Calcium deficiency at the global, national, and individual levels

This Thought for Food is part of a series on key nutrients identified as global challenges by the SNi DELTA Model®.

Calcium is an essential dietary nutrient: a trace element that is vital for healthy bodily function. However, a recent report composed by the Calcium Task Force (created by New York Academy of Sciences in partnership with the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation) has identified widespread global calcium deficiency. This matches results of the DELTA Model®, which show that global calcium availability from food is only around two-thirds of the global population’s requirement. Here we provide a closer look at the role of dietary calcium, levels of deficiency, and ways forward to improve intakes.

The Task Force was composed of scientists with expertise in nutrition, particularly around micronutrients and child health. Their report aimed to gather the existing data on calcium deficiency and associated health outcomes to assist policy and dietary interventions to reduce the prevalence of deficiency.

Calcium intakes

About 99% of calcium in the body is in our bones. The rest plays a host of roles in our muscular, hormone and nervous system function, as well as in normal cell function. Calcium has a key skeletal role; therefore, calcium intake is particularly important in childhood and adolescence during bone growth. For all of these functions, calcium becomes important again in later life, such as during pregnancy and for bone retention in older adults.

Dietary calcium requirements are set largely based on bone health outcomes; that is, the intakes of people who have healthy bones are deemed sufficient intakes. This is due to the difficulty of understanding exactly how much calcium a person needs each day. When calcium intake is insufficient to meet bodily requirements, calcium stored in bone is used to maintain the other bodily functions requiring calcium, so no immediate effects are obvious. However, a sustained deficient calcium intake over a long period will to lead to depletion of bone calcium stores.

Another challenge in setting recommended intakes is the role of diet. Food sources of calcium, as well as what else is being eaten at the time of calcium ingestion, impacts calcium bioavailability. Plant antinutrients, such as phytic and oxalic acid, can bind to calcium and make it less easily absorbed by the gut. Vitamin D (another dietary micronutrient) is essential for active calcium absorption, and low vitamin D can increase bone calcium turnover and calcium requirement.

As a result of these challenges, there is variation in recommended intakes depending on which authority you ask: for example, the recommended intake range for infants in the Unites States and Canada is around double that recommended in the United Kingdom. Recommended intakes change as you age, and there is less variation in recommendations for adults – around 800 mg per day for most authorities.

Using the DELTA Model® Nutrient Supply and Density tools, the richest sources of calcium per unit mass are various oilcrops, spices and aquatic plants, all of which make minor contributions to global dietary calcium (<25 mg per person per day). The largest contributor to global calcium availability is dairy, accounting for 49% of global food calcium, or around 300 mg per capita per day. Next are vegetables, at around 100 mg per capita per day, cereals at around 50, and meat at around 25.

Global sources of calcium in 2018 from the DELTA Model® Nutrient Supply tool.

Calcium deficiency

The Task Force report stated that around 3.5 billion people worldwide are at risk of inadequate calcium intake, with the vast majority of these individuals located in Africa and Asia. Calcium deficiency is more widespread in low- and middle-income countries than in high-income nations. For those countries where data is available, it is children, adolescents, and individuals over 50 who are most commonly deficient, with women more likely to be affected than men.

We used the DELTA Model® approach to compare 2018 national nutrient availability data for demographically weighted national calcium requirements. We found that only 33 out of 170 countries had sufficient calcium availability to meet the needs of their populations. This sufficiency ranged from just enough to a 90% calcium surplus in Finland. Most of these countries were in Europe, with a few from Western Asia, as well as the US and Australia.

We found the lowest calcium availability compared to requirement in lower income countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. In some cases, as little as 16% of population calcium requirement was nationally available (Timor-Leste). While data quality is often poorer for these regions compared to Europe and North America, 77 out of 170 countries had less than half of their calcium requirements available, thus these calculations echo the results found by the Task Force.

Health outcomes

The greatest focus of studies on the health outcomes of calcium deficiency relate to bone health.

Osteoporosis (brittle bones) is linked to extended low calcium intake and increases the risk that bones will break under stress. Osteoporosis disproportionately affects women, particularly over the age of 50. Calcium and vitamin D supplementation have been shown to reduce fracture rates in older people in some clinical trials, but this affect is not always observed. Rickets is a similar condition mostly observed in children and linked to low calcium and/or vitamin D intakes.

Interestingly, despite the fact that lower income countries tend to have lower calcium intakes, they also have lower rates of bone fracture than high intake countries. However, the report authors caution that these lower income countries have poorer quality health data and smaller elderly populations, among other confounding factors. Studies on bone mineral density and fracture risk often show contrasting results between and even within regions. Furthermore, many regions lack data on bone health, making causative associations difficult.

