WHO evidence review on plant-based diets

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The European Regional Office of the World Health Organisation has released a fact sheet reviewing the evidence for the impact of plant-based diets on health and sustainability. The document was released in response to increasing discussion of the concept of “plant based” foods and diets in the European region. They define such diets as “emphasizing foods derived from plant sources coupled with lower consumption or exclusion of animal products”.

In Europe, non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are the major health concern, with cardiovascular disease alone accounting for more than half of all European deaths. Many NCDs can be linked to diet, and specifically to low consumption of vegetables and fruit. Indeed, in more than half of the European countries, daily vegetable and fruit consumption recommendations are not met.

Several studies have identified the reduced burden of many NCDs, especially diabetes, in the vegetarian and vegan population. They note the generally lower BMI and all-round healthier lifestyle of individuals who choose these diets as a contributing factor, as well as the diets themselves.

Reductions in NCDs from more balanced diets would be expected to have benefits for health, and thus reduce health-care expenditure. Environmentally, there may be benefits to reducing the impacts associated with high consumption of animal-sourced foods, such as greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.

The greatest risks associated with increasingly plant-based diets are for nutrient intakes. The fact sheet encourages proper planning of these diets to account for the reduced supply and bioavailability of nutrients such as iron, vitamin A, B12 and D, and zinc, as well as choosing foods fortified or supplemented with these nutrients.

The authors also warn against blanket associations between plant-based and healthy. Many highly or ultra-processed foods are plant-based, but not all such foods can be described as healthy. Examples such as imitation meats and milks are given, as highly processed plant-based foods containing added sugars, flavours, colours, emulsifiers, and salt. Little is currently known about the nutritional or health impacts of such foods if forming a major part of the diet, as this is still an emerging product group.

The report concludes that the adoption of plant-based diets can be beneficial, and that even incremental changes towards such diets may have benefits. They recommend that foods in such a diet be chosen that are minimally processed and ensure adequate nutrient intakes. Increasing vegetable and fruit consumption, particularly for those not meeting recommendations, should certainly be a target for European authorities.

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“Local” food and sustainability

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Local food supply chains are often touted as more sustainable than international food trade. A recent review aimed at decision makers in the food system has emphasised that this is not a rule of thumb.

The review provides a clear explanation for why the purchase and consumption of food produced locally is not necessarily more sustainable than food that has travelled longer distances.  For example, a food product’s carbon footprint is determined much more by land use and production efficiencies than by the distance it has travelled.

Transport-related emissions account for only 5-6% of global food system emissions. As exemplified by the authors: “cargo ships or trains can exploit economies of scale and be relatively less polluting over longer distances than small trucks over shorter distances.  Similarly, if consumers visit individual local producers, their carbon emissions can be greater than the emissions from the systems of large-scale suppliers.” 

The authors provide strong arguments for the need for strategic diversification of food supply via international trade to create food security. The food demands of less than one-third of the global population could be met from local crop production, even with dietary adjustment, reductions of yield gaps and reduced food waste. Depending upon location, 26-64% of the population could not meet their demands for specific crops within a radius of 1000 km.  This distance could become even larger if all essential nutrient requirements were considered. Less than 50% of people worldwide could sustain their existing dietary compositions from the continents they live in. 

The article also draws a distinction between “local” based on distance, and “short” based on number of actors in the supply chain. Both of these qualities have an impact on sustainability. Purchase of local food can provide localised economic and social benefits, but there is little evidence that localised production systems make food more affordable for consumers.  The fact that “local” and “sustainable” are not equivalent when it comes to food is accepted in the scientific field, but is still a widely leveraged concept for retail and consumers.

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Evidence for Sustainable Food Systems at Three Scales

The future of the food system is a major topic of conversation with various voices advocating the need for a range of changes, with some being quite radical. Historically the focus on the global food system was on providing enough nutrition for those in most need. This has transitioned to many advocating a need for the food system to change to address issues that are a consequence of wider human activities.

When we talk about the food system what are we referring to? What are we talking about changing? And how do we understand the potential impact of changes? This Thought for Food considers three different scales at which we can consider questions around the food system and the work the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative (SNi™) is doing to support this, in line with our recently adopted vision “evidence for sustainable food systems”.

