Food systems

Reframing how we think about food and health

A pervasive and powerful narrative dominates our global food system. It shapes how our food is produced, harvested, processed, distributed, marketed, eaten, and disposed of.  It drives and dominates research, investment, policy priorities, and practices of many of the dominant actors across food systems – governments, investors, businesses, research establishments, and the agri-food sector.

This prevailing narrative is one many people call a “feed the world” or “productivist” narrative –  which focuses on the quantity of food and calories produced. It is based on assumptions that we need to “double food production by 2050,” maximize yields, and base our food production on export-oriented models from the Global North. Efforts to minimize the social, health, or ecological costs are considered but are seen as less important than the goal of increasing food production to “feed the world’’.

On the surface, this sounds reasonable and plausible. But, it is a worldview that is fundamentally flawed and it continues to reinforce food systems which are no longer fit for purpose. The narrow focus on the outcome of the system has come at the expense of other goals, like health and ecological integrity.

This narrative has led to today’s predominantly industrialized food system being at the heart of many of the health crises we face. We have a global obesity epidemic with over 2 billion adults now obese or overweight and 422 million adults who have diabetes. 820 million people still go to bed hungry. Obesity, malnutrition, and NCDs are estimated to cost the global economy US$760 billion, US$3.5 trillion, and US$7 trillion, respectively[1]. Equally, food systems are responsible for almost 60% of global biodiversity loss[2] and greenhouse gas emissions estimated to be 21–37% of total net anthropogenic GHG emissions[3].

The COVID-19 pandemic is yet another symptom of this crisis, demonstrating how the health of ecosystems and animals can have a direct bearing on human health. Driven by unsustainable food systems, the large-scale conversion of land for agriculture is increasing interactions between wildlife, livestock, and humans[4].

So, how do we break away from these narratives that no longer serve us? What does a new transformational narrative that prioritizes human, ecological, and animal health and well-being look like?

This was the task that the Global Alliance for the Future of Food set about exploring. Working with Tasting the Future, a stakeholder-led engagement process gathered insights and feedback from over 100 individuals and organizations from across the food-health nexus, within and across many contexts, scales, cultures, and geographies. The process lasted 18 months.

The result was a new narrative that focuses on nourishing a growing global population well while ensuring human, ecological, and animal health and well-being as a priority. It focuses on the quality of food produced so that it contributes towards renewable, resilient, healthy, equitable, inclusive, and culturally diverse food systems.

Through this collaborative process, we identified key structural differences underpinning the assumptions upon which food systems are built. A few examples of those relating to the issue of power, ownership, and accountability are given below:

Existing Food Systems Thinking                      →New Food Systems Thinking
“We” feed the world, often driven
by the Global North.                                          →
The world feeds itself: citizens and communities grow their own foods with dignity, retaining rights to their products and access to markets.
Food is seen as a commodity.                          →          Healthy and sustainable diets are seen as a public good (commons) with farmers/producers/citizens/health-care professionals supported and incentivized to promote health in the public interest. Local and regional food systems resilience is prioritized.
Profits are maximized.                                       →Values are maximized.
Decision-making is done by the few
with money, power, and influence.                →
Citizens participate in, create, and shape food systems directly, and call for effective democratically accountable institutions.
Transparency and accountability are
not always clear.                                                →
Full transparency and accountability.
Responsibility falls on the individual,
with little focus on addressing food               →  environments & underlying
determinants of health.
Focus is on healthy and sustainable diets as a public good, healthy food environments & underlying determinants of health.
Emphasis is on a global search for
single solutions.                                                 →
A diversity of contexts requiring a diversity of solutions.

Transformational change—supported by new policies, practices, investment, and business models—will only occur with a shift of narrative and mindsets, an inspirational vision of what is possible.

Whilst advocating for policy and practice changes are, undeniably, important, these changes must be underpinned by new positive visions and narratives that are nurtured and communicated at all levels and across food systems in order to shift the mindsets of citizens, politicians and policy-makers, business leaders, researchers, investors, and others.

You are invited to take this new narrative forward in your own work, use it to guide action, and tell a different story of the future of food. The full vision and narrative can be found here: Food Systems Transformation: Promoting Human, Ecological and Animal Health & Well-being.

By Mark Driscoll, Director, Tasting the Future and Patty Fong, Program Director, Climate & Health at the Global Alliance for the Future of Food. The original article, posted on Medium, can be found here


[1] IPES-Food. Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power relations to build healthier food systems (n.p.: The Global Alliance for the Future of Food and IPES-Food, 2017).

[2] https://www.wwf.org.uk/what-we-do/food

[3] https://www.ipcc.ch/srccl/chapter/summary-for-policymakers/

[4]https://wwfeu.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_covid19_urgent_call_to_protect_people_and_nature_1.pdf ( accessed 25th June 2020)