It is an irony in the developing world that those who produce food are most often the ones that are nutritionally-deprived themselves. There are many factors contributing to this status quo, and one that the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is currently investigating is the impact of agricultural biodiversity.

Agrobiodiversity is the variety of plants, animals and micro-organisms necessary for sustaining food production. At the farm level, does it influence the diet and nutrition of the very people working the there?

The research, funded by the Daniel and Nina Carasso Foundation, studies farming households in Vietnam and Peru, two middle-income countries which increasingly see a shift from smallholder subsistence farming to industrial, export-oriented farming. It will attempt to clarify the relationships between agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity.

According to Stef De Haan, Food Systems researcher at CIAT, “How people are eating is changing dramatically. Intensification of food production leaves a ‘food print’ on the environment. We want to understand, on the one hand, food systems transitions – how diets are changing – and on the other hand, whether they are changing in a direction that is sustainable.”

It’s not just about healthy diets; it is also about the sustainability of the systems that deliver them

The study of food systems involves investigation of the different activities, processes, infrastructures, and institutions involved in the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food, and the various links between multiple actors: food producers, food-chain actors, policymakers, and consumers.

In sustainable food systems, processes are just as important as the food itself; the production of affordable, safe, and nutritionally adequate food must not wreak adverse consequences on the agroecosystem producing it.

Food systems and agroecosystem integrity are inextricably connected: the food we produce is very much influenced by the condition of the agroecosystem in which it is produced, in the same manner that the resulting food systems and human diets also impact the environment.

“We want to study the impact of food production and consumption on a kind of “triple health”: environmental health, health of the consumers, and health of the producers. We want to see if all of these people and the environment can sustain production,” De Haan adds.

Food systems and Big Data

As well as describing how the different elements of a food system impact and interact with one another, food systems studies make use of big data approaches – huge data sets that CIAT and partners have built over the decades – to reveal patterns, trends and associations among these many different elements. Understanding these interactions could offer insights into how policies shape and impact food systems.

Another CIAT initiative looks precisely into how policy could be shifted toward sustainability in the case study countries of Kenya and Vietnam. CIAT and researchers at the University of Michigan have defined sustainable diets as those that are “protective and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems; culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources.”

Reference: Johnston JL, Fanzo JC, Cogill B. Understanding Sustainable Diets: A Descriptive Analysis of the Determinants and Processes That Influence Diets and Their Impact on Health, Food Security, and Environmental Sustainability. Advances in Nutrition 2014;5(4):418-29.

Using big data approaches, the initiative, funded by the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan, aims to contribute to a more informed decision making for improving the sustainability of diets. It aims to do this by generating insights into the policy process in each country, including by identifying potential policy levers that may be effective for shifting the food system towards sustainability.

“We try to understand, from the consumer level, to the regional level and all the way to the global level how food is produced and how it ends up on a Vietnamese plate,” says De Haan. Another CIAT scientist, Colin Khoury, is doing a similar investigation in Kenya as part of the research study.

As in the relationship between agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity, understanding these many interactions and their impact on one another, is a first step towards putting together the ingredients for a food system that is responsive – in a sustainable manner – to the health and nutritional needs of all, including the most vulnerable such as those that produce the food themselves.

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