Historical dietary shifts offer lessons for future transitions in food systems

Kate McMahon -

A woman cooks fresh nutritious fish for lunch in Boeing Kampen, Cambodia. Photo by Fani Llauradó.

While the movement to transform food systems is gaining momentum, the avenues for doing so remain poorly explored. The past has the potential to inform future actions and outcomes –researching historical large-scale dietary shifts can illuminate the pathways that facilitate dietary change. By exploring the drivers of past change in food production and consumption, researchers can promote transitions in food systems that support human and planetary health.

Modern industrialized food systems have increasingly shifted to mass production of cheap convenience foods. Current global food production puts excessive pressure on natural resources and the climate, while many populations find access to healthy foods difficult and prohibitively expensive. The human diet needs to change, and the transition can be achieved through improvements in public policy, technology and private sector incentives, according to a new research publication.

The paper, Combined innovations in public policy, the private sector and culture can drive sustainability transitions in food systems, examines the factors that have prompted major dietary shifts across eight countries in the past 70 years.

This time period was selected for relevancy, as researchers theorized that the most applicable lessons for the current food system would emerge from the existing global agricultural regime that developed and industrialized within the last century.

Understanding why certain foods increase in popularity is key to fostering shifts to more sustainable and nutritious diets. To transform food systems toward affordable, low-carbon diets for all, the researchers call for a systems approach to promote interrelated and interdependent actions that change the way food is produced, processed, distributed and consumed.

Food systems and nutrition are key entry points for getting the world on a more sustainable trajectory and realizing the Sustainable Development Goals. As the worlds prepares for the UN Food Systems Summit this fall, the publication can shape future interventions using the identified pathways that stimulate food system shifts.

“The 2021 Food Systems Summit will gather people influential in shaping the global food system. It represents a critical moment to take decisive steps towards a sustainable, fair and healthy food system. Aligning policies, research and innovation and investments is imperative,” said the study’s co-lead author Prof. Eddie Allison, WorldFish’s Science and Research Interim Director.

Looking to the past to guide the future

A hatchery operator holds selectively-bred Nile tilapia in Egypt. Tilapia consumption significantly increased in the country after the provision of genetically enhanced tilapia strains. Photo by Heba El Begawi.

The study explored the rise of three now globalized food commodities: chicken, farmed tilapia and milk. Large-scale increases in consumption revealed that combined scientific, technological, political and cultural innovations drove transformations in food systems. It was largely the complex interaction of such mechanisms that drove change, as opposed to single independent factors.

“Dramatic shifts in diets have taken place over 70 years, but they took decades and required the alignment of technological development, public policy and funding, and marketing and advertising pressure, and these all interacted with existing food culture,” said Emily Moberg, the study’s lead author and Research Lead Specialist at the World Wildlife Fund.

Technological advances often increased production and reduced prices, making them more accessible to the rural poor, while government endorsement and marketing campaigns shaped the food-choice environment. For instance, the development of genetically enhanced strains of tilapia significantly increased tilapia consumption in Egypt, while the arrival of KFC in Japan helped popularize chicken.

Researchers also found that diets undergo significant shifts as per capita income increases. As household income grows, traditional dietary staples tend to decline. Milk consumption in particular was found to be closely related to income – animal-sourced foods tend to be more accessible for wealthy consumers.

The case studies suggest that the rapid uptake of new foods at large scales is possible within an industrialized food system and dependent on the following factors: continuous technological innovation, often supported by collaborations between governments, academia, and industry; intensive agriculture and manufacture outputs, subjected to the control of global food corporations and supermarket chains; and national standards and dietary guidelines that encourage shifts in consumption.

Incentivizing actors for change

A new research publication posits the private sector can be incentivized to foster food system transitions. Here, a private sector facilitator (PSF) delivers training to local fish farmers in Barisal, Bangladesh. Photo supplied by Foto Agencies.

By identifying the factors that led to past dietary shifts in the globalized, industrialized food system, researchers could determine the feasibility of inducing such rapid shifts again in the same system for the benefit of people and planet.

However, the human and environmental health concerns that motivate current calls for dietary change are poorly captured in economic markets, said Moberg. The next big question is what incentives could spur the alignment and cooperation among these groups that is necessary for the scale of change required.

To incentivize the private sector to advance the Sustainable Development Goals, while influencing consumer choice and public policy, the research publication can be used as a crucial steppingstone. The analysis lays the groundwork for further study of how diets shift as a fundamental component of wider food system transitions.

“The current, modern global food system can be mobilized to deliver healthier, more sustainable diets, but only if there are strong public sector policies to ensure that private sector innovation in food production, distribution and marketing align with the delivery of these global public goods,” said Allison.

“These findings do not imply that the industrial food system is the only or best long-term way to produce food fairly and sustainably,” Allison added. “It merely shows that, if regulated or incentivized sufficiently, it is capable of bringing about food system shifts on the scale needed to meet sustainable development goals. Such shifts might also be achieved by wider transformations in the way we produce, process, distribute and consume food, and the championing of small-scale food system actors and producers.”

Food production systems ultimately must become more equitable, and this can be achieved through a holistic approach that targets multiple pathways in food systems – making food more nutritious, accessible and sustainable for the benefit of all.

Kate McMahon

Kate McMahon

Kate McMahon is the junior consultant for digital journalism at WorldFish. She works to increase the accessibility of research and information, facilitating communication between scientists and the general public.

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