Just six years ago, the Ebola crisis was unfolding. At its apex, the country leaders who gathered at the Second International Conference on Nutrition recognized that healthy food systems contribute to preventing and addressing infectious diseases, including zoonotic diseases (those that pass from animals to humans, like Ebola, SARS, and now COVID-19). Action and investment were pledged, with due attention given to the unequal burden carried by the most vulnerable and commitments made to assess the environmental and health impacts of food systems.
That we are here, once again, responding to another zoonotic disease shows that we have not adequately responded to the terrible lessons of the past.
From the wastage of vast quantities of milk and eggs to lost employment and harvests to the longer queues at food banks, from the relaxation of environmental protections to the increased consumption of highly processed foods, the magnitude of the pandemic has brutally exposed the limitations of industrial food systems that are designed for efficiency and not resilience; and, by consequence, fail to adequately nourish the majority of the world’s population.
As we rally around World Food Safety Day, remembering that unsafe food causes 600 million cases of food-borne diseases and 420,000 deaths each year, we have an opportunity to take action to trigger a wider food and health systems transformation. Food safety is merely a symptom of a much broader, broken food system. We have a chance to shift from food systems that too often result in harm to food systems that put human, animal, and ecological health first.
Today is an important moment to take stock. With every bite we eat, anyone of us can be exposed to illness from either microbiological or chemical contamination. It’s understandable to think of food safety as just being about food poisoning and eating something that was contaminated through unsanitary handling or poor preparation. This is perhaps the most direct, most documented type of health impact arising from food systems.
Yet, the health impacts of our food systems — and the role of our food systems in shaping our health outcomes — go much further than just one unfortunate bite. Indeed, they touch social, economic, and, of course, environmental domains. Food safety and the impact of food-borne diseases are intrinsically linked to all aspects of our food systems: fair and affordable access; poverty and injustice; the availability of culturally-relevant, appropriate food; weakened and compromised immune systems; environmental contamination; occupational hazards; and more. As with everything, these challenges are, in turn, exacerbated by climate change — with the burden falling heaviest on the most vulnerable in our societies, especially small-holder farmers, women, and children in low-income countries.
These interconnected issues point to a systemic failure in the way we grow, process, distribute, market, eat, and dispose of food with a disregard for meeting basic nutritional needs and human rights. There is much of talk about getting back to normal after the COVID-19 pandemic, but normal — “business as usual” — means more of the same: intensification of agriculture and animal production; destruction of natural ecosystems; exacerbation of the risk of zoonotic diseases emerging and spreading; more malnutrition; and the associated rise of non-communicable diseases.
We have not adequately responded to the lessons of the past. This crisis is another chance. We have enough evidence, we know enough to act, and consensus is emerging on the most critical levers for true food systems transformation. From local to global and across geographies and scales, many of us are calling for radical change. This means:
1. Businesses need to start measuring success and agricultural productivity in a new, more just way. We need metrics that account for the true costs of food
2. Governments need to develop policies that build and maintain sustainable food systems. Key policies, like agricultural subsidies, need to be re-orientated away from harmful practices and towards incentivizing the production of sustainable, safe, healthy, and nutritious foods.
3. Investment priorities and influence therein need to be radically re-examined. Financial support for research needs to be directed towards public issues and carried out for the public good.
4. Greater focus needs to be put on the actions that support the localization or regionalization of food systems and shorter supply-chains to build resiliency, increase food access, support sustainable local economies, and protect livelihoods and cultural traditions
5. Better governance toward accountable, transparent, and inclusive mechanisms at the sub-national, national, international levels must be encouraged and mobilized as a matter of principle.
We have another chance to rebuild our systems and to take an integrated and inclusive approach to food, food safety, environment, trade, agriculture, and nutrition policy, with human, ecological, and animal health at the heart of these. This is a critical window of opportunity to accelerate transformation and to leave no one behind.
Now is time to reach for visionary and bold structural change, rather than window dressing with piecemeal approaches. We must use multisectoral approaches and connect and collaborate with a range of actors, stepping up to the plate to take shared ownership of what is one of the most defining issues of our time. The costs of inaction will only continue to hinder the growth and development of individuals and societies for decades to come.
We all have a role to play in ensuring a safe, resilient, sustainable, and equitable future of food. This is everyone’s business.