Over the last decades, major changes in what people eat and to food production systems all around the world have impacted human health and the state of the environment. Although more food is now produced to feed a growing population, our plates are filled unequally and the nutrition and safety is not always guaranteed. That has led to a strain on our planet and a growing number of people suffering overweight, obesity and micronutrients deficiency. Food production is the single largest driver of environmental degradation and a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
In a recent study published in Environmental Research Letters, GEDB researchers together with colleagues at Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC), the Beijer Institute, University of Gävle and the WorldFish Center in Malaysia, teamed up to identify ways the global food system can be ‘rewired’. To do that they looked at how food production has influenced human health and the biosphere since the 1960’s until today.
Implications for human and environmental health
In their study, led by Line Gordon, SRC, the authors look at how the total volume of food production has changed along with the nutritional value of the food. They also looked at safety aspects of food production and how farming and fishing have affected crucial earth system processes. The latter part of the study uses the planetary boundaries framework.
The authors argue that the overall increase in the volume of food production has mixed implications for human and environmental health. Less people are undernourished today than in the 1960’s and more varied and convenient food choices are available, but the proportion of overweight and obese people has increased. At the same time, four out of the six planetary boundaries have crossed a safe operating space.
Moreover, a more globalised food system has disconnected consumers from the producers of food. This in turn has reduced the transparency of how food is produced.
"Throughout the past decades, supply chains have become consolidated to a few actors that exert disproportionate power over the production methods and the supply of food at a large scale, constraining individual food choices at the local scale," says co-author Beatrice Crona, GEDB Executive director.
Eight action points
Gordon and her co-authors identify eight “entry points” for a more healthy and sustainable food system:
1. Create nutrient-rich landscapes: This includes selecting crop varieties, fish and livestock based on their nutritional content.
2. Cut waste and change diets: Solutions such as cutting post-harvest losses and shifting dietary patterns can reduce pressure on natural resources..
3. Reduce antimicrobial use: Intensification is a general trend in animal farming and it is urgent to find means that limit excessive use within the animal food production sector.
4. Strengthen biodiversity and multifuntional landscapes: We should better acknowledge and account for the many ecosystem services and social benefits that food producing systems deliver beyond food itself, such as pollination, water filtration, and recreation.
5. Reconnect people to the biosphere: Initiatives that can reconnect individuals and communities to food can facilitate a broader engagement with food systems in healthy and sustainable ways.
6. Enhance transparency between producers and consumers: There is a need to improve our capacity to trace the impacts of food production across the supply chain.
7. Influence consumer decisions: Better knowledge is needed about what enables people to adopt healthy and sustainable dietary patterns.
8. Mobilize key actors to become biosphere stewards
Based on these action points, the authors conclude:
“We need to rewire different parts of food systems, to enhance information flows between consumers and producers at different scales, influence food-system decision makers, foster the biosphere stewardship of key actors in food systems, and re-connect people to the biosphere through the culture of food.”
Gordon, L., V. Bignet, V. Crona, P. Henriksson, T. Van Holt, M. Jonell, T. Lindahl, M. Troell, S. Barthel, L. Deutsch, C. Folke, J. Haider, J. Rockstroem and JC. Queiroz. 2017. Rewiring food systems to enhance human health and biosphere stewardship. Environmental Research Letters 12:100201. DOI: 10.1088/1748-9326/aa81dc