From food security to diet quality: the new response to Brazil’s agriculture demands

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Agriculture is one of the core pillars of the Brazilian economy. Since the 1970s, Brazil has taken on the challenge to develop a model of agriculture and livestock to overcome the barriers that limited the production of food, fibre and fuel in the country[i]. This effort has helped Brazil move from a net food importer to one of the world’s largest food producers and exporters, and it is now a driving force behind global food systems and global food security. Together with the policies put in place by the government, much of this success can be attributed to the agricultural research, development, and innovation of Embrapa.

Along with these advances in agriculture, Brazil is also highly regarded as a global example for its achievements in reducing poverty, hunger and undernutrition. The country has seen considerable success in reducing stunting, which coincided with rapid changes in key social determinants of health and nutrition[ii].

In recent years, however, the focus on food production has come at the expense of nutritional quality. Changes in eating patterns and increased consumption of ultra-processed foods are major contributing factors to a rise in unhealthy eating and diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes. Today, anaemia stands at 20 percent in women of reproductive age, and food and nutrition insecurity remains a problem in specific communities. Over half of Brazil’s adult population is now overweight. In 1975, Brazil had the world’s ninth largest population of underweight men but by 2014 it was ranked third globally for obese men.

Brazil plays a radical role in driving global food systems and shaping global markets. In order to foster a healthy society, a change of approach is needed. That is why I believe it is crucial that the country not only supports the production and consumption of healthier foods, but also promotes the implementation of evidenced-based policies that make high-quality diets safe, affordable and accessible.

We are moving in the right direction. In 2014, the Brazilian Food-based Dietary Guideline set a precedent by recommending that high-quality diets contain minimal amounts of “ultra-processed foods.” The term “ultra-processed” was coined to refer to industrial formulations manufactured from substances derived from foods or synthesised from other organic sources.

Despite significant successes, much remains to be done. More nutrition-focused agricultural research is required to inform food systems policies. This is why Embrapa and the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition are working together to lay the foundation for a better future in which nutrition is at the core of Brazilian agricultural research and innovation.

The Global Panel, of which I am a member, has recently published an article in the journal Nature that offers a new global research agenda for food systems. It proposes 10 ways to shift the focus of agriculture, food and nutrition research from feeding people to nourishing them. In the next one or two decades, food systems will be under further stress from population growth, urbanisation, globalisation, climate change and increasingly scarce natural resources. To maintain high production levels, as well as a nourished and healthy population, I believe it is time for agricultural and food research institutes to owe greater attention to achieving nutritious food systems to deliver higher quality diets, while anticipating and facing the challenges of the future. As a first step towards this goal, Embrapa and the Global Panel have organised a high-level meeting which will bring together key stakeholders to identify public policies and actions for agricultural research to achieve improved nutrition in Brazil.

Two years into the United Nation’s Decade of Action on Nutrition[iii], there is a huge opportunity for Brazil to take a global leadership role in placing nutrition at the core of agricultural research. As President of Embrapa, I am committed to supporting agricultural research programmes that will allow Brazil to benefit from a better nourished society. I call on the research community to join me in the effort to galvanise action to improve the quality of the nation’s diet, and to shift the research agenda from one focused on food security to one which embraces diet quality.