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The shift from undernutrition to overnutrition is the fastest and most dramatic societal transformation ever observed in human history. Even the invention of electricity or the introduction of railway transport did not have such profound impacts on societies in such a short period of time.
Two decades ago, Ghana, like many other low-income countries in Africa and in South-East Asia, was still struggling with malnutrition. In that country, one out of three children was estimated to be “wasted” (their body weight was abnormally low as a consequence of insufficient intake of calories). That was in 1994. Less than 25 years later, 30% of the Ghanaian population is now overweight and 15% is obese. Furthermore, when the data are disaggregated by sex, the analysis reveals that Ghanaian women have three times more chance to be obese than their male counterparts. Even more disturbing, Ghana is not the only country in this situation. In fact, a similar trend of obesity and overweight is observed in a large number of countries in Africa and Central America. In Mexico, for instance, 37% of women aged 15 and over are already obese.
Yet, we have no clue about what exactly triggered this change. Sure, one can point at factors which, taken together, have contributed to reducing the prevalence of malnutrition among children in most of the countries around the world (mothers’ higher education, better sanitation, improved access to market, etc.). But what can explain that, in just one generation’s time (the blink of an eye at the human evolution scale), we passed from “not enough” to “far too much”?
This question is one of the two critical questions that a team of researchers from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is trying to answer. As part of the Sustainable Food Systems Initiative launched by CIAT three years ago, and funded by the Food Systems for Healthier Diets flagship research program under the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), the team is using global datasets made available through various sources (United Nations agencies, World Bank, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, etc.) to build a global map of what they term ‘food system drivers’. Their objective is to better understand what is driving the rapid changes in the current food systems worldwide, with the hope that this global map will provide some evidence.
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The second main question that the CIAT team is exploring in parallel with this question of food system drivers is the “sustainability of food systems”. By sustainability, they mean the combination of indicators that capture the different dimensions of a ‘healthy’ food system. Indeed, the core challenge is not simply to increase production of healthy or nutritious foods for the world population, but also to ensure that this food is marketed/delivered in environmentally and socially sound ways. Combining indicators reflecting these different dimensions of sustainability, CIAT researchers were able to construct a global map of food system sustainability that covers more than 100 countries.
The results of this study will help to identify critical points of entry for investments and interventions and inform policy-makers to better steer our food systems towards a more sustainable future.
The next step is to reveal the underlying dynamics of food systems by ‘overlapping’ the two maps – the driver map and the sustainability map – and determine whether the high (or low) levels of global food system sustainability can be explained by particular trends or rapid changes in specific drivers. The analysis will be a first conducted at the global level. The results will potentially have huge implications for policy- and decision-makers at both national and international levels, as they point to the combination of key factors that have had particular (positive or negative) impacts on the dynamics of food systems in the past. As such, the findings are expected to help policy makers to identify points of entry for better targeted interventions. As summarized by one of the researchers: “Our intent is to make the world’s food systems better, safer, and healthier”.
The team behind this work:
Senior Policy Expert
Integrated Modelling Senior Scientist