Conversations about the future of food usually fit within one or more of the following areas:

  • Nutritious, affordable and sustainable diets for individuals
  • National use of environmental and other resources for food production
  • Sustainability of global food production and distribution of food to address the nutrient needs of everyone

Each scale has its own unique questions and challenges that need to be understood and addressed.

At the global level…

We will start with the large scale first. How does the world feed the world?

  • What food production is required to provide adequate nutrition for everyone?
  • How does this change as global population continues to increase?
  • What are the resource implications of this at a global level?
  • What are the impacts of large-scale changes in food production?
  • How big are the changes needed to be globally relevant?

In one sense the global scale question is easier to frame than the two smaller scales. There is only one Earth – there are no interplanetary trade flows to cover shortfalls or utilize surpluses – everything must balance within the planetary boundary. The total nutrition available is determined from the production of food commodities, and further processing and food formulation is largely a reorganization of the form in which these nutrients are presented to consumers.

The DELTA Model was developed to contribute to this global scale conversation by enabling a user to set the level of production for the major classes of food commodity and see the likely impact of this on nutrient supply for the global population. When we consider making changes to production on the global scale, we must also match this with an appropriate timeline of multiple years. The original version of DELTA provides significant insight on the role of the different primary production systems in providing nutrients to the global population (learn more here). A key conclusion from all our work to date with DELTA is that the global food system is, and must remain, “plant based and animal optimized.”

Further development of DELTA focuses on adding estimates of resource footprints for the selected production systems, starting with cropland use in DELTA 2.0 (learn more here). Consistent with the scenario “what if” concept of DELTA, the model does not enforce a hard constraint on production based on available land, but instead provides feedback to the user on the extent to which their proposed food system is feasible within the land area suitable for crop production.

Beyond 2.0 we will introduce additional resource footprints into DELTA, including greenhouse gases and the use of land for ruminant grazing. At the same time, we are looking at how we make better use of the more detailed food commodity and use data made available by the FAO towards the end of 2020.

An aspect that was part of the original concept of DELTA was to consider economic aspects of the food system. A key challenge that is neglected in the discussion of many high-tech alternatives is the level of capital investment required to establish these technologies at a scale that would make a material impact on global nutrient supply, and the implications of this for the cost of the resulting nutrition (learn more here and here).

At the individual level…

At the other end of the scale is individual dietary choice.

  • How can individuals within our society access the nutrients they need?
  • How is this impacted by the price of food items?
  • How do their choices impact on the environment?
  • How do choices potentially alter health outcomes?

These are questions that individuals may ask for themselves and are also relevant in the development of public policy. Potential outcomes include changes in dietary guidelines or changes in individual eating habits.

There is considerably more scope for an individual to change their diet than there is for change at the global scale. At the individual level a radical shift in diet may be made quickly and has no discernable impact on the food production system and supply chain. It is only when large collections of individuals make similar changes that this has an impact on the availability and affordability of food items, and the feasibility of these choices (learn more here). Whilst the global nutrition question is constrained by the boundaries of the planet, the individual nutrition question is limited by the range of foods available locally, and the wealth and choices of the individual.

Riddet Institute researchers used linear programming to determine the minimum cost for a nutritionally adequate diet based on a basket of food products in the USA (learn more here). Work in the Netherlands led to the development of Optimeal™, which starts from the Dutch reference diet and explores the impact of restricting the intake of certain foods on the carbon footprint and price through an optimization that seeks to remain close to the reference diet in terms of foods eaten thus addressing some of the cultural aspects of dietary change (learn more here).

Building from these ideas we aim to create an online tool to enable people to explore individual dietary choice, what levels of dietary change may be possible and practical, and the resulting impacts in any country for which the required food product information is available. The aim is to make it easy to customize this for use in any country for which the required food product information is available. Unlike DELTA, where the default time is currently 2018 for the base case and 2030 for the initial projections, the individual model (to be called IOTA) will work in an immediate sense (i.e., If I changed my diet today…).

At the national level…

In between these two extremes sits the national level question:

  • What is the best use of our natural resources?
  • How should we best utlise our land?
  • What should we grow or produce ourselves?
  • What do we export? What do we import?
  • How does this influence our environmental impact?

