Connecting the Dots: We Can Change Food Systems to Improve Health for People and the Planet

Our modern world is very different than it was at the turn of the century. And it’s complex. Very complex.

Chatbots and smart phones give us constant encyclopedic knowledge, entertainment, and news – sometimes at the expense of exercise and other activities. Climate change is no longer a future state – it is noticeable every day. We’re also still emerging from a life-altering pandemic that changed daily life – including what, when, how, and where we eat. When it comes to food, our choices may, even unknowingly, not provide the best health outcomes for us or the planet. 

How did we get here? We are in some ways victims of our own success. Significant growth in the agriculture and food science sectors have expanded both the amount and varieties of foods available through complex food systems that involve where foods come from and how they are transported and distributed – as well as who has access and in what quantities.

The 20th century expansion of agricultural productivity made it possible for farmers to increase global commodity crop production enough to keep up with the growing human population. Yet this “green revolution” also contributed to environmental challenges and a decrease in dietary diversity. Providing enough food for everyone on the planet is a noble goal, but it remains a daunting challenge. Due to both biological and sociopolitical/environmental factors, we have yet to achieve it, as an alarming number of people still live with food insecurity. Current agricultural practices are also a major driver of global environmental change – contributing up to 25% of greenhouse gas emissions and using 40% of the planet’s land mass and 70% of its fresh water. 

Second, improvements in food packaging and preservation technologies, innovations in formulation and processing methods, and food science advances introduced more complexity and came at a cost. Yes, the ability to make foods tasty and desirable, coupled with an extended shelf-life for easier transport and storage, allowed rapid and efficient global manufacturing and delivery of large amounts of food. Yet these methods often have a high carbon footprint and low nutritional value: contributing to the shift from traditional diets to modern ones that are high in fat, sugar, and salt; low in fiber; and that frequently contain additives and other ingredients. 

Today, ultra-processed foods are everywhere. The vast majority of the calories eaten in the United States come from such products as soft drinks, packaged snacks, and fast food. The ironic truth is that despite a wealth of food options available to us, modern diets are increasingly causing malnutrition – now the leading global cause of illness and death. Malnutrition too is complex: it can manifest as undernutrition, obesity, or as specific deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals.

The bottom line is that health and sustainability – at an individual, population, and planetary level – were not considered when agricultural and food technology innovations emerged. Now we need to consider and prioritize both – and fast. 

What’s the answer?

We’re moving forward, using an ecological approach to address the complex set of issues before us. Applying new scientific and technological approaches, we can do this! The Office of Nutrition Research (ONR) is leading the way to reconsider food systems, reviewing existing plans and partnering with a range of groups, including, for example:

We also interact frequently with  other federal agencies including the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Department of Agriculture, and we are involved with the White House National Strategy on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. In my next blog, I’ll further explore how our small but mighty ONR team is identifying research opportunities far and wide through interactions with all our partners.

We have an extraordinary moment to take proactive action that can change our future. The time is now, and nutrition science is part of the solution: we must intentionally connect food systems to human and planetary health through research-informed nutrition programs and policies. It’s not a simple proposition, but we need to do it. And rather than shying away from the complexities, we’re embracing them – working across all sectors and disciplines. ONR is breaking down silos and bringing everyone to the same table to focus on solutions in a holistic manner. Appreciating that nutrition is a foundational variable for health is an important part of the strategy, as is focusing research on health-related outcomes for both people and the planet. Imagine this: science driving the development of food systems that not only feed people, but also keep people and the planet healthy. This is the vision!

As always, I welcome comments, feedback, and suggested new directions any time (check out the “Request a Session” button for NutRitioNaLS – NIH Research on Nutrition Listening Sessions, located on the ONR Website). Until then, thanks for reading, and please subscribe to receive ONR email updates.

Nutrition Is Who We Are!

Drew Bremer

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