Food Equity: A Global Challenge

A recent paper in Current Obesity Reports out of Johns Hopkins University,  Washington, USA, has asked whether diets can be healthy, sustainable, and equitable. It builds on the recent debate surrounding trends in global dietary patterns that was sparked by a series of 2019 papers in the Lancet, including Swinburn BA, et al. "The global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change," which examined the links between three pandemics: undernutrition, obesity, and climate change.  The Lancet series has sparked considerable debate around the best way forward.

Global health

In the Current Obesity Reports article, Fanzo and Davis argue that diets now serve as a significant risk factor for the global burden of disease and death. Diet-related noncommunicable disease and rising obesity are increasingly prevalent, affecting much of the global population. At the same time, the food system is producing food in ways that are not aligned with planetary health. The authors conclude that current dietary patterns are increasingly unhealthy, unsustainable, and inequitable for many populations. Multipronged interventions are needed to address the impacts of diets in order to improve human and planetary well-being.

The impact of unhealthy food

Optimal nutrition across the lifespan is key for health. In many parts of the world, the intake of unhealthy foods has outpaced that of "healthy" foods. In Australia, all of us — rich or poor,  young or old, rural or city dwellers — consume around 35% of our daily energy as "discretionary" foods  (read: junk foods). At the end of the decade, it is timely to consider what strategies and interventions will be necessary to move the planet’s diets towards those that are healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and more equitable. To be successful, a multi-pronged approach that includes governments, industry, and consumers will be needed, particularly given the climate challenges that we face. This is particularly stark at present, when so much of Australia is threatened by fire, and air quality is at an unprecedented low in some major cities.

Education and research

I recently had the opportunity to attend the FOODIE Asia meeting (organized by the American Institute of Chemical Engineers) on food production and technology at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. A common theme raised was the need for improvements to food production practices and reductions in food loss, along with governance and policy action. We heard some inspiring stories of research into emerging technologies for aquaculture, so important for the Singapore region, as well as new food production practices aimed at reducing water usage.

Future challenges

Clearly shifting the world's diets to healthier, more environmentally sustainable, and more equitable ones represents a huge challenge, and the burden to change practice requires an imaginative and nuanced approach from governments, authorities, educators, and food providers as well as consumers.

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Fanzo J and Davis C, Curr Obes Rep (2019) 8:495–503 Can diets be healthy, sustainable and equitable?

Swinburn BA, Kraak VI, Allender S, et al. The global syndemic of obesity, undernutrition, and climate change: the Lancet Commission report. Lancet. 2019;393: 791–846.