“Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus: Addressing Practices, Political Economy, and Power Relations to Build Healthier Food Systems” is a report (that continues the research of the prior “Future of food: seeds of resilience”) commissioned from IPES-Food by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food.
The key point of the report is to analyse a serious and severe issue: how today food systems affect health through multiple, interconnected pathways, generating severe human and economic costs that are growing/ballooning.
The five key channels identified in the report through which food systems impact health are:
- Occupational Hazard: “people (particularly farmers, agricultural labourers and other food chain workers) get sick (both physically and mentally) because they work in unhealthy conditions (since they are exposed to chronic health risks such as pesticides, production live injuries etc.)”
- Environmental contamination: “people get sick because of contaminants in water, soil or air”. People are exposed to contaminated environments of food production.
- Contaminated, unsafe and altered food: “people get sick because specific food they eat is unsafe for consumption”. Illnesses caused by the ingestion of contaminated food (pathogens) and risks arising from compositionally altered food.
- Unhealthy dietary patterns: “people get sick because they have unhealthy diets”. Health is impacted by the consumption of specific food with problematic health profile (resulting in obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, cancer etc.) —>(e.g. Advertisement for sugary drinks and food especially affect children).
- Food insecurity: “people get sick because they can’t access adequate and acceptable food” (hunger, micronutrient deficiency)
An extensive review of the evidence on these impacts showed that:
The health impacts generated by food systems are severe, widespread and closely linked to industrial food and farming systems. Many of the most severe health impacts trace back to some of the core industrial food and farming practices (like chemical-intensive agriculture, intensive livestock production etc.) but this issue is left unaddressed.
Food systems’ health impacts are caused by many agents and interact with interconnected factors such as climate change, unsanitary conditions and poverty which are themselves shaped by food and farming systems. Several of these impact reinforce one another.
The low power and visibility of the most affected by food systems jeopardises a complete understanding of the health impacts, leaving major blind spots in the evidence base and making it less likely for problems to be prioritised politically, allowing health risks to continue to afflict marginalised populations. (e.g the insecure status of hired and migrant labourers undermines the reporting of abuses and injuries. Risks to farmers and farmworkers in developing countries are particularly under-documented).
Power – to achieve visibility, frame narratives, set the terms of the debate and influence policy – is at the heart of the food health-nexus.
Urgent steps are required to reform food system practices and to transform the ways in which knowledge is gathered and transmitted, understanding is forged and priorities are set.
The Five co-dependent leverage points identified will provide a new basis of understanding and action to build healthier food systems:
- Promoting Food Systems thinking (at all levels. Only when health risks are viewed in their entirety, across the food system and on a global scale can we adequately assess priorities, risks, trade-offs. e.g. the provision of low cost food versus systematic food insecurity and environmental fallout of the industrial model).
- Reasserting Scientific integrity and research as a Public Good (e.g. new rules around conflicts of interest in scientific journals, reduce the reliance for researchers on private funding etc.).
- Bringing alternatives to light (know more regarding the positive health impacts of alternative food and farming systems).
- Adopting the Precautionary Principle.
- Building integrated food policies under participatory governance.