From Policy To Practice: Connect The Dots Between Health Crises And Food Systems Transformation

The second half of 2021 offers the possibility of bold, transformative change with decision makers from around the word set to gather for a number of high-level meetings. From the UN (United Nations) Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) in September 2021 to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in November 2021, governments can make decisions this year to transform food systems—learning from the COVID-19 experience and acting to truly protect human, animal, and planetary health.

According to the 2020 report of the Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change, aligning the COVID-19 global recovery with action on climate could not only improve public health but create a sustainable economy and protect the environment.

The pandemic has also highlighted the complex interdependence of ecological, animal, and human health that is typically overlooked in mainstream conversations around food system practices. Systematically addressing the interconnected health risks of food systems first requires acknowledgement of these key connections, as well as the failures of the current system, which focuses on the quantity of food and calories produced by maximizing the yield of individual crops. This primary focus on the productivity of individual crops, often for export, has come at the expense of worker health, environmental health, consumer health, affordable access to nutritious and diverse foods, and food safety.

Strong leadership at a policy level is then needed to mobilize and facilitate integrated and inclusive reform. The UN Convention on Biodiversity (COP15), COP26, and the UNFSS, all scheduled for later in 2021, are opportunities for decision makers to do just that by committing to, and creating conditions for, reforms that will transform the production, distribution, and disposal of food. Achieving this also requires policy makers to embrace a more integrated approach to problem solving that is informed by “levers of change”—vision and leadership, governance, fiscal influences, knowledge and education, research and innovation, and collaboration.

These levers of change are mentioned in an October 2020 report published by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, where I direct the Climate and Health program. The Global Alliance is a strategic alliance of philanthropic foundations working together and with others to transform global food systems now and for future generations. We are not a grantmaker. Our unique contribution is to work together and with others to strengthen the evidence for global systems change, convene food system actors in meaningful dialogue, and stimulate local and global action for transformational change. Our members work on a range of issues from women’s empowerment in West Africa to large-scale supply chains out of South America, to addressing the root causes of climate change.

Examples From The United Kingdom And Germany

A number of initiatives from around the world have already demonstrated how this approach can help address numerous health determinants at once and produce more positive and sustainable outcomes. Peas Please, a United Kingdom-wide initiative (see page 19) led by the Food Foundation, is one such example. It aims to drive an increase in vegetable consumption that then improves nutrition and reduces diet-related diseases, as well as improves “ecological health” by promoting a more plant-based diet that has a lower environmental impact.

The Peas Please initiative uses a flexible “Pledge Framework” where participating organizations establish specific and sector-relevant commitments—for example, retailers set marketing and sales targets while public-sector organizations work toward policy action. So far, 96 organizations from retailers to contract catering services have made pledges. Multimedia advertising, co-created with input from food businesses, has been rolled out to promote vegetable consumption while a new trade alliance for fruit and vegetable producers in the United Kingdom was established to facilitate collective action. The initiative also strives to build on existing city-wide partnerships and, with more than 20 cities and local areas already signed up for this campaign, this has led to an additional 90 million portions of vegetables being sold or served by pledging organizations.

Another success story comes from Germany where the government’s “Organic Farming—Looking Forwards Strategy” is aiming for 20 percent of agricultural land in the country to be organically farmed by 2030. This target (see page 7) is part of the Federal Republic’s Sustainability Strategy to build on existing government support for organic agriculture and accelerate a shift to a more sustainable, healthy food system.

The strategy is aided by a five-pronged support package that includes financial support for farmers, as well as research and development. Payments to farmers for the introduction and maintenance of organic farming are supported with public funds from the European Union and Germany’s federal (national) government and federal states, while a knowledge transfer and advanced training program has been devised and implemented. Thousands of research projects have been funded through this support package while recent figures suggest that the average income of the organic test farms exceeded the income of the conventional reference farms by around 36 percent, and the estimated amount in sales of organic foods rose by almost 10 percent to 11.97 billion euros in 2019.

Shifting Our Approach To Health And Food Systems Crises

These successes highlight how a systems-thinking approach can successfully tackle multiple problems at once and get a variety of industries and stakeholders on board. Policy makers, in particular, have an opportunity to show real leadership, shift the narrative about what’s possible, and—ultimately—do more to connect the dots between health crises and food systems transformation, as outlined in “Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems: A Guide to Government Action” and the WHO [World Health Organization] Manifesto for a Healthy Recovery from COVID-19: Prescriptions and Actionables for a Healthy and Green Recovery. In rebuilding from the disruption of the pandemic, governments can also play a central role in facilitating collaboration among stakeholders, providing financial incentives to food producers, and establishing stricter governance to create more sustainable and resilient food systems for the future.

On June 4, 2021, the WHO, EAT, and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food hosted a webinar titled “Healthy Food Systems: For People, Planet, and Prosperity.” In this session, experts from across the health and food communities explored how a new narrative about healthy food systems can be used and already is being used to stimulate action and drive decision makers toward making commitments—from policies to investments—that deliver on better health outcomes for people, animals, and the planet.

Related Reading:

“Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems: A Guide to Government Action,” Global Alliance for the Future of Food, October 2020.

Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems: Approaches to Policy & Practice, Global Alliance for the Future of Food, October 2020.

“Food Systems Transformation: Promoting Human, Ecological, & Animal Health & Well-being: A Shared Vision & Narrative,” Global Alliance for the Future of Food, July 2020.

Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing Practices, Political Economy, and Power Relations to Build Healthier Food Systems, Global Alliance for the Future of Food and iPES-Food (International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems), 2017.

“Climate Change And Health: Recently Funded Projects,” by Lee L. Prina, GrantWatch section, December 2020 issue, Health Affairs.

Table of Contents, thematic issue on Climate and Health, December 2020, Health Affairs.