Blog 14

Redesigning the food system for planetary health

In blog 14 in our series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, Brent Loken, Global Food Scientist and Joao Campari, Global Food Practice Leader, both of WWF International highlight how the COVID-19 pandemic is again showing how connected humans are to nature, its natural resources, and animals. Food systems depend on this connection but it is clear from this pandemic, and climate change, there are vulnerabilities. They propose four principles to redesign food systems that are more aligned to planetary health: 1. Promote healthy, sustainable diet practices that are in line with biodiversity. 2. Optimize land use in more sustainable ways. 3. Embrace traditional diets and 4. Ensure food systems are equitable.

-- Jess Fanzo

What we do to the natural world often comes back to affect us and not always in ways that we would expect. The devasting Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the fact that no matter how much we try to think humans and nature are separate, our civilization has always and will always depend on human health, flourishing natural systems, and the wise stewardship of natural resources. The emerging field of “planetary health” has unified these concepts into a single idea, with food systems central to achieving it. Unfortunately, food systems are a protagonist in much of the ill health and environmental degradation that we see today and may be central to the emergence of the Covid-19 virus. This pandemic is being described as a “once in a 100-year pandemic” and now, as we begin to reboot the global economy after this crisis, we have a “once in a 100-year opportunity” to redesign the global food system to achieve this new meaning of planetary health – i.e. one that is good for both people and planet.

Despite the lack of definitive answers for where or how the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, there is growing evidence that the loss of nature, our increasing reliance on concentrated animal feeding operations, and our continued use of wild animals (e.g. wet markets and bushmeat consumption) are creating the perfect conditions for a spillover event. Around 70% of all emerging infectious diseases and almost all recent pandemics originate in animals and nearly half of those are linked to environmental degradation caused by agricultural expansion and deforestation. This includes individuals who come into close contact with wildlife as they encroach on natural habitats for their food security and livelihoods as well as those who clear large expanses of rain forest to plant soy, oil palm or raise cattle. All of which increase the level of contact between humans and animals and the likelihood of spillover.

Producing food for the planet today uses about 40% of the Earth’s land surface and has been the principle driver of tropical deforestation, grassland conversion, mangrove loss and degradation. Furthermore, it contributes roughly 25% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Compounding these environmental impacts, our current diets potentially increase the impact of diseases as they spread. Globally, non-communicable diseases such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension and diabetes, are soaring, and early evidence hints that individuals with underlying medical conditions such as these are more at risk of dying if they contract Covid-19. The increase in non-communicable diseases is mainly driven by an overconsumption of unhealthy foods. In addition to soaring rates of non-communicable diseases, more than 800 million people are still chronically undernourished and millions of children suffer from stunting and wasting. Nutrition can be a critical determinant of infectious disease susceptibility and progression, with chronically undernourished individuals often having compromised immune responses and leading to higher rates of morbidity and mortality from infectious diseases.

However, this is not the first time that a new and deadly virus has emerged, and it won’t be the last. Although we cannot always foresee and prevent disease, if we continue to destroy the natural world by producing food that is unhealthy and unsustainable, we make these events both more likely and more severe. The recent rise in occurrence of such events are underlying symptoms of a planet in crisis. To decrease both the severity and likelihood of these events, redesigning our unhealthy and unsustainable food system needs to become a top priority.


Yet, redesigning the global food system is not easy and it would be impossible to provide an exhaustive list of specific actions or policy interventions that all countries could implement. We do, however, believe that the four principles we propose below are “no-regret” and could be considered by any stakeholder that wants to help redesign a food system for planetary health. We also propose a key action for each principle that we believe will help to accelerate its implementation.


1) Promote healthy, more sustainable food choices that protect, conserve and restore biodiversity and a more sustainable use of nature.

All people have a right to be better informed about the environmental impacts of food choices so they can make decisions to support food that is produced within planetary boundaries. This means choosing food that is produced in a way that: 1) feeds humanity on the same or ideally less agricultural land; 2) protects and conserves natural ecosystems; 3) moves toward zero loss of biodiversity; 4) decarbonizes the food value chain from production to consumption and; 5) reduces food loss and waste to decrease pressure on natural habitats.

The youth have the potential to play a key role in leading a social movement to help promote more healthy and sustainable food choices and reduce food loss and waste. The rapidly growing bottom-up movements of Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future are demanding action on the Paris Agreement and the biodiversity crisis but have so far not made healthy and sustainable food a central part of their message. These youth will bear the greatest impacts in the future from the climate and biodiversity crisis and are currently bearing tremendous health impacts from unhealthy foods. Their voices could help to tackle important issues such as the marketing of unhealthy and unsustainable foods to children and the need for better education on healthy and sustainable diets in schools.


2) Optimize agricultural land-use globally through more sustainable food production.

