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Moving from Feeding to Nourishing: Can we learn from the climate change movement to shape the food markets of tomorrow?

The Global Nutrition Summit, held in Milan on Nov. 4, reminded us that our current food systems are driving societies into the ground.

We are not producing nutritious and healthy foods at affordable prices to nourish the world’s population. And the externalities of unhealthy foods, including increased risk of developing health problems, such as high blood pressure and cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke, are not reflected into food prices. Poor diets are already the leading cause of disease globally and the second leading risk factor for early death after smoking. The result is 1 in 3 people are malnourished (meaning undernourished, overweight or obese). And the newly-released 2017 Global Nutrition Report has found that almost every country in the world now has serious nutrition problems, either due to over-eating or undernutrition.

Given this dramatic trend, a shift seems unavoidable. We need transformative solutions. But where do we start?

Because our work is focused on undernutrition, we are particularly interested in how the food markets and food industries (both fresh and packaged goods) of low- and middle-income countries will need to evolve to serve the needs of low-income populations. To reverse the trends we’ve been seeing, we need a shift in consumer knowledge and preferences, and we need food systems to supply healthier, nutritious food that is affordable. Both changes need to happen concurrently.

There is an interesting parallel between food and energy systems. We can be inspired and draw lessons from how the climate change movement has been successful in driving major changes in the energy systems over the past 25 years.

Despite fierce opposition from energy companies, arguing that change would be too costly, decrease shareholder value, slow economic growth, increase the cost of living of low-income households, and lead to millions of people losing their jobs, energy systems have undergone a dramatic transformation.

Today, industry is moving away from fossil fuels and renewable energies, technologies to improve efficiency, and innovations to reach the poor are seen as the future, and key drivers of competitive advantage, shareholder investments and a company’s bottom line.

Business as usual, on the other hand, has become a driver of risk (regulatory, loss of market due to changing consumer attitudes, volatile world prices, and maturity of the markets in high income countries). Change is still far too slow, and fossil fuels are still too dominant. But, back in 1992, few would have predicted that change would be so far-reaching.

This was achieved through a phenomenal collective effort that combined the imposition of standards, taxes, regulations, cap and trade systems, enormous government investments in subsidizing new cleaner technologies, such as solar panels, as well as shifts in consumer behavior through tax credits and price subsidies; major citizen awareness and advocacy efforts; and significant investments in the science of climate change.

Food systems and the food industry need to undergo a transformation of similar scale, with nutrient-empty and unhealthy foods being phased out — just like fossil fuels.

We know that low-income consumers spend up to 60–70 percent of their income on food. This represents an enormous market. In fact, the developing world’s 4.5 billion people spent $2.3 trillion on food and beverage in 2010. And that number is growing fast. At their income level, however, few are able to purchase the right food to have a nutritious diet. A recent study in several low-income countries showed that the cost of buying 5 fruits or vegetables a day alone for each member of a poor household amounted to more than 50 percent of that household income. There are many market failures at play here.

The world needs a different equilibrium in which food markets deliver value for individuals — regardless of income — and businesses alike. In fact, it’s striking that a new report from the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition only mentions the word “business” once. This is true for most global reports on food systems, agriculture and diets. How can this be the case when businesses are primarily in charge of producing, transforming and distributing the food that people buy?

While markets will always play the central role in food supply and demand, strong government intervention. Many levers are needed to support and accelerate this systemic shift. A few important building blocks come to mind:

  • Inspiration.

    Government and businesses alike need to be able to picture what the responsible, health and nutritious food markets of tomorrow look like. What are we aspiring to? Scenarios could be developed based on different assumptions to drive an ambitious agenda, political commitments and financial investments to support the shift of food markets. We can learn from other industries, and think outside the box.

  • More dialogue & champions.

    We need to figure out how to bring the main constituencies — governments, industry, consumers and civil society — to the table and committed to a shift. This is a long-term agenda that requires powerful voices and champions in government, science, civil society and industry. Where are the Al Gores, Nicholas Sterns or Elon Musks of nutritious food systems? Or how about a Conference of the Parties (COP) mechanism for food systems, modeled after the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change? We should explore all avenues.

  • Greater focus on incentives & levers.

    Too often the solutions are presented as technical, and at a micro level (e.g. supporting a new fortified food, or regulating salt or sugar content of a specific type of food or drinks), rather than at the systems level. We need to figure out the key incentives and levers, positive and negative, that will accelerate a shift of the whole industry. What is the role of regulation, standards, taxes, tax credits, innovation, research subsidies, consumer subsidies, cash transfers, citizen engagement, public health messaging, advertising, etc., in accelerating this shift? We also need to consider how to make it more attractive for companies to invest in nutritious foods for the poor and how to make it costlier and riskier, and therefore less profitable, for the food industry to continue investing in unhealthy foods. Which institutions need to be supported to change these incentives?

  • Better data and learning.

    We know more and more about the drivers, prevalence and impact of malnutrition as well as the impact of food systems on climate change, but we have surprisingly little hard data about people’s diets and choice sets, and what investments would be required for food systems to deliver the outcome we want. We also need better learning platforms to identify common challenges, share lessons and design and execute the most appropriate solutions.

Systemic change will require complex analysis at the global and country level, and some form of industry facilitation. But what’s clear is that the level of urgency and ambition to resolve the issue needs to go up dramatically. By 2025, 1 in 2 people worldwide will suffer from one form of malnutrition.

The scale of the challenges seems daunting, but there is a lot of inspiration and lessons to draw from the climate community. Perhaps, we need a “diet change” movement to follow the climate change one?

Photo © Georgina Smith/CIAT

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