This is more complex than either the global or individual scales due to the movement of food items across borders. Food trade exists at some level for almost every country in the world: there is not the same hard boundary that exists on the global scale (i.e. only one planet) that requires domestic self-sufficiency for any given nation. Nutrient gaps can be addressed through imports and surpluses addressed through exports – although this only partially occurs today. Food trade occurs when one nation has to offer what another wants, so the options are constrained, although wealthier countries are better able to purchase what they want. As the DELTA Model shows at a global level, we already produce enough food energy and protein to meet the needs of the expected 2030 population, however not everyone has equal access.

Our current work at the national level is to understand the present state of food production and trade flows expressed as bioavailable nutrients rather than mass of food items. This provides a human nutrition centric perspective. The following charts from DELTA show, from a food energy perspective, the production, trade flows and consumption for New Zealand, Australasia, and Oceania.

The “Produced” column shows the per capita per day production of energy in the country or region. Oceania is dominated by the food exporting nations of New Zealand and Australia and there is a considerable surplus of food energy at both the regional and sub-regional scales. However, when we just look at New Zealand, we see a significant import of plant-based food energy. Similar charts are available for all 29 of the nutrients considered in DELTA, in all countries. Taking this a stage further, with our collaborators at University of São Paulo we are looking at flows of bioavailable nutrients between exporting and importing countries to show the evolution of the trade network.

Whilst the above helps to understand the current state of nutrient flows, it does not address the questions about most effective use of a country’s resources (environmental, social, economic). To do this, we are developing a proposal for multi-year research to investigate the national and sub-national questions, using New Zealand as a test-case. This will lead to the development of an integrated model framework that connects primary production and food trade decisions with their associated resource and economic implications, through to consumer nutrition and associated health and wellness outcomes. The objective is to develop a model that works for New Zealand and can, through changing the data inputs, be applied to other countries.

As with DELTA, the approach will be scenario-based, with users specifying a potential system and the model estimating the implications of this system in terms of the various capitals. By doing this we hope to contribute additional evidence-based insights to national and local conversations about food systems.

All three scales are important and complementary

The food system must function at all scales from the global, through the national, to the individual level. Each has unique characteristics and challenges that impact on our ability to make changes. Aspects that are easy at one level, create complications at another.

Importantly, no one perspective will deliver a full understanding of the food system and the way forward to greater sustainability.

  • An individual’s diet that is healthy, affordable and has a low environmental impact will not necessarily be applicable more widely.
  • National level food preferences and cultures, as well as what can be produced in a country, will mean that variation must exist between healthy and sustainable diets and food production in different parts of the world.
  • Similarly, it is not sufficient to understand what sustainable dynamics are for a single country, as countries do not operate in isolation: international food trade and global production must also function sustainability.

SNi is developing tools to help people explore food system challenges and provide evidence for sustainable food systems at all three scales.


FAO report on “harmful” agricultural subsidies calls for urgent change

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A report co-produced by the FAO, UNDP and UNEP has analysed current levels of agricultural support (such as subsidies, tariffs, and incentives) in 88 countries. Their finding was that the majority of the total support value could be considered harmful, largely through distorting food prices, indirectly promoting unhealthy diets, or damage to the environment.

Around US$540 billion, or 15% of the total value of agricultural production, is paid out in agricultural support each year. These funds are split almost equally between farmer subsidies (reducing the cost of agricultural inputs or rewarding production of specific commodities) and price incentives (tariffs or subsidies on trade). A small proportion goes towards non-specific, general sector services, such as agricultural training, infrastructure development and product safety.

The authors state that over two thirds of agricultural support has the effect of distorting food prices and increasing the environmental damage of food production. This is often embodied in support for production of foods with low nutritional value (e.g., sugar cane) or high carbon emissions (e.g., ruminant meat).

Most agricultural producer support is currently focused on specific commodities. The foods receiving the greatest support were sugar, animal products and cereals, with cotton a highly supported non-food commodity. Developing countries tend to predominantly subsidise production of staple crops, whereas animal-sourced foods generally receive greater support in developed countries.

