By Marie Latulippe, MS RD, Sr. Scientific Program Manager, ILSI Research Foundation, CIMSANS
We’ve all read the headlines. A billion go hungry each night, many of them children. Billions more are not getting enough of certain critical nutrients. Meanwhile, the planet itself cries out for help: too hot, too dry, and at other times, too cold or too wet. Species are vanishing. Waters and soils are degraded. How can we possibly grow enough of the nutritious food that each of us needs, without destroying the planet in the process?
These are the questions that a group of diverse scientists recently gathered to tackle. Their answer? There is still hope. True, the world faces an escalating challenge to meet accelerating demand for sustainable, nutritious food in the face of multiple resource constraints. However, the treasure trove of new discoveries in biological sciences and information technology contains the promising potential to re-design the world’s food systems, such that nutritious food could be made available for all, while also avoiding the environmental degradation of the past.
But that is not to say it will be easy. About 1 billion people in the world live in conditions of poverty and lack sufficient food. Paradoxically, at the other end of the global dinner table, more than 2 billion adults aged 20 years and older are overweight. This dichotomy is, in many cases, accompanied at both ends of the spectrum by inadequate micronutrient intake: it is estimated that about 2 billion people already suffer from one or more micronutrient deficiencies. Inadequate intake of essential nutrients can have dire long-term consequences for cognition, immunity, and many other health outcomes. These nutrition statistics indicate that the food system must adapt to meet global food and nutrition needs.
What is the ‘food system’?
The food system is a catch-all for anything from farm-to-fork. Searching the internet, one might find innumerable depictions. For example, the visuals range from something very simple:
Source: Charleston Orwig, Inc.
To the quite complex and barely legible!
The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Research Foundation Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security (CIMSANS) has developed a diagram that can be used as a starting point for quantitative modeling to determine where food and specific nutrients are needed most (view the diagram here). There are three main ‘tiers’ to this system: Production, Post farm-gate activities (processing, storage, transport, etc.), and Consumer-related factors (cultural norms, behaviors, etc.). Each tier of activity affects the next, and to some degree influences the ‘category’ into which an individual will fall (i.e. Undernourished, Over nourished, Overweight but with micronutrient deficiencies, etc.) Woven into each tier are sustainability factors that may impact energy use, CO2 production, food waste, cost, availability of foods, etc. The food system is extremely complicated, and efforts are ongoing to understand these relationships.
How does climate change come into play?
Layered upon the nutrition deficiencies are challenges posed by climate change. As reported in 2014 in national and international expert evaluations, mitigation and adaptation to climate effects are imperative if food security is to be achieved. As the world’s population grows to a predicted 9.6 billion by mid-century, the effects of changes to ozone levels, soil, water availability, and other parameters need to be considered, both in relation to the continued availability of diverse and adequate diets, as well as overall human health.
How is global food security currently estimated?
The current methods used to assess global food security are the best available. However, they neglect critical nutrition and sustainability considerations. Food security assessments to date have focused on macronutrients, overlooking both micronutrients and the sustainability implications of meeting growing food demand amidst global change. As a result, these assessments might indicate the amount of available calories, but not the degree to which those calories meet micronutrient requirements.
Likewise, several climate-related variables known to impact crop production and nutrient composition of plants, such as changes to ozone levels and soil health, have not yet been included. Current models also focus on staple foods (e.g. corn, wheat, rice), with fruit and vegetable production excluded almost entirely.
In short, current predictions lack a total food systems approach, limiting our understanding of how to feed the world into the future. It is clearer than ever that improvements are needed to get a realistic handle on where the global food system is headed.
How can improvements be made?
Taking a ‘food systems’ approach, as opposed to looking only at how much food is produced, will help in this endeavor, as it is increasingly seen as a powerful way to analyze options for improving food security. CIMSANS is developing advances to current methods to assess Sustainable Nutrition Security (SNS) – an integrated modeling methodology that incorporates the missing parameters. One important output format for the proposed assessment methodology will be gridded global maps depicting the status of SNS under a variety of assumptions.
Some of the SNS ‘metrics’ that will be incorporated to address existing gaps will use data already available, and for some, the information will need to be developed. The proposed metrics include:
Additionally, the impacts of climate challenges that will be incorporated include:
2. Biotic stresses
3. Climate variability
4. Soil health
5. Changes in plant nutrient composition
6. Genetic improvements
7. Urban food production
8. Naturally occurring toxins
9. Food loss and waste
10. Freshwater availability
A number of working groups are currently addressing various components of this project, engaging in a broad public-private partnership across all food system stakeholders, including experts in climate change, economics, nutrition, crop modeling, and other disciplines.
This new assessment methodology can be used to evaluate the impact of potential food system interventions on Sustainable Nutrition Security, at a regional or global level. Researchers, food and agricultural companies, development agencies, public health organizations, and local and national governments would all benefit from applying this new SNS methodology to help guide potential interventions in the various food system sectors. This will ultimately allow all relevant stakeholders to take actions that result in improved overall societal outcomes.
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