driven by the threat of government regulation. Similarly, there is little evidence that self-regulatory approaches are effective.

We believe that civil society should be aligned with government, which has the responsibility and power to protect public health, although compromised by transnational corporations. To fulfil this aim, governments need information and support from civil society and from public health interests. Regulation, or the threat of government regulation, is the only way to change transnational corporations; therefore, the audience for public health is government and not industry. Discussions with unhealthy commodity industries will be helpful only if they are with government and if the goal is for government to use evidence-based approaches. To respond to the scale and urgency of the global NCD epidemics, the industrial drivers that underpin them, and the tactics used by the unhealthy commodity industries so far, we have ten recommendations for action:

Recommendations of action for non-communicable diseases

For public health policy making, research, and programmes:

• Unhealthy commodity industries should have no role in the formation of national or international policy for non-communicable diseases
• Interactions with the tobacco industry should be restricted and made consistent with recommendations of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
• Discussions with unhealthy commodity industries should be with government only and have a clear goal of the use of evidence-based approaches by government
• In the absence of robust evidence for the effectiveness of self-regulation or private–public partnership in alcohol, food, and drink industry, rigorous, timely, and
independent assessment is needed to show that they can improve health and profit

For public health professionals, institutions, and civil society:

• Highly engaged, critical action is needed to galvanise an evidence-based constituency for change to implement effective and low-cost policies, to place direct pressure on industry to change, and to raise public awareness of the unhealthy effects of these industries
• Funding and other support for research, education, and programmes should not be accepted from the tobacco, alcohol, and ultra-processed food and drinks industries or their affiliates and associates

For governments and international intergovernmental agencies:

• Evidence-based approaches such as legislation, regulation, taxation, pricing, ban, and restriction of advertising and sponsorship should be introduced to reduce death and disability from non-communicable diseases

For governments, foundations, and other funding agencies:

• All approaches in the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases — ie, self-regulation, public–private partnerships, legislation, pricing, and other regulatory measures — should be independently and objectively monitored
• Funding of policy development research into modes of regulation and market interventions  should be accelerated and prioritised
• A new scientific discipline that investigates industrial diseases and the transnational corporations that drive them, should be developed.

The full article can be viewed here:

Sugar Causes Diabetes

It’s official: sugar causes diabetes.  While this may seem intuitive, it has been debated for decades.  Now, a new study, using data from 175 countries over the last decade, shows that sugar is an independent risk factor for diabetes.  Sugar consumption explains variations in diabetes that are not explained by physical activity, overweight or obesity.  The sugar-diabetes link holds true even when considering total calories, food types (including fibers, meats, fruits, oils, cereals, alcohol), and several socioeconomic variables such as aging, urbanization and income.

The level of scientific confidence here is as strong as that which linked cigarettes and lung cancer in the 1960s.  Of course, we know that it took decades for the tobacco industry to actually admit the connection.  Hopefully, the sugar and food industries will not be so recalcitrant.

So, what’s the size of this effect? For the every equivalent of 12 ounces of sugar-sweetened beverage introduced per person per day into a country’s food system, the rate of diabetes goes up 1 percent.

For more on the what this means for food industry and health politics, check out this article: It’s the Sugar, Folks