The report pushes not for the elimination of agricultural support, but rather its repurposing. This topic was also discussed at the UN Food System Summit in September 2021. Many parts of the food system have evolved some degree of dependency on the current support structures, so any changes must be carefully made to avoid unintended consequences. Consumers need access to affordable healthy diets, but producers also need to be assured of an income. The authors’ general conclusion was that agricultural support should enable environmental, health, and social progress, as well as economic gain.

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Need or Greed?

Adjunct Professor of Massey University and the Riddet Institute and Fonterra Chief Science and Technology Officer, Jeremy Hill, last week contributed to COP26 on the future of sustainable food systems. SNi research featured heavily in this contribution. Prof Hill outlines some important aspects of today’s food system that are poorly understood, and examines the role of meat, dairy and future protein sources in achieving sustainable nutrition.

The global food system

SNi work on global food biomass production and nutrient availability has shown that the current global food system is already plant-based, but with animal-sources of nutrition playing a vital role in overall nutrient provision. Of the 10.6 billion tonnes of food biomass that left the world’s farms and oceans in 2018, 9.2 billion tonnes (87%) was plant material and 1.4 billion tonnes (13%) was animal-sourced. On a global basis we have mapped the flow of this food biomass, shown in the below figure.

Biomass flows through the global food system.

On a simple biomass basis, 1.4 billion tonnes (15%) of human-edible plant biomass leaving the world’s farms was used as feed for animals, to supplement non-human-edible feed such as grass. This was used to produce the 1.5 billion tonnes of animal-sourced food leaving the world’s farms.

At face value, this does not look very efficient, considering the environmental impact of animal production systems. However, this hides the different nutrient contributions that come from plant and animal sources of nutrition, land use suitability for cropping and major differences in the supply chain losses, waste, and non-food uses of the plant and animal contributions to the global food system.

The fact that only 1.4 billion tonnes of human-edible plant food biomass was used to feed animals also highlights that a significant proportion of animal nutrition does not come from human-edible plant material but from straws, silages, pastures, food waste, and so on. The scientific publication: Livestock: on our plates or eating at our table? provides an excellent overview of the feed versus food debate and found that, although livestock consume one third of global grain production, 86% of the biomass consumed by farmed animals is inedible for humans.

75% percent of what is eaten by the global population comes from plants; but also, 91% of post-farm food losses and waste comes from plants.

Of the food material entering the food chain, 86% of animal-sourced food material produced is consumed but only 47% of the plant-sourced food material.

Looking at global food supply, flows, consumption, and losses gives a different perspective on efficiencies. The food system is already plant-based and from the perspective of production, consumption, and waste, animal sources of food have very efficient aspects. But that is the case for food biomass; what about nutrition?

Nutrition supply and demand

We often hear about the “need” to produce more protein to meet the growth in demand for protein-rich foods. This includes the “need” for more meat and that using current systems to produce this amount of meat is not sustainable. We have recently shown using the DELTA Model for global nutrient provision that the world not only produces enough protein to cater to the nutritional requirements of our current global population (see below figure), but that current production could meet the protein and indispensable amino acid requirements of a population projected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. The issue is not production but distribution, access, and affordability of protein.

A value of 1 indicates that global nutrient availability exactly meets requirement, less than 1 a shortage, and greater than 1 a surplus. The coloured bars show the global average nutrient availability. Red bars indicate nutrients with insufficient availability, orange bars are just meeting requirement, and green bars clearly exceed the target. The error bars show the range in nutrient availability between the 10 th and 90 th population percentiles based on country level averages. 

In contrast to the global availability of protein, there are currently large gaps between global need and global supply of certain micronutrients that will only get bigger unless the food system changes to address these gaps. Critically, animal-sourced foods and oil crops are currently the major sources of key micronutrients in deficit, such as calcium and vitamin E, with animal-sourced foods also important sources of globally limited nutrients such as iron, zinc, potassium, vitamins A, B2, and B12.

For most nutrients there is a wide variation in their availability between countries, and clearly for some countries, access to sufficient nutrition drops below target intake (see above figure). These gaps have the potential to increase with an increasing global population and especially if, as is currently the case, the population increase is in countries where access to nutrition is already below target requirements.

‘Meating’ needs?

