How do we make healthier food systems a reality?

Published on
September 22, 2020

“Look at the capabilities of consumers, not just food production”

Food systems often focus on the technical side of food production and agriculture. The research project Food Systems For Healthier Diets tries to broaden this perspective.

“It's not just production that needs to be increased and made more sustainable," says researcher Peter Oosterveer. "It is also important to look at how the food is processed and transported. How does it arrive at the consumer and what do they do with it? The objective is for everyone to have enough food and for it to be healthy as well. Just producing that food is not enough. You also need consumer knowledge and skills. It is about an integrated approach to food systems.” Recently, researchers from the project joined researchers from the EAT Lancet study in publishing an article on this topic in Nature Food.

The Food Systems For Healthier Diets research project has been running since the end of 2016. It is a collaboration between Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and several research institutes. The project focuses on four countries. In Asia the focus is on Vietnam and Bangladesh, and in Africa the focus is on Nigeria and Ethiopia. Researcher Peter Oosterveer: “We analyse critical problems from the consumer's point of view. For example, food safety. In Vietnam, people are very sceptical of vegetables, because they believe too many pesticides were used to grow them. Out of fear, they do not eat many vegetables. You can produce those vegetables, but consumers won’t eat them.”

It's not just production that needs to be increased and made more sustainable. It is also important to look at how the food is processed and transported.
Peter Oosterveer

A lot of food is lost

In Nigeria, researchers looked at large cities in the south of the country. A lot of food is imported, and local food also travels long distances. Oosterveer: "For example, this is the case for tomatoes. It takes so long for them to arrive at their destination, that they are sometimes no longer good by the time they arrive. The question then is how you can improve transport and provide better packaging materials.”

According to Oosterveer, the reasoning behind efficient production is different, from the consumer's point of view and from a more comprehensive perspective. "Sometimes the problem is in the production of food, but sometimes also in other parts of the chain. In the case of tomatoes in Nigeria, a great deal is lost in transport and, as a result, the price is higher. Imported food prices are also high. That is a second problem for consumers.”

Unhealthy eating

Many consumers eat unhealthy foods. People eat too much in general, but they also too much fat, too many calories, and too little fruit and vegetables. In some countries you not only see that people eat too little food, but also that people are now eating too much as well. Obesity is a growing problem in cities. Certain micro-elements in food are also missing. People’s diets also skew heavily towards certain foods. They would benefit from eating more vegetables and less bulk food such as rice. It involves money and access, but also knowledge. Awareness of the importance of other, healthy products.”

Part of the problem lies with consumers, with lower incomes being one of the reasons. “Staple foods are often the cheapest. Bangladesh has provided enough rice, but those who only eat rice lack certain nutrients.” In a city it is often difficult to ensure food quality. People do not always have a good place to store or cook food. “For this reason, many people buy food on the streets, and that is usually not the healthiest food. The lifestyle of people in a city does not encourage a good diet. It does not make it easy to eat healthy, especially for poor people.”

Consumer perspective

In the pursuit of better food for the poorest, more attention must be paid to the perspective of consumers. “Not just technically about what they should eat. People are not stupid or reluctant: healthy eating is just extremely difficult. You have to look carefully at the circumstances. Can people eat healthy? We need to look for concrete opportunities. We can test what works through experiments with distribution and organisation in schools, and working with local organisations. What is most effective?

The research project will continue until the end of next year. Oosterveer: “Then we hope to have several tools to look at where there are critical problems with sustainable and healthy food for all at the national level.” It is about economic instruments, but also about policy-related instruments, such as how to involve different parties.

An example of this is an ongoing study in Ethiopia. “Together with the Ethiopian government we are looking at embedding the integrated food system approach into existing policies. The most important thing there is to combat hunger, especially among girls and young women. How can you tackle this effectively? If you come up with something new, you can design a new organisation, but it is unlikely to work. It is better to incorporate it into existing instruments. Then there is a greater chance of success. When multi-stakeholder platforms of governments, NGOs, and consumers expand, they can look and act more comprehensively.”

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