Improving diets is a high priority in global development: a notable share of the world's population faces at least one of the three forms of malnutrition: undernutrition, micronutrient malnutrition, or overweight and obesity. At the same time, diets are rapidly changing, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, but not necessarily improving, since dietary transitions typically involve people eating more animal fats, sugars, and processed foods. Researchers and policymakers are working to stimulate changes toward healthier diets, through policies, projects, and programs. However, these interventions often narrowly focus on specific consumer groups or foods, and rarely take a whole diet approach.
Produce for sale in Hanoi, Vietnam Photo: J.Hodur/A4NH
Shifting to focus interventions on food systems can help address these challenges from a whole diet perspective. Food systems encompass all the people, activities, and steps involved in getting food from where it is grown to where it is eaten. Food systems shape diets and are characterized by multiple interactions, tradeoffs, and feedback mechanisms. For example, food production puts stress on the environment and its natural resource base by degrading soils, polluting and exhausting fresh water supplies, encroaching on forests, depleting wild fish stocks, and reducing biodiversity. We cannot address dietary challenges without considering these impacts and using analytical methods that aim to understand complex systems. Adopting a food systems approach to diet improvement would facilitate the identification of leverage points for systematic changes, accounting for the full range of interactions, tradeoffs, and system dynamics.
Implementing such a food systems approach, however, requires using a comprehensive set of indicators to measure both the current state of food systems and their directions. Such metrics can also be used to measure progress on key goals, evaluate impacts of system transitions and proposed changes, gauge efficacy of interventions, and ultimately facilitate the scaling up of successful interventions. Food systems metrics and indicators are also useful to structure high-level debates and communicate the complexity of the system to policymakers or the general public. As such, they are instrumental in creating awareness and improving transparency, beyond their use in monitoring and evaluation. Ideally, a common set of indicators used across countries and over time would allow for comparison and shared learning.
New research from scientists at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), and Wageningen University & Research, conducted through the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) shows that the availability of such indicators is uneven. The paper analyses data available in the four focus countries of the A4NH Food Systems for Healthier Diets research flagship: Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and Vietnam. Laid out in a framework that describes the food system, the analysis reveals where countries can draw upon existing data, and where data is lacking.
The analysis finds that data availability is uneven across the four countries. The paper finds a general need for more micro-level data that explores and helps trace the path of food as it moves from producers to consumers. They saw limited availability of information on food processing, which has only recently been an area of concern and interest as food systems research has developed, as well as in the food environment, but the interactive graphic below shows that data are lacking in other areas as well, but each country has different availability and data needs.
"Ensuring the food systems can deliver enough healthy, nutrient-rich food will be a major challenge for rapidly growing economies over the next decade. A better understanding of where the gaps are, and how small changes can fix many of them, is the first step towards achieving this critical goal of ensuring healthy diets for people worldwide," said Alan de Brauw, one of the authors of the study.
Can employer-provided on-site meals provide an avenue to improve diets and catalyze food system changes?
The authors map national food system transformations in a recently developed typology, using economic, social, dietary, and environmental outcomes to examine whether there are linear patterns as countries move from one categorization to another.
PhD candidates with A4NH's Food Systems for Healthier Diets research flagship reflect on what they learned about engaging in national food system transformation during the course of their study.