Thinking about the current growth in meat production: how much of this is meeting needs rather than catering to the greedy? Here I use the term “greed” in the context of eating a particular food beyond the point of its contribution to a balanced diet and nutrient requirements, with no implication of moral judgement. Nevertheless, it is hard to argue that this behaviour is in keeping with sustainability, as over-consumption can be considered a form of food and nutrient waste.

According to the FAO, global meat production grew 44% over the period 2000-2019. But how much of this growth is servicing need rather than greed? How many of the existing or new consumers are eating meat above the recommended target intake? Quite a considerable number according to The Global Burden of Disease Study (see below figure). Yet, as with overall protein availability, the consumption of meat is geographically uneven.

The dotted line represents global average consumption levels and shaded green area the uncertainty in the level of optimal intake. Reproduced from Afshin et al. 2019 under the CC BY 4.0 license.

Milking the planet?

At 844 million tonnes, milk represents 60% of the animal-sourced global food biomass. So how does its consumption compare with meat? Clearly the picture for milk is very different, as is calcium intake (see below figure), with the per capita consumption of milk falling short of optimal intake in all regions of the world.

The dotted line represents global average consumption levels and shaded green area the uncertainty in the level of optimal intake. Reproduced from Afshin et al. 2019 under the CC BY 4.0 license.

Our work at SNi has found that although milk represents 60% of animal-food biomass, milk is less than 8% of the total food biomass leaving the farm gate, and contributes 49% of the calcium, 24% of vitamin B2, 22% of vitamin B12, 15% of vitamin A, 12% of the protein, up to 18% of the indispensable amino acids, and makes a significant contribution to a range of other nutrients consumed by the global population. Moreover, at only 7% of global dietary energy, milk is not only nutrient rich (content and range of nutrients) but also nutrient dense (content and range of nutrients compared to number of calories).

Clearly milk plays an important role in global nutrition and from a consumption versus recommended intake perspective, it would appear we should be producing more milk not less. But that’s nutrition and health, what about environment?

Although the food system in its entirety is estimated to contribute 20-30% of total GHG on a carbon equivalent basis, dairy’s contribution is 2-3%. Considering milk’s global nutrient contribution, its nutrient richness and nutrient density, dairy looks like a pretty good deal. A good deal, but not a perfect deal and, for the very reason that it is so important to global nutrition, we should focus on making large improvements to the efficiency of milk production and its environmental footprint, especially if we need to produce more rather than less milk in the future.

Alternative Reality?

Of course, another often publicised approach would be to attempt to replace milk and other animal-sourced foods with alternative sources of nutrition that have lower environmental footprints.

As discussed earlier in the article, the issue with global nutrition is largely about affordability and access, i.e. what the global population needs. As such ‘plant-based’ alternatives and new technologies, such as precision fermentation or mammalian cellular production, should aim to produce substitutes in more affordable and accessible formats that provide the same nutritional benefits as existing plant and/or animal sources of those nutrients.

We would also argue that improvements to the productivity and sustainability of existing plant-sourced or animal-sourced foods should look to do the same.

Whether consumers of such alternative and novel foods are actually doing good rather than just feeling good about what they are doing will depend on several factors.

  • What does this consumption mean for global food biomass production, losses, and waste?
  • Are the alternatives as nutritious as the foods they are substituting?
  • Do the alternatives have lower environmental footprints for water, land use etc. as well as just greenhouse gases per unit of nutrition?
  • Are the alternatives consumed responsibly to the point of need and not well above what is required, as a result of “greed”?
  • Are the alternatives cheaper to produce and distribute and can they be sold in such a way that it increases global access to nutrition?
  • Will companies producing alternative proteins transform the global food system by democratising it and providing more access to affordable nutrition? Or will they concentrate control and remain beyond the reach of many global consumers?

SNi was established to help create a better understanding of the global food system and particularly the critical issue of how it can provide all the nutrients required by everyone on the planet. Its purpose is to help people explore what changes to the system may be possible, but also what will be practical.

If we are to have a sustainable world and, by implication, a sustainable food system, then there is certainly the need for radical change. However, we do not subscribe to the view that all aspects of the food system need to be disrupted. Radical improvements in the existing food production system will be equally, if not more important, than radical changes to the food production system.

