Agriculture, Food and Beverage

The global food system no longer meets our health needs. Here are 4 changes that can help us to eat better food

The global food system requires rapid evolution, as it no longer meets the world’s health or sustainability needs.

The global food system requires rapid evolution, as it no longer meets the world’s health or sustainability needs. Image: Unsplash/Brooke Lark

Ewan Thomson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Agriculture, Food and Beverage

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

This article was first published in January 2024 and was updated on 4 March, 2024.

  • While life expectancy has been rising, the length of a healthy life has deteriorated, a new World Economic Forum and Accenture report finds.
  • Diet is the most important driver of health and changing the way people consume food is the key to cultivating a sustainable and healthy food system.
  • Here are four ways to help people make better food choices for better health outcomes.

Anyone born in 2024 can expect to live for an average of 73 years, a huge increase from those born in 1950, who averaged nearer 46 years.

But while the improvement in overall life expectancy is undeniable, healthy life expectancy is broadly deteriorating and nutrition is responsible, according to a new insight report from the World Economic Forum and Accenture.

Here’s why the global food system needs to change, and four key ways to help people embrace healthier food choices and reduce the healthspan-lifespan gap.

Critical actions are required to improve our global food systems so that people can lead healthier lives.
Critical actions are required to improve our global food systems so that people can lead healthier lives. Image: World Economic Forum

Changing food priorities

The world’s food needs are changing. After the Second World War, the global food system was focused on providing cheap, high-calorie food to feed a growing population.

But, today, conditions related to excess body weight kill more people in the Western world than hunger, say the authors of Transforming the Global Food System for Human Health and Resilience.

Obesity rates among adults have doubled since 1990, a study in The Lancet reported on 1 March 2024, and quadrupled in children aged 5 to 19. One in eight people globally were living with obesity in 2022.

Unhealthy diets are one of the five major risk factors for non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and diabetes, which account for three-quarters of deaths globally.

In particular, ultra-processed foods (those typically with more than five ingredients) were linked to 32 harmful effects to health, including heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes, in a study published in the British Medical Journal in February 2024.

The current food system is also a threat to the planet, says the report. Agriculture contributes around a third of all global greenhouse gas emissions, and today’s agricultural practices can negatively impact soil fertility and productivity.

And the cost of poor nutrition and all of its impacts is close to $20 trillion – more than double the direct cost of global food consumption.

Graphic illustrating the hidden costs of the global food system.
The current food system causes significant environmental, economic and human damage. Image: World Economic Forum

Building a better global food system

The report concludes that the global food system requires rapid evolution, as it no longer meets the world’s health or sustainability needs.

Not doing so “commits the global community to preventable death, disease, ecosystem destruction and the long-term effects of climate change,” the report says.

Here are four recommendations it suggests will create better incentives to convince consumers to buy and eat healthier.

Infographic showcasing a healthy and sustainable food system.
Improving the global food supply system will require a multi-stakeholder approach. Image: World Economic Forum

1. Reimagine retail layouts

Food distributors and producers are teaming up with retail grocers to revamp their store layouts and product offerings to prioritize sustainable and healthy foods. Research on consumer behaviour shows that placing nutritious options in high-traffic areas can influence purchasing habits.

A recent study from the University of Southampton found that placing non-food items near checkouts and at the end of aisles, and fruits and vegetables at store entrances resulted in the sale of an extra 10,000 servings of produce per store per week. In comparison, sales of unhealthy foods decreased by 1,500 servings.

Offering a wider range of fruits and vegetables can also lead to benefits like improved economies of scale, reduced spoilage, greater crop diversity, and a more sustainable and nutritious product selection.

Retailers are increasingly utilizing technology to shape the in-store experience. Grocers in the US, for example, are using digital nutrition apps and in-store dietitians to teach customers about food preparation and storage techniques, encouraging healthier food choices, and increasing customer visits and store loyalty.

2. Subsidize healthy food

Governments can give money to farmers who grow healthy, biodiverse crops to encourage people to spend less by choosing healthier food.

As with alcohol and tobacco, governments can also tax companies that make unhealthy products to make them pay for the health problems their products cause.

In 2014, the Navajo Nation started taxing unhealthy food by 2% and used the money to fund health projects chosen by the community.

3. Standardize food labelling

Clear labelling that shows consumers important information like sugar, fat, and salt content is vital to helping them choose healthier options. The report also calls for stricter definitions of what constitutes "natural" and "low-fat" products as well as information on the sustainability of the product.

Digital technology like blockchain, QR codes or apps can provide more information and even improve ingredient traceability.

4. Make healthy food the default

Small retailers such as restaurants, convenience stores or gas stations have a big influence on what consumers choose. Creating healthy and sustainable menu options that are just as tempting and marketable as unhealthy ones can shift the dial from unhealthy to healthy.

“Stunt food products” like Starbucks' Unicorn Latte and Taco Bell's Dorito shell were popular and created an online buzz, so why not create equally exciting healthy products, ask the report’s authors.

Graphic showcasing the vision and approach towards nutritious food choices.
Access and availability of nutritious foods need to be increased at scale. Image: World Economic Forum

Working together to transform the global food system

These recommendations can help pave the way to a more sustainable, healthier food system. Public-private partnerships are key to the improvement of global nutrition, according to the report, citing portfolio innovation and measurement, and frontier business models as key drivers of this.

“To achieve this goal, it is necessary to mobilize stakeholders from various sectors, including government, investors, consumer industries, healthcare, education and others, to collaborate in advancing nutrition as a key global priority.”

Facilitated in collaboration with Accenture, the Forum's New Frontiers of Nutrition initiative brings together a diverse set of stakeholders to improve global nutrition, sustain diets and increase human health resiliency.

And to ensure a holistic transition to healthy and sustainable diets, this project is being advanced under the auspices of the Centre for Health and Healthcare and in collaboration with the Forum's Food Systems Initiative.

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Agriculture, Food and BeverageGlobal HealthHealth and Healthcare
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