In lower income parts of the world, the impacts of low calcium intake are often overshadowed by shorter-term outcomes of malnutrition, such as anaemia, wasting and stunting, as well as infectious diseases. Of current interest is the potential role of calcium intake in pregnancy disorders of hypertension and related mortalities.

Other research has investigated relationships between calcium intake or supplementation and a broader variety of health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, colorectal cancer, and kidney stones, with varied and sometimes contradictory outcomes. Dosage and target population appear to play a role, but there remains much to be understood about the role of calcium in health.

Evidence is mixed on the role of calcium supplementation in various health outcomes, although large health organisations state that intakes within the recommended boundaries should carry no health risk for most populations. Table reproduced from Li et al. 2018

Increasing calcium availability and consumption

While there is still a lack of consensus on the exact calcium intakes necessary for consumption, the number of individuals globally not meeting even the most conservative recommendations merits intervention.

Calcium supplementation is widespread in high-income nations: more than half of US women over the age of 60 received supplements in the early 2000s. Supplementary calcium is absorbed at a similar rate to dietary calcium, but the latter has been shown to have more of an impact on bone health, likely due to the smaller but more frequent intake of calcium in food than in a single supplement dose. Some studies have reported adverse effects of (particularly high) calcium supplementation related to various health outcomes, but the position of large health organisations is that intakes within the boundaries of dietary recommendations should have no adverse effects.

From a food perspective, those countries with the lowest calcium intakes are most commonly those with low dairy intakes. High European dairy consumption matches our results that these countries had the highest 2018 calcium availability. Increasing the consumption of calcium dense foods, such as dairy, nuts, seeds, and whole fish will not only improve calcium intakes, but also the intakes of other essential nutrients, due to the nutrient dense nature of these foods.

Conclusion

The final recommendations of the Task Force report for future work were: to progress towards consensus on the true global prevalence of calcium deficiency; to obtain more data on global calcium intakes, particularly in lower-income, higher-risk countries; and, to clarify the role of calcium in fracture risk and bone mineral density. The authors also noted the challenging absence of some method to determine the calcium status of an individual, given there is currently no single biomarker or health outcome that does so.

What can be said incontrovertibly is that deficient calcium intakes are common worldwide. While the full extent and impact of this deficiency is uncertain, that should not prevent action to improve intakes toward recommended levels.

The SNi team thank Professor Connie Weaver, expert in mineral bioavailability and the role of calcium in human nutrition, for her contributions to this Thought for Food. Prof Weaver was an author on the Task Force report.

Complementarity of Plant and Animal foods

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Sustainability considerations are increasingly featuring in dietary recommendations from official sources. The detail of these recommendations varies, but a recent review argues the need to take a holistic view of sustainability.

The paper highlights the complementary and synergistic benefits of consuming both plant-sourced foods (PSF) and animal-sourced foods (ASF) as part of a sustainable diet, and the false dichotomy that PSF are good and ASF are bad – sometimes propagated in dietary recommendations. A holistic approach is recommended when broadening guidelines, such that multiple dimensions of environmental and socio-economic factors are considered.

The authors provide comprehensive tables on the macronutrient, micronutrient and bioactive components found in PSF and ASF. They also make the obvious, but often neglected point, that not all PSF and ASF have the same nutritional content, environmental or sociology-economic impacts and that variety and redundancy (overlapping nutrient profiles of different foods) will be required for nutritional adequacy, food security and sustainability.

Also covered is the impact of food composition and structure – the food matrix – on nutrient bioavailability. Broader factors such as food processing and meal preparation, waste, impact of and on the microbiome and food synergy: the improvements in nutrient bioavailability as a result of nutrient interactions, are also included in the analysis.

Although fruit, vegetables and dairy food groups are most prevalent in dietary recommendations, they are under-consumed throughout the world. At a global level the most commonly under-consumed nutrients are calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin A. From the DELTA Model® we know that not only is calcium under-consumed but it is also under-produced by the global food system.

When guiding consumers, clear and simple messaging is often retained. However, sustainable nutrition is far from simple, so we must ensure clarity of guidelines if we are to help individuals make sustainable, healthy choices.

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Minor links between agricultural subsidies and greenhouse gas emissions

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The impact of agricultural subsidies on climate is challenging to quantify and few such studies exist. In a recent article in Nature Communications, this relationship and its consequences have been examined.

Between 2017 and 2019 global agriculture received over US$553 billion per year in subsidies and support. This equated to approximately 10% of total farm revenue for the six commodity groups examined in this article (rice, other cereals, milk, ruminant meat, pig meat, and poultry meat). The authors coupled economic and production modelling to estimate the difference between current greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and their state if agricultural support were removed.

The paper demonstrated that, contrary to popular commentary, agricultural subsidies have a very limited impact on GHG emissions. In fact, subsidies had a net negative 1.7% impact on GHG emissions from agriculture in the study period and gave a net 1.1% increase in farm production.

