A Delicate Balance: Rethinking Food Systems

Have we stopped to think about how the food we consume every day reaches our plates? There are several links in the process that cause impacts on the environment and on people’s health. How do food systems work? And would it be time for a change to maintain the balance in our environment and nutrition?

6 min. read

Food systems take into account the various steps of the food chain and human nutrition, such as: “growing, harvesting, packaging, processing, transporting, marketing and consumption1”. In addition, it covers the dynamics between people and the environment, that is, how the land is used or affected, irrigation systems, climatic conditions, and also how the environment influences the health and nutrition of human beings. The concept goes further and covers inputs, institutions, infrastructure, as well as services, food and cultural practices that support the previous aspects. When we talk about sustainable food systems, it is meant that the provided food must be nutritious, it impacts the planet’s health as little as possible and that future generations can “meet their own food and nutritional needs2“.

However, what is the current state of food systems? For some decades now, greater pressures have been noticed on the environment and people’s health. A nutritious diet continues to be expensive to afford, while diets rich in additives, sodium, added sugars (which are usually cheaper) are the cause of serious health problems and a risk factor in mortality and morbidity rates with a count of already 11 million deaths. In to bring food to the tables, the environment has been degraded and contributed to climate change through deforestation, loss of biodiversity, erosion, among others, to make way for more farmland and pasture for livestock. Let’s look at how these aspects are particularly worsened by deficiencies in food systems3.

The human diet has been predominantly affected by the transitions that various parts of the planet have undergone to more industrialized and urbanized societies. Traditional diets have been replaced by diets high in sodium, fats and sugars, increase in the consumption of meat, and more sedentary lifestyles. This has given rise to the “double burden of malnutrition” that consists of sectors of the population being impacted by malnutrition, and another part by obesity problems. Chronic malnutrition decreased by 20% in the 1990s, however, this trend has not improved in recent years. In Ecuador, 1 in 4 children suffers from chronic malnutrition. Acute malnutrition has remained unchanged. Since the 1980s, overweight and obesity have doubled in the world population, and it exceeds the underweight and normal weight population4.

The relationship between food systems and the environment is a two-way street. Food production is disturbed by climate change. According to the report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2021, the average global temperature increase already identified of more than 1.1ºC has wreaked havoc at the atmospheric level, producing extreme events such as droughts and precipitations, affecting the farming seasons, the varieties of species, watering times that will be reflected in the crops5. At the same time, the emission of greenhouse gases released by agriculture and food transport, as well as the disruptions in soil nutrients due to the use of chemicals, are some of the consequences of unsustainable management of food systems. It is worth mentioning that the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic raised the already existing challenges, where currently 3,000 million people cannot access a nutritious diet, in addition to the variations in food systems as a result of the appearance of infectious diseases6.

It is clear that when imbalances between nutrition and food production exist, a transformation is needed. How would it look like? The key is to reach adequate levels of: availability, access, affordability and desirability. The availability of nutrient-rich and sustainably grown food must be guaranteed. People should have access to food regardless of where they live and whatever their socioeconomic status. As food moves more easily through the supply chain, costs are lowered, access is improved and waste is avoided. Currently, between 9% and 20% of food is lost from harvest and throughout the entire supply chain. The cost of healthy diets must decrease as it competes against cheaper, longer shelf life foods that are ultra-processed, high in sodium and fat, with added sugars. Lastly, we have desirability, which requires information and empowerment campaigns for consumers, so that they prefer improved and more sustainable diets7.

1 IFAD. 2020. Sistemas Alimenarios. https://www.ifad.org/es/food-systems. Access on 09/22/2022
2 Id.
3 National Geographic. 2019. Las dietas poco saludables causan más muertes que el tabaco o el cancer. https://www.nationalgeographic.com.es/ciencia/dietas-poco-saludables-causan-mas-muertes-que-tabaco-o-cancer_14122. Access on 09/03/2022
4 Ecuavisa. 2021. Unicef llama al Gobierno a atender desnutrición crónica en niños de Ecuador. https://www.ecuavisa.com/noticias/unicef-llama-al-gobierno-a-atender-desnutricion-cronica-en-ninos-de-ecuador-AB344277. Access on 10/10/2021
5 IPCC. 2022. Climate change: a threat to human wellbeing and health of the planet. Taking action now can secure our future. https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/resources/press/press-release/#:~:text=In%20May%202019%20the%20IPCC,greenhouse%20gas%20emissions%20and%20removals.&text=The%20Working%20Group%20III%20contribution,scheduled%20for%20early%20April%202022. Access on 03/27/2022
6 Ibid. IFAD. 2020.
7 The American Journal on Clinical Nutrition. 2022. Sustainable food systems and nutrition in the 21st century: a report from the 22nd annual Harvard Nutrition Obesity Symposium. Volume 115, Issue 1. p. 18-33. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/115/1/18/6370594. Access on 09/16/2022