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The pathway to a sustainable food system is through human health

Globally, the food system contributes over a third of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Globally, the food system contributes over a third of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Image: Unsplash/Brooke Lark

Oliver Wright
Managing Director, Strategy, Consumer Goods and Services, Accenture
Andrew Moose
Head of Health and Wellness, World Economic Forum
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  • Globally, the prevalence of obesity-related conditions is increasing. If current trends continue, 60% of men and 50% of women worldwide will be obese by 2050.
  • It is crucial to address the food system's foundational goal of providing affordable, sustainable, and healthy food on the road to achieving decarbonization.
  • The World Economic Forum has identified five levers to create a sustainable, healthy food system, from reformulating ultra-processed foods to creating ecosystems that make diverse, nutrient-rich foods the default.

The international community has historically treated human health challenges and sustainability as entirely separate issues. Some initiatives address climate change and biodiversity loss, while others tackle diet-related disease and obesity.

However, as the world moves to net zero emissions, addressing the current food system and its related health burdens remains essential to decarbonization. Globally, the food system contributes over a third of all global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The food industry can unlock significant societal and environmental benefits by refocusing on its foundational goal – providing affordable, sustainable, healthy food.

Diets rich in whole, diverse and minimally processed foods have been shown to lower inflammation and reduce the likelihood of adults developing metabolic syndrome. Transitioning to plant-rich diets can also lead to an annual reduction in global carbon emissions of 2.6 gigatons, equivalent to removing the emissions generated by over twice the amount of cars in North America today.

Furthermore, eliminating food waste would prevent another 2.9 gigatons of carbon dioxide being emitted per year. These combined changes alone would achieve half of the pledged IPCC carbon reduction targets. Accordingly, there exists a sizeable opportunity for the food industry to innovate and create products that address both health and environmental challenges.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to improve healthcare systems?

How did we get here?

Modern nutritional science emerged a century ago, targeting specific deficiencies that plagued communities with diseases such as scurvy and rickets. Post World War II, the global food system exponentially expanded to provide affordable, calorie-rich foods for the rapidly growing global population.

With this emphasis on scale, shelf-life and convenience, the 20th-century food system quickly became the 21st century’s public health crisis. The industry has evolved to optimize towards inexpensive, processed and shelf-stable foods, often lower in nutrients and higher in ingredients like added sugar and salt.

In a pioneering randomized controlled trial, researchers found that individuals with a typical western, ultra-processed diet ate 500 calories, or roughly 25%, more per day than those with a minimally-processed diet.

Obesity now affects more than 2.3 billion people, and if current global trends continue, 60% of men and 50% of women worldwide will be obese by 2050. By 2017, diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) caused more deaths than infectious diseases and transportation accidents combined.

Furthermore, NCDs such as heart disease, diabetes and some cancers have doubled globally in three decades. And amid these trends, a staggering 78% of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths are linked to diet-related NCDs.

Inequities persist, as over 62% of the obese population lives in the developing world.

The problem has become most acute in the Middle East and North African developing nations, where more than 58% of adult men and 65% of adult women are overweight or obese. These communities are the least able to bear the “double burden” of hunger and obesity.

In addition, healthcare systems are already failing to keep pace and the projected course of diet-related disease presents an unmanageable strain on local and global economies. Diet-related diseases and chronic conditions account for $50 billion of healthcare expenditure in the United States. The economic costs of a poor diet reflect 2% of the global gross domestic product today and the rate is projected to reach 3.3% by 2060.

While advances in nutrition and medicine have lengthened the average life expectancy, poor diets are devastating communities worldwide, with nearly equal damage to human and planetary health.

The incentive structure for the world’s most fundamental industry must shift, encouraging companies to measure their product portfolios and drive nutrition-led innovation while ensuring equitable access to healthy options that don’t harm the planet.

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Reshaping the food system from its roots

As the impacts of climate change and poor human health overwhelm communities, consumers increasingly cite healthy eating as a top priority. Research also shows a growing affinity for nutrition, with 71% of consumers wanting to do more to stay healthy in the future and 48% committed to spending more on their health and wellness. Dietary choice, therefore, remains an untapped strategy to accelerate positive environmental outcomes.

The World Economic Forum’s New Frontiers of Nutrition initiative is launching two action platforms to help facilitate transformative change in the food system and accelerate food portfolio innovation and frontier business models by leveraging public and private partnerships. Both action platforms address the collective challenge of nutrition, climate and human health through:

  • Portfolio Innovation & Measurement. This action platform is focused on food products and emphasizes the commercial and sustainability benefits of nutrition-driven innovation and reformulation. This initiative addresses the proliferation of processed and ultra-processed foods. It focuses on supporting the global food industry to evaluate products for human and planetary health, creating thriving communities in sync with nature and biodiversity.
  • Frontier Business Models: Food-as-Medicine. This platform focuses on business models that support healthier diets, including those that enable Food-as-Medicine to improve health through the power of nutrition. It looks to accelerate and scale food-as-medicine business models, marrying improved health outcomes with healthcare cost savings by partnering with researchers, health payers and other industry players.

The action platforms are underpinned by five strategic levers the food industry needs to pull to transform:

  • Grow and manufacture diverse, nutrient-dense food.
  • Reformulate unhealthy, processed food.
  • Make sustainable, nutritious food more affordable.
  • Create and retain an environment that makes nutritional choices the default.
  • Amplify consumer connection between food, health and climate.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

Toward a collaborative future

Now is the time to embrace both global priorities – human and planetary health – as two inextricably linked priorities for positive food system transformation.

Through the New Frontiers of Nutrition initiative, the Forum and its partners are working together to catalyze positive change and strengthen existing initiatives and campaigns focused on expertise-driven solutions for nutritious and sustainable foods.

The global community must come together to work through the significant challenges and complexity that lie ahead and turn ideas into action. As the Forum and its partners unite, we invite you to join this transformation.

By prioritizing the well-being of individuals and the planet, society can work together to redefine the relationship between food, health and climate. The Forum and its partners invite you to join us in rewiring the global food system and rewriting the course of global health through the New Frontiers of Nutrition initiative.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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Forum InstitutionalHealth and Healthcare SystemsNature and BiodiversityIndustries in Depth
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