Assuming global emissions from agriculture to be approximately 25% of all emissions, this translates to less than a 0.5% impact on total global emissions. This was the result of incentivising production away from high emission-intensity, low production countries to low emission-intensity, high production countries.

The paper would be strengthened by consideration of the impact of land use change on soil carbon sequestration, which the authors recognise and recommend for future research.  It also does not consider the other environmental impacts of agriculture, such as water use, and particularly does not attempt to consider how nutrition and diets would be impacted by changes to subsidies. 

The authors recommend that for the purposes of reducing climate impact, use of large sums of agricultural subsidies could be better spent on R&D to improve agricultural production and simultaneously reduce emissions. However, the current purpose of subsidies is not to reduce emissions, but is based on political and economic considerations.

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Least cost nutrient adequate diets in NZ

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We previously described the results of a modelling study that found the least cost nutrient adequate diet in the USA came in at US$1.98, and the equivalent least cost plant-only diet was $3.61. The authors of that study have now repeated their work with New Zealand data, reaching similar conclusions.

Linear programming was combined with supermarket food price data, food composition data and adult nutrient requirement data to find daily diets that met all nutrient requirements, optimised for cost.

Similarly to the original USA study, the least cost diet contained both plant- and animal-sourced foods. At NZ$3.23, the price difference to the plant-only diet (NZ$4.34) was reduced compared to the USA results.

In both the NZ and USA diets, milk was a large contributor to nutrient targets in the least cost diet. A soy beverage was the largest contributor to both mass and cost in the plant-only diets. Eggs, legumes, and cabbage were also important in both country settings. While fish was present in the USA least cost diet, this was replaced with green mussels in NZ.

The relative changes to the price of animal-sourced foods before they became priced out of the least cost diet differed between the two settings. Milk was removed when its price was 2.2x current NZ retail price (compared to 8x in the USA study); eggs under price increases of 1.8 times (11.5x in the USA study); and meat items under price increases of 1-2x (3-5.5x in the USA study). In contrast, the mussels remained in the least cost diet even if ten times more expensive than current prices.

This work reinforces the conclusions of the original paper: plant- and animal-sourced foods contribute to affordable, nutritious diets, and it can be more expensive to achieve adequate nutrient intakes if restricted to plant foods alone. However, the reduced resilience of most of the animal-sourced foods to price increases in the NZ setting is reflective of the differing relative retail prices of food in the two countries, which the authors state may be reflective of the influence of government subsidies in the USA.

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Linking agricultural conditions to childhood undernutrition

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A study of infant malnutrition in the West African country of Burkina Faso has established a link between its prevalence and local agricultural conditions.

Climatic conditions play a major role in determining the performance of agricultural land and food production, with local and seasonal variation. The availability of food is an output of this performance, with clear implications for nutrition. In this study, the authors combined household nutrition surveys, malnutrition data and a remotely sensed drought indicator to investigate associations between agricultural conditions and malnutrition.

The Water Requirement Satisfaction Index (WRSI) combines precipitation, temperature, humidity, wind, and solar radiation data to ascertain whether the water needs of an area of cropland are being met. WRSI is a useful risk management tool employed in many parts of the world to study drought and crop yield.

Localised WRSI data was combined with household survey data from Burkina Faso, focusing on 1,721 children aged between 6 months and 2 years old. Around a third of the children were malnourished, as were a quarter of their mothers. Just 15% of the infants had achieved the WHO’s minimum dietary diversity standard over the 24 hours before the survey.

As found by previous studies, undernourished mothers were more likely to have undernourished children in their care. Low dietary diversity, recent diarrhoea, and lower education level of mothers were also associated with malnutrition.

The novel finding of this research was the association between higher WRSI values and reduced chances of malnutrition. These higher values, indicative of regions where the water needs of agricultural production were being met, were also associated with increased infant dietary diversity.

While better agricultural conditions could reasonably be expected to tally with greater food availability and thus reduced rates of malnutrition, studies that consider the interactions between agricultural production due to local climate and nutritional outcomes are rare. These results emphasise the interconnections in our food system – in this case, between rainfall and nutrient adequacy – that have a profound effect on the outcomes for people.

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Variation in global food composition data

In a recent joint project between SNi and Monash University, the difference between wheat composition data recorded in different national databases has been quantified. This gives an insight into how different the nutritional composition of crops grown in different regions may be, as well as the resulting impacts for nutrition modelling.

The SNi DELTA Model relies on the food composition database maintained by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for calculation of the nutrients available from global food production. However, the same food item produced in different regions can have different nutrient profiles. This project aimed to understand how different food compositions can be around the world, and what impact this might have on the predictions of the DELTA Model.

