Agricultural production should focus on food quality and nutrition alongside quantity and yield


Guest commentary originally published on The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

When countries invest in agriculture, food output increases, economies grow, and people’s livelihoods improve. But these positive outcomes do not necessarily result in healthier societies. Our traditional paramount focus on increasing agricultural yields may have come at the expense of producing nutrient rich, diverse crops. Likewise, increases in the spending power of individuals enable the consumption of a greater quantity and variety of food products that undermine diet quality.

The recent Foresight report, Food Systems and Diets: Facing the Challenges of the 21st Centurypublished by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition shows how, despite the progress we have made in agricultural productivity, our current food systems are failing to meet the nutritional needs of nearly 3 billion people around the world. Poor quality diets now represent the number one risk factor in disease burdens globally, higher than the combined risk of unsafe sex, alcohol, drug, and tobacco use.

All countries are affected. Some individuals lack enough basic calories or micronutrients, while others suffer from being overweight or obese. The current ratio of one in three people worldwide suffering from some form of malnutrition will move towards 1 in 2 if current trends continue. In many low- and middle-income countries, these three challenges co-exist as a ‘triple burden of malnutrition,’ resulting in premature death through chronic disease or diet-related non-communicable diseases.

At the root of this triple burden is the fact that our food systems are too focused on food quantity and not enough on delivering nutritious, high quality diets. In other words, how we currently grow, produce, process and market food is contributing to a global food and nutrition security crisis that poses an increasingly serious threat to virtually every country’s future health and development.

Ensuring future societies have access to high quality diets goes beyond agriculture to encompass trade, the environment, health, harnessing the power of the private sector, and empowering consumers to demand better diets. Bringing these various sectors together will allow the public and private sectors to take more coordinated actions to ensuring food systems are delivering the accessible, affordable, high-quality diets required to ensure future food and nutrition security for all.

Coordinated action is needed, supported by high-level political will, commitment, and accountability. The longstanding division of jurisdictional responsibilities within many governments between agriculture, health, social protection, and commerce need to be overcome. The African Leaders for Nutrition initiative is a good example of how this can happen. Developed by the Global Panel and the African Development Bank, working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it champions the implementation of diverse financial and policy interventions in Africa at the highest level, to improve malnutrition for all. To be formally launched at the next African Union summit, it has already attracted commitment from leaders across Africa with an accountability scorecard in development. In my own country, Ghana, the John A. Kufuor Foundation, in partnership with other stakeholders, has initiated the “NOURISH Ghana” program to promote nutritious diets.

My colleagues and I on the Global Panel are committed to helping low- and middle-income countries develop food systems that deliver accessible, affordable, and high-quality diets. Alongside our Foresight report, the Global Panel’s briefs provide evidence and recommendations to influence decision-makers. For example, our latest policy brief, to be published next month, examines how the food environment can create incentives to shift market forces towards the sale and consumption of higher quality, more nutritious foods.

Members and friends of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs do not need to be told how critical agriculture is to economic prosperity and societal well-being. As chair of the Global Panel, I ask that the agricultural community focus on food quality and nutrition, alongside quantity and yield, if food systems are to be repositioned from feeding people to nourishing people.