Ensuring Food Security for all Means Building Food Sustainability into our Systems - Isabella Health Foundation

Ensuring Food Security for all Means Building Food Sustainability into our Systems

By: Josh Lowe
Josh Lowe is a freelance writer and editor specializing in public policy and social affairs.

How can we ensure everyone has access to plentiful, healthy food? It’s a crucial question, especially when more than one in ten U.S. households was food insecure at some time during 2018. And according to the USDA, approximately 39.4 million people live in food deserts throughout the U.S.  

But that question doesn’t capture the whole picture. Getting enough food today is important. But providing enough healthy food for future generations — without destroying the planet — is a critical challenge. 

A food system that meets that challenge is what the American Public Health Association defines a  “sustainable” system. So what’s wrong with our current food systems that leaves them falling short? And how can we create systems that are more sustainable? In this article, we delve into some of the latest research into these questions. 

Failing systems

“There is now wide recognition that the global food system, today, is not sustainable:” that’s the stark assessment given by Alexandre Meybeck and Vincent Gitz, in a 2017 article for Proceedings of the Nutrition Society.

They draw attention to a series of striking figures, which highlight the difficulty many people find in accessing sufficient healthy food right now. More than two billion people are malnourished, while almost 800 million are undernourished, and more than one billion are overweight and obese. 

And they warn of looming future threats: according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, changes in humanity’s consumption patterns and rises in population mean that global food demand could increase by 60% by 2050, compared to 2007 levels. 

The damaging effects of food insecurity are especially pronounced in developing countries. In Tanzania, for example, 35.5% of children below the age of two years are stunted. Among children aged 6–23 months, 73, 42 and 33% of children experience anaemia, iron and vitamin A deficiency, respectively, according to a 2018 article by Jofrey Raymond, Neema Kassim, Jerman W. Rose and Morris Agaba.

Not hungry, still insecure

And while many assume food insecurity results from a straightforward lack of food, the true picture is not so simple. 

A 2019 WHO report, for example, presents evidence that “the absolute number of people who suffer from hunger continues to slowly increase”, but also emphasizes, in a first for the organization, that “food insecurity is more than just hunger”.

“Many people in the world, even if not hungry, experience moderate food insecurity as they face uncertainties about their ability to obtain food and are forced to compromise on the quality and/or quantity of the food they consume,” according to the WHO.

The underlying causes of food insecurity are socially determined. Raymond et al. point out inadequate food intake itself arises from other social factors, most importantly poverty. 

Meanwhile, people living in developing countries may often be producers of good-quality food, and yet this does not ensure their access to it. Raymond et al. writes “most Tanzanian households trade nutrition for food, meaning that they would rather sell their high-value nutrient dense food in exchange for bulk low-density cereal, sugar and other food stuff.”

The United States: Wealthy, but not sustainable

In the United States, the industrialized food system produces ample quantities of food, often at fairly affordable prices. Yet, the nutritional content of much of that food is very poor. And deep inequities persist resulting in some Americans being more likely to struggle with access.

“In principle, a wealthy country should be capable of ensuring that all of its citizens have access to nutritious and balanced diets. This is patently not the case for the U.S. at present,” writes Martin Koehring of the Economist Intelligence Unit In a 2017 article for The Huffington Post.

Koehring highlights the United State’s surprisingly poor performance — 21st out of 34 countries — in that year’s Food Sustainability Index, developed by The Economist Intelligence Unit with the Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition.

For example, the sugar content of Americans’ diets was the highest of all countries in the index, with 42% of children overweight as a result. 

Meanwhile, high levels of meat consumption mean the U.S. performs poorly on the environmental dimension of sustainability. 

With an average American consuming 225.4 grams of meat a day, among the highest in the world, U.S. agriculture ranks above only India, Tunisia and the UAE on the index. That is partially attributable to a very high level of greenhouse gas emissions, associated with the rearing of livestock.

And Weybeck and Gitz cite one study finding, to feed the world on a “western high meat diet,” there would have to be “a cropland expansion of 20%, intensive crop production and intensive livestock production.”

Meanwhile, just as in developing countries, the causes of food insecurity in the U.S. are socially determined. 

The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion highlights profound racial and ethnic disparities in access to good food, for example, reporting “in 2016, Black non-Hispanic households were nearly 2 times more likely to be food insecure than the national average”.

Searching for solutions

So how can food systems be made more sustainable? 

As in Tanzania and the U.S., adequate food supply does not necessarily mean food security for all. Raymond et al. focus on this counterintuitive observation, arguing: “If food poverty is to be reduced, then it is important to ask who produces the food, who has access to the technology and knowledge to produce it, and who has the purchasing power to acquire it?”

They argue in response that, for developing countries, “a more sustainable agriculture which improves the asset base can lead to rural livelihood improvements.”

But they caution that the complex nature of food systems could lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. Building a road near a forest could encourage illegal timber extraction as well as helping farmers. Increasing the number of crops grown could lead to higher workloads that fall disproportionately on women.

Meanwhile, a 2017 position paper from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics advocates a comprehensive approach for the U.S. This would address both individual and systemic factors that lead to food insecurity, from educating people about the public resources they can access, to campaigning for legislative and regulatory change that secure access to food and relevant knowledge.

And Meybeck and Gitz explore links between the focus on sustainable systems, with recent research into the concept of sustainable diets

“A diet is a selection of foods, eaten by an individual, chosen between those made available by the food system,” they write. “Conversely the sum of diets creates the overall food demand that directs food systems.” As such, Meybeck and Gitz point out: “Diets are thus both a result and a driver of food systems.” 

They recommend a new definition of “sustainable diets” which acknowledges this two way relationship. Solutions, they argue, must consider both individual behaviors, and the systems of which they are part: “to trigger choices, there is a need to mobilize cultural, historical, geographical references and economic forces.”

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