Food Systems Innovations for Healthier Diets


by Alan de Brauw | April 24, 2019

Low and middle-income countries are in the midst of a rapid transition from traditional to modern diets. While some consumers still lack access to enough food, for others, the growing availability and consumption of processed foods and increasingly sedentary lifestyles are leading to accelerating overweight and obesity rates.

Present food systems are clearly not equipped to provide all consumers with the ability to choose nutritious and healthy diets. And while proposals for healthy, more environmentally sustainable diets exist, actions are needed to help consumers change diets, as without action food systems will likely continue to provide more and more unhealthy processed foods.

The CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health's (A4NH) Food Systems for Healthier Diets flagship is working to support the development of food systems that enable people to make better, healthier choices. To do so, one must begin by realizing that food systems incorporate producers, processes, and activities involved in getting food — all types of food — from where it originates to where it is consumed. If food systems are to provide healthier choices in the future than they do at present, food systems innovations that change systems to lead to better outcomes are necessary. To make this possible, identifying innovations that include policies, regulations, processes, knowledge, and technologies that can be implemented with potential large-scale impact on diets is critical. In a new paper, we develop a conceptual framework to understand the types of innovations that can lead to healthier diets.

The advantage of taking a food systems perspective in this analysis is that it enables us to incorporate tradeoffs, synergies, and feedback from different system components. For example, if new cold chains are introduced, then fruits and vegetables can be grown farther away from large urban markets, improving consumer choice. However, they use more water and require more chemical inputs, which can have deleterious effects on farms downstream, and potential later consequences for the food systems. What sets food systems analysis apart is that it explicitly acknowledges and attempts to measure these dynamics.

The paper also considers that although food systems are a broad concept, the diet is quite individual. Diets are based on choices, both conscious and unconscious, about what to eat every day. Influencing conscious choices can take place through providing information, but unconscious choices are more influenced by the food environment. Therefore, while information campaigns may be important to improve diets, changing the food environment to foster healthier unconscious choices may be more effective.

To summarize, the paper categorizes potential innovations as targeting change in three components of food systems:

  • Within agricultural value chains,
  • Changing the food environment, and
  • Consumer behavior

These components were mapped against how the innovation would take place, either through:

  • Changes in policies or regulations,
  • Institutional changes, or
  • Technological changes.

Laid out in a matrix, this mapping exercise better identifies where leadership for different types of innovations is required. While virtually all the examples cited in the paper are at present untested from a food systems perspective, the exercise helps us envision both the types of innovations that could occur and gaps in either knowledge or imagination about further types of innovations. As examples of innovations are studied from a food systems perspective, we will be better able to anticipate tradeoffs or synergies, such as those that potentially come at the expense of environmental goals, improve overall food safety, involve migration, or intersect with international trade.

Efforts to make changes in the food systems to provide consumers access to choices for healthier diets require first understanding what the dietary imbalances are and how diets are constructed. This understanding must be followed by creative, collaborative thinking about approaches to foster change. While changes can be led by the public or private sector, we conclude that they likely require coalition building between the public and private sectors to ensure they are anchored within the food system.

Alan de Brauw is a Senior Research Fellow in the Markets, Trade, and Institutions division at IFPRI. He conducts research in A4NH's Food Systems for Healthier Diets research flagship, and is lead author on the new paper.