But to be clear there will be no room for laggards, and we do see an important role for new ways of producing the nutrients we require, such as precision fermentation, but that these will be complementary to rather than totally disruptive to existing food chains. In doing so everyone has the right to choose the diets they want to follow and certainly for those that can afford to do so, have broad options for what they can choose.

When it comes to the food system, perhaps the most important changes of all are the changes we make ourselves. Here I would start with consuming closer to what we need and cutting back on the greed.


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Will pollinators take our food supply with them as populations plunge?

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A conference proceeding from a symposium held by the Entomological Society of America was published early this year, discussing claims of pollinator insect decline and the many threats these populations face. It offers critical insight when preparing for future scenarios that put crop yields at risk.

Bees, wasps, butterflies and other insects serve as pollinators within their ecosystem and support the survival of many nuts, fruits, vegetables and oil crops.

The special issue provides a vast range of information on insect populations, the many threats that pollinators face and confirms the claims of declining rates of abundance in many insect species – falling at an average rate of 1-2% annually. These findings are only the start of a discussion on population decline as it forces questions about what the impact will be on our food system as insect numbers fall, and how we might mitigate this.

It has been found in a previous study that only 7 food crops are entirely dependent on pollinators, while one third of our crop production is partially dependent. Due to this ‘partial’ dependency, as pollinator populations fall so will crop yields, but they would not fail to grow. An estimate on the impact this would have on crop production at the time of the study was a decline of 5% in high-income countries and 8% in low-middle income countries.

One of the notable findings in the conference proceeding is the negative impact of fertilisers and pesticides on pollinator populations. This creates a conundrum where reducing agricultural inputs to save insect species may reduce yields, while the inputs themselves may reduce pollinator populations and in turn also reduce yields.

The many threats to pollinators must be considered in order to mitigate further loss of populations, and indirectly, to protect crop yields. A focus must be placed on agricultural practises that both maximise crop yields and preserve pollinator biodiversity to ensure a sustainable ecosystem into the future.

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Recognising the diversity of novel foods

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Researchers from the University of Cambridge (UK) recently published an article in Nature Food with a different perspective on novel food production methods. Discussion of the high-profile novel foods, such as lab-grown meat, and the ways in which novel foods may reduce the environmental impact of food production, are widespread. However, these authors took the stance that novel food production should support food system resilience to shocks.

The authors assert that recent challenges to the global food system, such as weather events impacting crop production and institutional decisions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic impacting food trade, should make us focus on improving the resilience of our diets. They assess the potential of a broad range of novel foods to help achieve greater dietary resilience.

While much is written on the most high-tech novel foods, the authors reminded us that others also exist and show good potential. For example, progress is being made on intensive growth of microalgae (such as spirulina), and large-scale aquaculture of kelp and mussels. They also discuss the potential of insects to valorise organic waste into edible food or animal feed.

The potential for increased resilience from these foods comes from several angles. The closed environments used in some of these production systems increases the control possible over growth-determining factors, such as temperature. Adding these systems alongside existing production can diversify production, for example by co-locating insect farming near sources of crop by-products. Further, several of these technologies can be flexible on their location, size and modularity, allowing for food production nearer to urban centres.

However, the authors are careful to note the challenges and information gaps in many of the new technologies. Closed environments with a high degree of control can limit scalability, and many systems are still reliant on crop production for feed materials, thus not entirely insulating themselves from shocks to conventional systems. The authors demonstrate how many factors outside of production are also in doubt: will novel technologies be able to respond quickly to fluctuations in demand? Will they decentralise production to local food systems, or concentrate production in the hands of a few major corporations? What will the equity of their use look like, given the current investment from predominantly high-income countries?

In the discussion of novel technologies in the food space, there are many factors to consider. This review emphasises the importance of recognising the breadth of options currently under development or in use. Diversity of food sources is important for resilient food systems and diets.

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The inaccurate claims made of smallholder farm food production

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A recent online review and related scientific article have identified the inconsistent use of the term “smallholder farm” and re-examined their contribution to the world’s food supply. They found that smallholders produce about one-third of the world’s food, less than half of what many headlines claim.

Smallholdings are defined as farms under 2 hectares in size. At this size, only a small number of animals and/or vegetable crops are grown to sustain a family or contribute to the local community.

