Food Systems Summit wants to hear from you

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The United Nations Food Systems Summit, an international event to make plans for the transformation of the global food system to align with the Sustainable Development Goals, is set to take place in September this year. If you have an interest in the food system, the Summit wants to hear from you.

It is widely accepted that the current global food system is not sustainable in the long term from a nutritional, environmental or economic standpoint. Its complexity and interconnectedness are also clear. The Food Systems Summit hopes to increase awareness of food system dynamics and spark international action towards more sustainable practices.

To inform the discussion, the Summit is encouraging a number of Summit Dialogues. These are smaller events, organised either by the UN, member states, or independently. Anyone can convene their own Summit Dialogue, following guidance available on the Summit website. You can also read through the findings of previous dialogues and learn about upcoming events you can be a part of.

The purpose of these dialogues is to bring the voices of all stakeholders to the discussion table. The combined views of food producers and consumers, scientists and economists, nutritionists, environmentalists and governments will be necessary to direct future policy on the global food system.

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Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020 – 2025 published

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The USDA has released their latest dietary guidelines document, with a new emphasis on the importance of considering different life stages when designing guidelines.

A new set of dietary guidelines are designed for the US population every five years, based on the recommendations of a scientific advisory committee who review the latest nutrition and health research, ensuring up-to-date advice.

In this document, specific dietary recommendations for infants and toddlers appear, where before this advice was absent. These recommendations cover breastfeeding and infant formula use, as well as complementary foods. Strong emphasis is placed on food variety for toddlers, as well as on the importance of iron and zinc intake.

The guidelines recommend that Americans should eat more whole fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, while limiting added sugars and saturated fat to less than 10% of daily calories each. While this largely chimes with the advisory committee’s scientific report, they had suggested that only 6% of daily calories be from added sugar, due to the negative health outcomes of high dietary sugar intake. The committee were also cautious on the contentious subject of saturated fat, not recommending any change to the current guidelines and mentioning that replacement of these fats with carbohydrates is not advised.

Nutrient density and dietary patterns were pulled out as important terms in the report. Nutrient dense foods are recommended throughout, and listed as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, seafood, eggs, beans, peas, lentils, unsalted nuts and seeds, fat-free and low-fat dairy products, and lean meats and poultry. However, the recommendations put emphasis on dietary patterns rather than on individual foods or food groups to enable adaptations that fit cultural, personal and individual needs and preferences. The three food patterns of the guidelines are the Healthy U.S-Style Pattern, the Healthy Vegetarian Pattern and the Healthy Mediterranean-Style Pattern. All three patterns provide most of their energy from plant-based sources, provide protein and fat from nutrient rich sources and limit intakes of added sugars, solid fats and sodium.

This is consistent with the results of the DELTA Model which illustrates that most of our energy should come from nutrient rich foods to ensure all nutrient requirements are met. Nutrient poor foods such as sugar should be minimised, and it is essential to consider the different needs of different demographic groups.

Interestingly, the guidelines make no mention of the environmental sustainability of different foods or diets. Several countries already make this inclusion, with this number likely to increase, but it will be at least 2025 before any such recommendations appear in the US dietary guidelines.

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WWF encourage planet-based diet

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The WWF report Bending the Curve: The Restorative Power of Planet-Based Diets joins other efforts to demonstrate the negative health and environmental consequences of our current way of producing and consuming food, while proposing ways to turn this around.

The report opens with the assertion that our food system must provide healthy, safe, affordable and nutritious diets for all, with reference to the UN Food Systems Summit later this year and the Sustainable Development Goals. This is completely in line with the principles of SNI: nutrition must come first when considering the global food system. The report then goes on to define planet-based diets as win-wins: healthy and with low environmental impacts and explores how these can be achieved.

A major recommendation of the report is that national dietary guidelines need to be more ambitious. This echoes a results of a previous WWF model. Currently, these guidelines largely reflect a healthier version of current consumption patterns and do not consider environmental impacts. The report argues that guidelines could be simultaneously healthier and more sustainable.

