Fanzo J, Bellows AL, Spiker ML, Thorne-Lyman AL, Bloem MW. The importance of food systems and the environment for nutrition. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2020;113(1):7-16.
Open access link to article:
Dietitians-Nutritionists involved in research to advance sustainability in global food systems and nutrition.
The authors identify research and information gaps needed to transition nutrition and food systems toward sustainability and put out a call from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) for innovative food systems research. They also provide an overview of the rationale for the transition.
Bottom line for nutrition practice:
- Climate change and environmental degradation affect human health by impacting clean air, drinkable water, food safety and exposure to pathogens, and the ability to produce and gather plant and animal-based foods. These impacts have a disproportionate effect on poor and marginalized populations, further increasing equity gaps in nutrition and health outcomes.
- Environmental changes are both drivers of changes in food systems, and also impact food and agricultural outcomes; this results in a feedback loop. For example, greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production impact climate temperatures, which in turn impact food production.
- The authors maintain that nutrition professionals have a broad expertise and are well positioned to collaborate with other disciplines in order to further sustainable food system practices (e.g., reducing food loss and waste, advancing sustainable agricultural practices, and forwarding sustainability in food services and food environments).
- They identify numerous gaps in knowledge – including the need for a greater understanding of the relationship between agriculture, food value chains, climate, environment, diet, nutrition, and human health, as well as how a transition can be made (e.g., what are effective public health and policy interventions to advance sustainable food systems?).
- Global and local food system transformation is necessary in order to ensure the delivery of healthy, safe, and nutritious foods in both sustainable and equitable ways. Food systems are complex entities that affect diets, human health, and a range of other outcomes including economic growth, natural resource and environmental resiliency, and sociocultural factors.
- However, food systems contribute to and are vulnerable to ongoing climate and environmental changes that threaten their sustainability. Although there has been increased focus on this topic in recent years, many gaps in our knowledge persist on the relation between environmental factors, food systems, and nutritional outcomes.
- In this article, we summarize this emerging field and describe what innovative nutrition research is needed in order to bring about food policy changes in the era of climate disruption and environmental degradation.
Details of results:
The authors present the case that climate change and environmental degradation will have severe impacts on human health. They cite research suggesting that low latitude areas of the globe will have reduced crop yields as a result of climate change, whereas higher latitude areas may have increased yields in the short term. Increasing CO2 in the environment may also impact the nutrient content of foods. Lower yields, instability, decreased micronutrient content and increased costs disproportionately threaten poor households.
Further, these differences across the globe may result in a greater reliance on global rather than local food supplies, which the authors suggest will further threaten equity, food sovereignty and sustainability of food systems. Increased temperatures will also cause an escalation of crop pests and pathogens, and toxic producing algal blooms in marine systems.
The authors argue that many knowledge gaps in our understanding exist and propose a conceptual framework to further examine human health, food systems and the environment. It consists of:
- environmental inputs (e.g., soil quality, temperature, ocean acidification);
- food system (i.e., food supply; food environment; consumer behavior);
- proximal outcomes (i.e., food safety exposures; diet; food loss and waste);
- distal outcomes (nutrition and health; environment (e.g., greenhouse gas emissions)).
The framework illustrates how distal outcomes in turn influence environmental inputs in a feedback loop. Knowledge gaps are outlined in more detail under components of their conceptual framework.
i. Environmental inputs and food system processes
As well as noting gaps such as research lacking on middle of the food supply chain (versus production and consumer dietary intake), the authors stress the need to understand more about designing food environments to advance health and sustainability. For example, including ecological footprint of foods, the amount and type of packaging used, eco- and health labeling on food packages, food sourcing origins and food safety information. They also stress that more research on policies and interventions that effectively incentivize healthy and sustainable diets is required – from both the position of consumer and of food supply chain stakeholders.
ii. Proximal outcomes of the food system
- Diet: The authors identify the lack of data both in what people consume, and also in methods to test the effectiveness of interventions to advance healthy and sustainable diets.
- Food safety in the food system: A paucity of data is noted in relation to human health effects and exposure to chemical and biological agents, including pesticide use and plastic packaging. They also highlight the importance of understanding consumer perceptions of pesticide, chemical, and antimicrobial exposure and how this may impact decisions on food purchasing.
- Food loss and waste: The authors identify the need for more accurate data on food loss and waste as well as cost effective policies and interventions to reduce it (see: of further interest, FAO Food Waste Index).
iii. Distal outcomes of food systems:
- Nutrition and health outcomes: The authors cite The Global Syndemic Commission (see: of further interest) where the “syndemic”—”the consequences of undernutrition, overweight/obesity, and climate change”—are presented as interconnected (p. 12). They also note that uncertainties remain about the impacts of environmental degradation and climate change on micronutrient deficiencies.
- Environmental outcomes: The impacts of food systems on environmental outcomes differ by region and method of food production. Further, research to date centers more so on high income countries, greenhouse gas emissions, and livestock and staple grain products.
While the authors maintain that nutrition professionals are well positioned to address healthy and sustainable food systems, they also suggest that more data is required.
Further, they stress that different geographical, political, and societal contexts will greatly impact how the issues are addressed by stakeholders within various countries including professionals and governments.
Finally, this article is a call by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) for cross-disciplinary, innovative food systems research that will inform action at various geographical levels across the globe.
Of additional interest:
The Global Syndemic of Obesity, Undernutrition, and Climate Change: The Lancet Commission report (2019) https://www.thelancet.com/commissions/global-syndemic
FAO Food Waste Index (2021): https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021
Conflict of interest/ Funding:
The authors reported no funding received for this study.