Nutrient composition data for raw wheat grain was extracted from 19 national databases. This data was then compared to the USDA wheat composition.

Minor variations were found in the macronutrient compositions across the 19 countries assessed: energy varied by a maximum of 10% from the USDA data, protein by 16%, and carbohydrates by 22%. The mean values for these macronutrients across the databases varied by less than 10% from the USDA values.

Data for the micronutrient content of wheat was more varied, and not always present in every database. The mean values for phosphorus, potassium, zinc, and vitamins B1, B2 and B3 were largely consistent with the USDA across the databases. Iron and calcium showed greater variability between countries, but on average were consistent with the USDA. Outliers were present in the data: the New Zealand wheat iron content and the Turkish wheat sodium content were around three times the mean value. Sodium is not currently included in the DELTA Model.

Variation in wheat composition data compared to the USDA composition. Values close to 1 show the greatest consistency with USDA data. Boxes show the 25th percentile, median, and 75th percentile; the range bars show the minimum and maximum values.

The general consistency between the USDA data and other global databases is reassuring. Minor variations in the nutrient composition of wheat, and the fact that wheat is one of a multitude of food crops consumed around the world, means that global nutrient availability predicted using the USDA wheat data should be indicative of global nutrient availability if more localised wheat data were used.

What is not clear from this analysis is how much of the variation is due to actual differences in wheat composition, and how much is the result of other differences, such as the analytical methods used in the construction of each database. Moreover, this work deals solely with wheat; a project is ongoing to establish the degree of variation between food composition databases for other foods.

SNi would like to thank the Monash University School of Chemistry for their collaboration on this project, and in particular Anders Ng who undertook this research as part of his MSc studies.

Glossary

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The social pros and cons of soy production

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Encouragement from both national and international organisations of agricultural expansion and intensification as a development strategy is found in many countries. There are economic benefits to increased agricultural production but consequences for environmental impacts. The social outcomes are less often studied. A review in the Journal of Cleaner Production has examined the social impacts of soy production, which has benefited greatly from expansion and intensification in recent decades.

Brazil accounts for a third of global soybean production, with the USA and other South American nations the next largest producers. The review addressed studies of wellbeing related to soy production, finding that the existing literature focussed almost entirely on these countries.

The positive impacts of soy production on wellbeing were mostly related to income, observed both through national statistics and direct interview with individuals in proximity to the soy industry. Increased incomes, reduced poverty, GDP rises, and development opportunities for farmers and rural communities had been found. Knock-on benefits for education and life expectancy in high soy producing areas were also recorded. Not all income impacts were positive however, with some studies finding increased local income inequality as soy production rose.

The negative impacts came in more varied forms: impact on drinking water sources, conflict over land appropriation, and food insecurity due to widespread land conversion to soy for export. Further, the ability of farmers to choose to grow other crops was reduced, as was their sense of security that they would retain their current land holdings in the future. Conversion of land to soy has also displaced families and led to migration away from soy producing regions.

The review next considered the indirect impacts of soy on ecosystem services. The increased use of agricultural chemicals and technology in soy producing areas can increase yields of multiple crops, resulting in greater local food production and availability. However, this result contrasted with evidence of food insecurity found in some of the direct studies. Land conversion had also been found to reduce wild food provision, as well as recreation and tourism opportunities, with corresponding impacts on local economies.

The authors concluded that the positive social impacts of soy production are largely confined to incomes, while the negative impacts are more diverse. Moreover, the recorded impacts of soy production showed variability between countries and even between regions within countries. There remains much to be understood in this area, such as the efficacy of government and trade policy in driving sustainable production and how this translates to social impacts. This review demonstrates the importance of considering the local social outcomes of changes to agricultural production, beyond the value of the food produced.

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Glossary

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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.

Glossary

Cropland footprint included in DELTA 2.0 scenarios

The DELTA Model version 2.0 has just been launched on the SNi website. The new version includes information on the cropland area required to produce food crops under various future food system scenarios, DELTA’s first step into the environmental resource requirements and impacts of the global food system.

The purpose of the DELTA Model was to show the nutritional outcomes of future changes to the global food system. This allows nutritional sustainability – a key aspect of food system sustainability – to be analysed for today’s population and the growing population of the future.

Sustainability encompasses more than just nutrition. Economic, environmental, and social considerations must also be made. Beginning the DELTA Model’s progress down this path, version 2.0 begins assessing the environmental sustainability of the global food system by calculating the likely cropland area needed when food production changes.

For more on how the cropland area is calculated and some early results, see our recent Thought for Food on the topic. Many thanks to our collaborators who volunteered their time to testing DELTA 2.0. The latest version also coincides with our new DELTA Model logo, pictured above.

Glossary

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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Glossary

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