The main health recommendation of the report is to increase the plant-based proportion of the diet and decrease overconsumption. This is supported by the Global Burden of Disease study findings, indicating that low wholegrain and fruit intake, as well as high sodium intake, were the greatest dietary risk factors.

Beyond these overarching directions, recommendations for dietary and production change vary on a regional level. This is due to the difference in dietary, health and environmental factors seen in different parts of the world.

Countering biodiversity loss also requires a nuanced approach. For example, the report finds that most of the biodiversity loss associated with the Danish diet is due to imports of coffee, tea, cocoa and spices. Contrastingly, red meat holds this place for Latin American countries.

Similarly, the report states that we must feed our population on existing agricultural land and not further expand, but again the implications vary by region. Countries suffering from widespread undernutrition may need to expand their agricultural land to ensure healthy diets for their population, while more developed countries may need to contract.

The same regional variability is true for the planting of trees for carbon sequestration, conversion of grazing land to arable or optimising water use. The results of the report emphasise careful consideration of actions at a national level, as healthier diets can lead to increased environmental damage of one kind or another in vulnerable regions. A one-size-fits-all approach will not lead to a sustainable food system.

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FAO Statistical Yearbook 2020 shows big changes

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The latest global statistics from FAO show large increases in both crop and animal-sourced food production, but also reductions in cropland and agricultural employment.

Since 2000, there has been a drop of just over 1 billion people from the agriculture workforce, going from 40% of global employment to just 27% in recent years.

Countering this, use of agricultural pesticides increased sharply between 2000 and 2012, before levelling off. Increases were also seen for fertiliser, contributing to the 50% increase in crop production since 2000. Sugar cane, maize, wheat and rice dominate crop production, and the production of each is dominated by two or three countries.

The total agricultural land these crops are grown on showed reduction since 2000, decreasing by 75 million hectares, with a similar decrease of 89 million hectares of forest land.

In terms of animal-sourced foods, chicken showed the greatest increase of the meats, growing by 47% and reaching similar production quantities to pork, the highest producing meat sector. Milk production increased by 45%, while egg production increased by 50%.

Fisheries production showed a similar increase of 42% and is still dominated by marine fish. However, the expansion of aquaculture led to a 131% increase in freshwater fish since 2000. Aquaculture now represents 46% of total fisheries production, compared to 26% in 2000, with China largely responsible for the increase.

The increased food production coupled with decreased agricultural land and employment emphasise the increased efficiency, intensity and automation in food production. However, it should be noted that this is a global picture and that insights at a regional level are also necessary to fully understand the global food system.

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Trends in undernourishment show promise

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A study of undernourishment in 76 countries found positive results, but not all global regions are progressing at the same rate.

Although overnutrition continues to grow globally, undernutrition rates are decreasing. Undernutrition currently affects more than 800 million people, either as protein-energy malnutrition or micronutrient deficiencies. 

The researchers used data from 1991-2013 from the FAO and the World Bank to analyse both undernutrition and related factors. The countries studied were mostly developing countries located in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia or Latin America. 

Undernourishment and child mortality showed decreasing trends overall. Urban populations, GDP, food production and agricultural land had all increased over the study period. However, when grouped into regions, the Eastern Mediterranean countries (Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Yemen) showed a late upwards trend in undernourishment, possibly due to political unrest in this region in the latter years of the study period. 

A problem noted by the authors is in equal distribution of food, both between countries and within national populations. This is a conclusion also reached by the DELTA Model, which shows that apart from a few micronutrients, the global food system in 2018 would have supplied sufficient nutrition for the world’s population, had it been equally distributed. The problems of unequal distribution are bound up in many other social, economic, political and environmental factors. 

While it is reassuring to see the decreases in undernourishment and infant mortality shown by this study, it also highlights areas that remain to be improved.