The review highlights the incorrect claims by the FAO, such as “70-80% of the world’s food is produced by smallholders”. Although the majority of farms are smallholdings globally (84%), a number of researchers reassessing the statistic on global food production have found only a third of the world’s food is produced by these farms.

The primary study cited in this review, published in the Global Food Security journal, assessed agricultural land, crop production, and food supply of 154 crop types across 55 countries and mapped the data by farm size. Results show smallholdings use 24% of agricultural land, produce 29% of crops and provide 32% of world food supply.

The broader term of “family farm” could apply to 70-80% of global farms, as this terminology is not determined by size but rather that the farm is operated by an individual or group of individuals, where most labour is supplied by the family. Interchanging terminology (“smallholding” and “family farm”) has been one of the main issues behind inconsistencies in this discussion.

This review and the studies that support it identify the importance of applying correct and updatable data, terminology and definitions when making global claims. Evidence based and accurate claims will provide policy makers with a realistic overview of the productivity of smallholdings and family farms. This will support effective actions focused on increasing efficiency, productivity and output in these systems and the wellbeing of the farmers and their communities.

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Conflict the main contributor to rising food insecurity in Africa

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Food insecurity in Africa is an ongoing concern and has been rising since 2014. However, the causes of insecurity vary from climatic to human. This paper in Nature Food examines the relative contribution of different factors to food shortages.

While it is known that armed conflict, weather events and pests all contribute to food insecurity in Africa, it is not well known how these factors interrelate, and which is most to blame for reducing the availability of food.

The researchers used data from 2009-2018 for the number of people in different African regions requiring emergency food aid, and coupled this with data on droughts, conflict and locust outbreaks over the same period.

It was found that droughts had remained a relatively constant contributor to food insecurity throughout the study period, and locusts had had only a minor impact. In contrast, the researchers found that rising food insecurity could be largely attributed to increases in violent conflict. This was particularly true in regions with higher conflict, such as Nigeria and South Sudan. The study also found that it was livestock producers that were most at risk of food insecurity, compared to crop farming populations and those living along the region’s rivers and coastlines.

Conflict causes food insecurity in a number of ways. It disrupts or destroys food production and supply chain infrastructure, causes migration and impedes the flow of food aid and other external assistance. In combination with droughts, conflict can be devastating for agriculture and take years to recover from. As the authors note, conflicts are far less predictable than drought, and they were unable to establish any relationship between the frequency or magnitude of conflicts and droughts.

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The role of processed foods in a sustainable food system

There exist negative consumer perceptions on processed and ultra-processed foods, however such foods are commonly misunderstood. Here, we explore some of the reasons behind this, the varied definitions and types of processed foods, and how they are essential to the sustainability of the global food system.

Food processing is defined as making changes to a food to alter its earing quality or shelf life. Processed foods are often criticised and have a negative perception among consumers. A survey carried out by International Food Information Council found that 43% of consumers were not in favour of the consumption of processed foods.

The 2020 edition of the Global Nutrition Report claims that current food systems do not enable people to make healthy food choices, and one of the reasons for this is that highly processed foods are available, cheap and intensively marketed. They state that processed foods “high in added sugars, trans fats and salt, as well as low in fibre and nutrient-density” are now comprising a significant share of many diets globally, however they are not aligned with the World Health Organization’s definition of a healthy diet.

This is true for some ultra-processed, energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods. It is critical to minimise foods high in energy but low in essential nutrients and instead prioritise nutrient-rich foods. Many processed foods fit this description of nutrient-rich and can play an important role in a sustainable food system. Some foods classified as ‘ultra-processed’ by the Global Nutrition Report are processed for good reasons, with minimal impact on their nutrient content. Unfortunately, research shows that consumers have a limited understanding of what food processing is, and the important benefits it can provide.

Processed vs ultra-processed

The term “ultra-processed food” is problematic. A review of the use of this term found diverse inconsistencies in its use by policy and research, but almost exclusively with negative connotations and instructions to minimise their consumption. However, at least half of the US energy intake is from “ultra-processed foods”, by some definition, thus their avoidance or removal would be challenging.

The main aim of classifying foods under the category of ultra-processed and attempting to minimise their consumption is to reduce population intakes of free or added sugar, salt and other ingredients added to food during specific processes. This is an admirable goal, but requires consumer understanding of the differences between individual processed foods. Wholegrain bread, milk and frozen vegetables are all processed foods, but should be thought of differently by the consumer than a frozen pizza, high in energy and low in nutrient density.

