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Is it time we stop worrying about biting off more than we can chew?

Written by Anagha Joshi

March 5, 2020

Committing to transform food systems in the next century  

LIDC’s event on the future of food in January generated a lot of attention. From alarm bells of the dire consequences of climate change to enthusiasm about collaborative movements to build a resilient food system. According to the Lancet Commission, improving food systems is as an opportunity; ‘food is the single strongest lever to improve human health and environmental stability on Earth’. Engaging in this space is not only about food security. It is a method to ‘humanise’ the climate change debate and highlights the vulnerability of the very essence of human survival – food.

The world’s temperature is rising … and our food systems will feel it

Unsustainable population growth is forecasted to continue, with an estimated global population of 9.8 billion in 2050. According to Claire Heffernan, LIDC Director, there is not enough research on food systems and food supply in 2100. We do know however, that we will be past ‘peak human’ as the rate of population growth is predicted to decline. New research predicts that due to better diets 18.73% of the increase in food required in 2100 will be due to increases in the average height and weight across populations (Depenbusch, L. and Klasen, S., 2019).

Climate change, in conjunction with increased global demand on food, intensifies the problem. Professor Sir David King, lead author on the ‘Climate Change: A risk Assessment’ policy brief describes that many crops are reliant on critical temperatures. Going forward the Earth could be up to 6 degrees Celsius higher by the end of the century.

Research done by Professor Alan Dangour at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) predicts changing yields of major cereals by 2050. The effects will be significant in Africa and Asia, showcasing emerging inequalities in the effects of climate change. These changes will result in not just reduced supply of food but poorer quality of food. This will increase malnutrition and its related health effects, as well as stunting.

Investing in food systems creates economic benefits

In international development, the power of strong international bodies to impact policy is key. Unfortunately, the near-sighted nature of governments results in poor affinity to long term commitments. The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition is working on engaging governments on this topic. According to Sandy Thomas, Director of the Global Panel, we should frame investment in better food systems as economic benefit. Hence ‘transforming food systems to make them healthier and sustainable could add 10.5 trillion USD to the economy by 2050’.

Forming impactful coalitions

According to David Nabarro, winner of the World Food Prize 2018, it is about creating a dialogue between unlikely stakeholders. Food Systems Dialogues (FSD) is a new initiative that aims at doing exactly that; where governmental, civil society, commercial and academic actors discuss the challenges of food systems and make practical commitments. A recent FSD was held in Davos following the World Economic Forum. One key take-away from this FSD is decreasing the risk for politicians to commit to improved food systems.

Improving access to data

More transparent access to data along the food chain is needed in order to truly revolutionise food systems. Simon Pearson from the University of Lincoln is working as part of a larger team at the Internet of Food Things aimed at digitalising the UK food chain. This work will enable consumers, businesses and policy makers to identify and target parts of the chain that require modification.

Re-creating food systems in Africa

Dr Namukolo Covic from the International Food Policy Research Institute witnesses an agricultural shift that has taken place in Africa which results in a reduction of drought resilient crop production like millet. Africa can be seen as an opportunity to recreate better food systems. Hence many countries are still in the process of developing their own food-based dietary guidelines. The continent of Africa is moving towards a free trade area of 58 countries. This opens the gate to potentially more secure and sustainable food systems.

Think global, act local

Professor Alan Dangour from LSHTM suggests that a simple way to start improving not just your health, but food sustainability is to actually follow the EatWell guide. This guide suggests the relative proportion of bread compared with fruit and vegetables we should be eating. However, the reason why people do not currently follow the guide is not just because of lack of awareness but possibly lack of affordability. The EAT-Lancet website also has valuable ‘pocket-size’ briefs aimed at individuals, health care professionals and policy members on how to encourage a planetary health diet. It is time to build forces, think outside the (lunch)box, and commit to transformative change for the future of food.

Anagha Joshi is an LIDC intern and has recently completed a Masters in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.


Depenbusch L, Klasen S (2019) The effect of bigger human bodies on the future global calorie requirements. PLoS ONE 14(12): e0223188.

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