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Peas please

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Food Foundation in the UK are gaining traction with their ‘Peas Please: Making a pledge for more veg’ initiative, the results of which were recently described in Nutrition Bulletin. 

Despite a historically growing UK market for fruit, which has increased by around 50% since 1970, vegetable purchasing was seen to slowly decline over the same period. The common perceptions of vegetables as boring or not that tasty was likely not helped by minimal publicity, with only 1.2% of the UK food advertising spend used to market vegetables. On top of this, there are questions around the environmental impacts of the average UK shopping basket, and ample evidence that field-grown vegetables have small environmental footprints. 

Most of the UK public do not meet dietary guidelines for vegetables, particularly those with lower incomes. On top of low purchase rates, 40% of purchased vegetables in the UK are wasted at home. This matches the global trends of food waste shown by the DELTA Model, where most of the nutrient waste is from plant-sourced foods. Altogether, the nutritional and health implications of low vegetable intake due to consumer choice and waste needs to be tackled. 

The ‘Peas Please’ initiative aims to make eating vegetables more healthy, affordable, sustainable and pleasurable. Organisations, such as supermarkets and restaurants, pledge to follow these directives, in the hope of changing the way the country treats vegetables. Their website features ways in which individuals, communities and businesses can engage with the initiative and forge better relationships with vegetables. 

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Comparing apples with potatoes: the Vego-guide

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Researchers in Sweden have designed a tool for comparing the environmental impacts of different plant foods. The tool is designed for interested consumers who want to know more about the environmental implications of these foods in their diets. 

Using life-cycle analysis data for 90 plant foods, the Vego-guide considers the climate, biodiversity, water use and pesticide use impacts of each food. This information is used to generate a traffic light rating for each food, from orange (greatest negative impacts) to green star (least negative impacts). 

The tool is currently in further development for application to the Swedish market, but we can expect to see similar tools becoming available worldwide as consumer desire to make food choices based on their environmental impacts increases. 

Currently, the only nutritional consideration in the model is to group plant foods together based on their main role, e.g. carbohydrate source, protein source and so on. This is important, as the carbohydrate sources (such as pasta and potatoes) receive better Vego-guide ratings than fruits. Care must be taken to ensure that these higher ratings do not influence consumers to choose energy dense foods over nutrient dense foods, a choice that would be detrimental from nutrition and health perspectives. 

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Calcium comparisons between dairy, soy and almond beverages

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Research in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition has found that almond beverages were inferior to both milk and a calcium-fortified soy drink for bone health. 

The New Zealand researchers fed rats diets supplemented with either milk, or a soy-based or an almond-based drink. They analysed the amount of the liquid and feed consumed, as well as indicators of bone health and body composition. Fortified with calcium, the soy drink had the highest calcium (181 mg Ca/100 mL) and energy content (66 kcal/100 mL), while the almond drink had the lowest for both (105 mg Ca/100 mL; 29 kcal/100 mL). Milk lay in between for both energy and calcium (127 mg Ca/100 mL; 65 kcal/100 mL). 

The animals given the almond drink showed the least weight increase and the lowest body fat content. In terms of bone health, these animals showed the least bone growth, the lowest bone calcium content and the weakest bones. The fortified soy drink had results similar to those for milk, which is interesting given that the difference in calcium content between the almond drink and milk was far less than the difference between the fortified soy drink and milk. 

Many people, due to personal choice or health reasons, replace milk with plant-based beverages. The authors emphasised the need to consider more than just the energy or protein content of these replacements, which is particularly pertinent for elderly people prone to poor bone health. 

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SNI in spotlight at Primary Industries NZ summit

Representatives from industry, policy and research came together last week to attend presentations on trade, sustainability, consumer science and future trends for the primary sector in New Zealand at the Primary Industries Summit in Wellington. The summit, organised by Federated Farmers of New Zealand, was held at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (23rd – 24th November). Delegates heard a selection of world class, global and local experts delivering insights that will support and enable the sector to plan and prepare for its transition and adaptation to a sustainable future.

