Food systems, health, Sustainable Food

Government leadership: The missing ingredient for a healthy food future

Covid-19 must be a wake-up call for governments around the world. A call to take a different path and place human, ecological and animal health at the heart of a new, green economic system. Today, in partnership with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food,  we launch two reports focussed on the food-health nexus – ‘Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems’ with 14 recommendations for government and ‘Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems: Approaches to Policy and Practice’ highlighting 13 case studies from around the world, working to improve food systems health.

The coronavirus crisis has shone a light on the interlinkages between human, ecological and animal health and well-being. It has highlighted the vulnerability of our global food system to external shocks – today it is a zoonotic disease we had never heard of 12 months ago, tomorrow it will be shocks that we can see coming – shocks induced by global heating and unprecedented levels of biodiversity loss.

Ecological health[1] is the bedrock of human health and well-being.  It is a fundamental prerequisite for building resiliency within our food system. Covid-19 is a human tragedy which has resulted in the over a million deaths and impacted on the lives of everyone. There is, however, a time-sensitive opportunity to go beyond just  ‘build back better’ and seize this moment to transform how we grow, harvest, process, distribute, market, eat, and dispose of food. In doing so, we will also tackle the root causes of malnutrition (obesity, malnutrition, and hunger), climate change, and biodiversity loss. This is systemic action for a better future.

Covid-19 must be a wake-up call for governments around the world. A call to take a different path and place human, ecological and animal health at the heart of a new, green economic system. As governments around the world implement a set of economic stimulus packages and policies that support recovery, we need them to consider a suite of health-promoting measures that are central to sustainable, resilient, and equitable food systems. I have been amazed just how quickly some governments have responded to the Covid-19 emergency with actions that were unthinkable just 12 months ago – in the UK we have national lockdowns, economic stimulus packages to support the most vulnerable, awareness raising campaigns, and new legislation to secure food supplies all demonstrate that governments can act quickly.

We need this same urgency to address the ecological crisis. Sustainable food systems play a critical role in creating and sustaining our health and well-being and that of the planet. It is time to put an integrated approach to human, ecological, and animal health and well-being at the heart of all policymaking, legislation, governance, investments, research, and practices. As leaders around the world implement a set of economic stimulus packages and policies that support recovery, we need them to consider a suite of health-promoting measures that are central to sustainable, resilient, and equitable food systems.

For the past year, I have been working closely with the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, engaging actors working across the food-health nexus, from around the world, who have been highlighting the need for governments to ensure we promote healthy food systems. Earlier this year we launched Food Systems Transformation: Promoting Human, Ecological and Animal Health & Well-being. This shared vision and narrative highlights the urgency for governments, alongside others, to shift mindsets and the prevailing paradigms that focus only on producing more food with less impact — what we call the productivist, “feed the world” narrative — to one that promotes and prioritizes human, ecological, and animal health and well-being. Today we launch Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems , a guide for governments to act for better food systems that promote human, ecological, and animal health and well-being. This is supported by a set of 13 case studies, ‘Systemic Solutions for Healthy Food Systems: Approaches to Policy and Practice’  from different countries, cultures, and contexts.

In summary our 14 recommendations to government are:

1.Take an integrated and inclusive approach to ensure that policies relating to food, food safety and quality, environment, trade, and agriculture and nutrition promote human, ecological, and animal health and well-being.

2. Set health-based goals and robust targets for human, ecological, and animal health and well-being.

3.Assess all existing food-health policies and implement mandatory health impact assessment for all future policymaking to ensure all policies deliver on multiple health outcomes

4. Use multiple policies to create enabling food environments, ensuring citizens have access to affordable, culturally relevant, and healthy foods where they live.

5. Reorient public subsidies related to food systems to ensure public money is used for public goods, including food systems that incentivize the production and consumption of nutritious, sustainable, and healthy foods.

6 Facilitate the affordability of health-promoting foods and healthy diets, especially for poor households and vulnerable groups.

7.Assess the health and food safety implications of international trade agreements and policies.

8. Support local supply chains, informal markets, and micro-, small-, and medium-size enterprises (MSMEs).

9. Develop culturally appropriate, sustainable, and health-promoting food-based sustainable dietary guidelines (FBSDGs) and ensure public food procurement standards align with these.

10. Recognize the importance of ecological, food, and health literacy in ­influencing citizen behaviours and reconnecting people with food.

11 Food systems research and innovation should focus on research for public good.

12. The precautionary principle must be at the heart of the health research and innovation agenda.

13. Promote and encourage dialogue, collaboration, and action among all actors directly and indirectly involved and impacted in and by food systems.

14. Support and commit to international action frameworks that will be crucial for action on sustainable and healthy food systems.

In the UK, now is an opportune moment to place health at the heart of food and agricultural policies – we have agricultural and trade bills going through parliament and Part 2 of a National Food Strategy which is due to be published early in 2021. For example, in a post-Brexit world we need to ensure agricultural subsidies really do result in public money is used for public goods – agricultural systems that incentivize nutritious, sustainable and healthy foods and production systems focussed on diversified cropping/livestock systems based on agroecological and regenerative agricultural approaches.

Our set of 13 case studies are aimed at government advocates and actors working across the food and health systems, highlight the need for governmental leadership – at local and national levels. One of these case studies is Peas Please, a programme which aims to boost vegetable consumption through cross-sector action in the U.K. by making vegetables appealing, affordable, and accessible. This and our other case studies demonstrate the need to address the underlying causes of health (what we call the key determinants of health) and that that policy reform is possible but this requires new narratives, mindsets, a bold vision, and leadership from governments. 

[1] Often the term ‘planetary health’ is used in many scientific publications. We prefer the term ‘ecological health’ as it resonates/connects with key actors at a local/community level. Ecology tends to be embedded in the local and people feel empowered to act whilst the term ‘planetary health’ is associated with something which is more distant and abstract.

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