Feeding humanity on existing agricultural land requires nothing short of an agricultural revolution. This would require a global shift toward more sustainable food production including closing yield gaps, spatially distributing cropland to grow the right crops in the right places, adopting more sustainable practices for soil, water, and nutrients, and rebalancing nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use between over and under-applying regions. While deforestation and conversion of natural habitats must be eliminated from food supply chains, large investments must be made to restore degraded lands and rehabilitate degraded soils at scale to enhance their capacity to store more carbon. In addition, adopting agroecological principles, such as integrating conservation objectives into current agricultural landscapes, would help to sequester carbon, reduce chemical inputs and protect biodiversity.

Because these goals cross-cut political, sectoral and geographical boundaries they will require an integrated approach and potentially even the creation of new international food and health institutions or evidence-based research coordination bodies. These could include an IPCC-type mechanism for healthy and sustainable diets to provide high quality scientific assessments, a UN Framework Convention on Sustainable Food Systems to produce guidelines and protocols which set targets and enable monitoring, or even a global food system observatory to monitor regional and national performance. It should be evaluated though, whether a new oversight body might be needed or whether existing bodies could coalesce or modify their remit to provide the necessary oversight to achieve this principle.


3) Embrace healthy and more sustainable food choices that embody the rich and vibrant diets and traditions globally.

All people deserve to have physical and economic access to healthy, nutritious food to sustain their well-being, livelihoods, and cultural preferences. Currently, however, achieving this goal is out of reach for far too many in high, low and middle-income countries. This may be due to a variety of reasons including affordability, lack of availability in local markets, disruption to local food production from conflict or extreme weather events, incoherent policies that do not support healthy and more sustainable food choices, or simply due to different individual needs and preferences.

As a first step to help achieve this principle we call on all countries to take a fresh look at their national dietary guidelines to ensure they are ambitious enough to optimize human health while protecting the environment. In addition to this, countries should create coherent, public health, agricultural, and food policies so that healthy and sustainable food is accessible and affordable to all people and enable or enforce legislation of other policies to ensure the guidelines are followed.


4) Support just transitions to healthy and sustainable diets for all, with fair and equitable sharing of the costs and benefits arising from these transitions.

The need to shift to healthy and more sustainable diets will be unequally distributed across the planet. Countries that have high per-capita consumption rates of less healthy and less sustainable food will require deeper transformations than those with low per-capita consumption rates. Many countries with low per-capita consumption rates of less healthy and less sustainable foods often also face significant burdens of malnutrition that must be given priority. The current global inequality in food consumption and food security highlights the growing inequality crisis and the fact that we must work together to have any chance of ensuring healthy and sustainable diets for everyone on the planet.

Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic will further exacerbate the inequality crisis and could potentially derail efforts to transform food systems in low and middle income countries. There are worrying signs that the Covid-19 virus may be spreading to these countries and if it does, they will need help to ensure they don’t suffer terrible humanitarian costs as a result. In doing so, however, it is imperative the support these countries receive is structured in such a way that it doesn’t further burden them with debt, thus making them even more vulnerable to future crises and unable to tackle issues of food security and malnutrition while ensuring healthy and sustainable diets to all of their citizens.


As we emerge from the Covid-19 crisis and begin to reboot the global economy through huge stimulus packages, we have an unprecedented opportunity to redesign the global food system so that we decrease the severity and likelihood of future events and their impact on human health and the global economy. We must not use this opportunity or this money on returning to the old broken system that will continue to erode planetary health. But we also must avoid panaceas. There will be no ‘magic fix’ to transforming the global food system and hastily implementing a panacea may create unintended consequences that make matters worse. This doesn’t mean that we should wait for more reports with new facts and figures before we act. Data is both sufficient and strong now to support immediate action.

Global emergencies are devastating. They also provide us with hopeful lessons of the resilience of the human species to seize the opportunity to create a new and better world than before. The Covid-19 crisis has shown us that a different world is possible. It has also shown us just how much we depend on each other, as one humanity living on one planet. We must therefore resist the rise in nationalism and closed borders and instead promote a new paradigm of solidarity, fairness, and cooperation that is led by multi-lateral efforts. Together, let’s seize this “once in a 100-year opportunity” to redesign a food system that nurtures human health, flourishing natural systems, and a wise stewardship of natural resources.


About the authors

Brent is the Global Food Lead Scientist for WWF. He was a lead author on the EAT-Lancet report on Food, Planet, Health and his research now focuses on how global targets can be downscaled and implemented in countries around the world. Rarely patient, Brent believes that to achieve the SDGs and Paris Agreement in the short time that is available it will be because of fast moving and innovative organizations and people that disrupt the status quo and actively show that a better world is possible. 

Joao is Global Leader of WWF's Food Practice, leading the Network´s efforts to enhance the sustainability of the global food system. His primary areas of focus are sustainable agriculture and aquaculture, sustainable diets and food loss and waste.  Prior to WWF, Joao was Special Sustainability Advisor at the Ministry of Agriculture in Brazil, where he also served as President of the Low-Carbon Agriculture Platform and as Executive Secretary of the Agribusiness Commission on Sustainable Development. Joao holds a Ph. D. in environmental economics and his research and publications focus on the nexus of rural poverty and natural resources management in agricultural frontiers.



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