On the second day of the summit, over 400 delegates heard from the Riddet Institute’s Dr Nick Smith, who discussed the research being undertaken by the Institute’s Sustainable Nutrition Initiative (SNI). SNI focuses on how global food production will need to adapt to adequately and sustainably meet the nutritional requirements of the world’s population, now and in the future.

After the opening keynote from the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, Nick gave an overview of the global food system, which encompasses far more than our common perception of farm, processing, distribution and consumption. Professor Warren McNabb, deputy director of the Institute and leader of SNI, comments “our research investigates many aspects of the global food production system, including food waste, international trade, environmental impacts and governance. We incorporate this into a working model (the DELTA Model) to assess scenarios for delivering sustainable and adequate nutrition for all”.

Nick’s talk struck a chord with the audience as he discussed micronutrient availability (what is often called ‘hidden hunger’) and his contention that a global food production system that fails to nourish people can never be considered sustainable. Although macronutrient production is currently more abundant than many people think, our current global food production system paints a chilling picture when the supply of micronutrients is considered. For example, the world doesn’t produce enough calcium or Vitamin E for its current population, and these deficiencies will grow as the population increases. Other micronutrients, including those sourced predominantly from animal foods, like Vitamin B12, will likely be problematic in the future. Nick reiterated that any proposed changes to food production must consider the nutritional consequences to people, alongside environmental considerations, if our global food production system is to be truly sustainable.

Sustainable nutrition is a key research topic for the Institute, given our vision to support the primary industries with their adaptation to a sustainable future and underpinning their products with world class fundamental science. Nick outlined to the assembly SNI’s key findings in the area and also discussed the work of Distinguished Professor Paul Moughan. Paul and his team recently demonstrated that a US citizen could purchase a nutritionally adequate diet for US$1.98 a day (NZ$2.83). Nutritionally adequate means a diet that is able to supply all the nutrients needed by the consumer.  An adequate, but entirely plant-based diet would cost US$3.61 (NZ$5.15). This emphasised the role of nutrient dense animal-sourced foods in a nutritious and affordable diet.

The DELTA Model allows current and future global food production system scenarios to be analysed for their ability to supply sustainable and adequate nutrition to the world’s population. Our work with DELTA demonstrates that sufficient macronutrients (i.e. energy, protein, fat) are produced today to nourish the world’s population. In fact, from a macronutrient perspective, we already produce enough food to feed the forecast 2030 world population of 8.6 billion. The issues are really around the supply of the aforementioned micronutrients and trace elements. 


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World Wildlife Fund release planet-based diets model

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On a country and diet basis, you can use the WWF model to set the amount of different food groups in a diet and see the caloric, mortality and environmental impacts of the new diet if adopted by the entire country.

The model takes previously published figures as its basis for the mortality and environmental impacts, and national dietary guidelines to give recommended caloric intakes from each food group. The user can adjust intakes of 13 traditional food groups (e.g. grains, poultry, alcohol), with guidance on what an appropriate caloric intake from each food group would be. The model also has presets for common dietary scenarios, such as observing national food guidelines, vegetarian populations and so on. 

As outputs, the model gives estimates of environmental impacts, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land-use, broken down by food group. An estimated percentage change in overall mortality rate is also shown. Finally, the model also gives some examples of what a weekly shopping basket might look like for the defined diet. 

While being very user-friendly and displaying a large amount of information in an accessible manner, the model has some limitations. Foremost is its use of calories as the only indicator of nutrition. While sufficient energy intake is required, often micronutrients are the limiting factor in the adequacy of a diet, and these are not included in the model. Anyone using the model to compare diets must bear this vital element in mind. 

The DELTA Model takes a different view of the impacts of food, assessing whether global food production is nutritionally adequate for the global population. The individual, national and global perspectives are all important in the consideration of sustainable food, and each should be modelled accordingly. 

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