Processed foods play a key role in nutrition and safety of food

The global population is growing, expected to reach almost 10 billion people by 2050. However, the planet is limited in its resources, creating a significant challenge to feed this growing population. Therefore, it is essential to optimise the efficiency of producing and distributing food, in order to ensure there is sufficient nutrient availability to meet global requirements. The DELTA Model tells us that based on current food production, there are already gaps against requirements for many essential nutrients – such as calcium and vitamin E – and these gaps could grow in size and number as the population does.

Processing can improve the nutritional quality of food. Processing can improve the bioavailability of essential nutrients – meaning more of the nutrient can be utilised by the human body. An example of this is processing legumes (via heat treatment, fermentation, germination or simply soaking) to increase the bioavailability of iron and zinc. Foods can also be fortified through addition of critical nutrients that may be limiting in some diets, as commonly performed for breakfast cereals. Processing therefore plays a key role in increasing nutrient availability to the growing global population.

In addition, many foods have a short shelf life. A variety of fruits and vegetables, as well as most animal-sourced foods, cannot be stored for long periods of time in their raw form. This can create potential food safety issues, or nutritional quality can decrease over time. Moreover, some regions do not produce sufficient food to meet the requirements or demands of their local population, meaning that it must be imported, taking time to reach those that need it. In addition, some food products are seasonal, where supply will exceed demand for some months of the year, and vice versa for the rest of the year.

It is therefore essential to extend the useful life of nutrient-rich foods to avoid safety issues and preserve nutritional quality. This can be achieved through processing. For example, raw milk has a relatively short shelf life, but this can be extended by processing it into milk powder, cheese or yoghurt. Milk is a nutrient-rich food, and processing allows as much of this nutrition to reach consumers as safely as possible. Likewise, freezing or canning of fruit and vegetables can keep these foods stable for as long as they remain in this state. Pressing oilcrops to produce vegetable oils allows the nutrients in these crops to be utilised in a wider variety of ways than the raw form allows. While some of these techniques are modern, such as freezing and canning, others, such as fermentation and pressing, have been instrumental in the human diet for millennia.

Processed foods help to increase equity of food distribution and reduce waste

There is a global issue of inequitable food distribution and food waste. The world produces enough food energy to feed nearly 9 billion people. The reason 1 in 9 people are hungry is due to inequitable distribution of food, caused by geographical and socio-economic factors.

Secondly, as explained above, processing can extend the useful life of foods. This can help to minimise food waste, as less will be thrown away due to perishability. A study performed in Austria found food waste can be reduced by six-fold when frozen foods are compared with fresh foods, while another found that frozen foods are wasted half as much as fresh foods. This in turn reduces the environmental impacts of food waste, and increases the availability of food. While frozen food supply chains are not available in all parts of the world, drying and canning can have similar outcomes.

While eliminating food waste is not the complete solution for a sustainable food system, it can play an important role in increasing the availability of nutrition to meet global requirements. Extending the shelf life of food also means it can be transported to regions that do not provide sufficient nutrients to sustain their local population. In addition, processing can improve the ease of this transportation. This plays a vital role in addressing the issue of equitable distribution of food.

Processing encourages consumption

Economic, cultural, and social factors will play an essential role in achieving a sustainable food system. Consumers must want to eat the food available to them, and be able to afford it. Food processing can help increase the convenience and variety of the foods available. Food processing can be used to improve the taste, texture and functionality of foods, encouraging consumption. This is particularly important for nutrient-dense foods containing critical nutrients that can often be limiting in diets. Processing can also help to reduce the cost of storing or transporting food, and seasonal price volatility, making nutrition more affordable.

Food processing plays a key role in the provision of adequate nutrition to feed a global population. Production and consumption of high-energy and nutrient-poor foods should be kept to a minimum, and consumers need to be able to recognise these foods without labels like “processed” or “ultra-processed”. Processing can help to improve the safety and nutritional quality of foods, reduce waste and improve distribution, and encourage consumption of nutrient-rich foods. Use of processing techniques for the right purposes should be encouraged.


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