New Food System is Needed Based on ‘Interconnectedness’ of Humans, Animals and the Planet
Ultra-processed food is a staple diet for Mexican 10-year-old Ricky and his mother, Alicia.

UK farmers use half the antibiotics they did in 2014; Mexico has reduced stunting by 6% in the last 30 years, and Pakistan is offering conditional cash transfers to poor families to improve their nutrition. 

These examples of how countries are trying to fix broken food systems were offered at Friday’s Healthy Food Systems dialogue, co-hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO), EAT, and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.

Opening Friday’s dialogue, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said that “we need a new food systems narrative that embraces the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and the planet that sustains us”. 

The dialogue marked the start of a week-long series of global conversations in preparation for the United Nations (UN) Food Systems Summit in September and the civil society “pre-summit” next month.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called the summit to address how to build healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

Tedros told the dialogue that the  WHO proposes a new food system based on five major pathways:

“First, unhealthy diets, and food insecurity, with impacts including overweight and obesity, undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and diet-related non-communicable diseases,” he said.

“Second, zoonotic pathogens and antimicrobial resistance which impacts farm ranged and wild-caught animals. 

“Third, unsafe and adulterated foods, including those containing hazards such as pathogens, chemicals and toxicants. 

“Fourth, environmental contamination and degradation through pollution of soil, air and water resources and fifth, occupational hazards, including harm to physical and mental health, suffered by workers in the food system,” said Tedros.

New Food System Narrative is Needed

Dr Agnes Kalibata, UN Special Envoy to the Food Systems Summit

Francesco Branca, WHO’s Director Nutrition and Food Safety, said that the Food Summit provides an opportunity “to develop a new food system narrative centred around upholding human, ecological and animal health using a One Health approach”.

“Current narratives do not always recognise these interconnections and could miss the opportunity of a radical food system transformation, building on the pandemic recovery process,” he added.

Dr Agnes Kalibata, UN Special Envoy to the Food Systems Summit, said that although “we thought our food systems have been designed to provide us with food”, instead we were faced with obesity, hunger, malnutrition and biodiversity loss.

She added that food system dialogues had been taking place all over the world and over 2,500 proposals to fix the broken system had already been put forward.

“I hope that we don’t squander the opportunity that the Food System Summit is giving us to pivot our food system into something that works for all of us,” said Kalibata.

“We have a lot of inequity in our systems. So we need our food system to work for us from a health perspective and from a food perspective.”

Mexico Struggles with Stunting and Obesity

Juan Rivera, Director General of Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health

Juan Rivera, Director General of Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health, outlined a major problem facing many developing countries – the seemingly paradoxical problems of stunting and obesity.

“Stunting dropped in the last three decades from 20% to 14%. And I think that what worked was a combination of nutrition-sensitive actions, such as the provision of nutritional supplements and nutrition education, along with the access to health care of children under five targeted to the poorest population, and conditional cash transfers to incentivise the utilisation of those services,” said Rivera.

“On the other hand, during the same period, we experienced a huge increase in overweight and obesity in Mexico,” he added. 

“In adults, we went from 35% to 70% overweight and obesity and in adolescents from 11% to 40%,” which had made Mexico vulnerable to severe illness and death from COVID-19,” said Rivera. Mexico has one of the highest obesity rates in the world.

“In the last seven years, we have implemented measures to limit the availability and accessibility of unhealthy foods and beverages through taxes, limiting availability to children through school regulations, restraining advertising of unhealthy food for children and adolescents and providing simple and clear information to consumers, and trying to reduce food processing through front of packet warning labels to reduce the intake of unhealthy ultra-processed food,” said Rivera.

Johanna Ralston, Chief Executive of the World Obesity Federation, said that “90% of deaths due to COVID are occurring in countries with high rates of obesity which tells us that probably COVID is the second predictor after age of poor outcomes”.

“COVID-19 highlighted the extremes about all that’s broken in our food systems,”  added Ralston, who said that obesity was “particularly exacerbated by consumption of ultra-processed foods and unhealthy beverages”.

G7 Commits to Addressing AMR 

Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Special Envoy on AMR

Dame Sally Davies, the UK’s Special Envoy on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) reported on a glimmer of hope on addressing AMR.

“Through a collaborative and multi-sectoral voluntary approach to antibiotic stewardship in livestock production, antibiotic sales for food-producing animals in the UK has halved since 2014. This makes the UK one of the lowest users of antibiotics in agriculture, amongst those countries, with a significant livestock farming industry,” said Davies.

She was also encouraged by the commitment by climate and environment ministers at last week’s G7 meeting to reduce the inappropriate use of antimicrobials and to make the manufacturing of antibiotics more friendly for the environment.

“Our dependence on antimicrobials has become so excessive that our systems are now unsustainable and our treatments are becoming less effective,” warned Davies.

“This silent pandemic is on the rise. And if we don’t get our act together, it could kill 10 million people each year by 2050. 

“You see antimicrobials being used for food-producing animals to promote rapid growth for a faster route to market. That increases the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in animals, potentially untreatable infections. This approach is short-term and risks the sustainability of our food systems.”

Well-being of Animals and People is Connected

Philip Lymbery, CEO of Compassion in World Farming, said that one lesson that could be learned from COVID-19 “is the well-being of people, animals and the planet are all interconnected”.

“COVID has been linked to the ill-treatment of wildlife. A source of both past and future pandemics is industrial animal agriculture or factory farming,” said Lymbery. “Keeping thousands of animals caged, crammed and confined is inherently unhealthy, producing the perfect breeding ground for disease,” he added, pointing out that swine flu from factory farms had killed about half a million people worldwide. 

“Industrial agriculture is not only the biggest causes of animal cruelty on the planet. It is also a major driver of deforestation, decline in the world’s wildlife and a consumer of more than two thirds of the world’s antibiotics.”

Hundreds of local, national and international events are being convened to discuss food system transformation, with those involved in food policy urging a global adoption of a “One Health” approach –  upholding human, ecological, and animal health – before the next pandemic.



Image Credits: The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, UNICEF.

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