by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Food-systems

Jan 26 2024

Weekend reading: Food system analysis

I was interested to see this report and the academic analysis on which it is based—both from the Food Systems Countdown Initiative.

The academic analysis is extremely complicated and difficult to get through.  This initiative is highly ambitious.  It developed a set of 50 (!) indicators and “holistic monitoring architecture to track food system transformation towards global development, health and sustainability goals.”

The 50 indicators fall under five themes: (1) diets, nutrition and health; (2) environment, natural resources and production; (3) livelihoods, poverty and equity; (4) governance; and (5) resilience.

The analysis applies these themes and indicators to countries by income level and finds none of them to be on track to meet Sustainable Development Goals.

I can understand why they produced a report based on the analysis: it is easier to understand (although still extremely complicated).

For one thing, it defines Food Systems; By definition, food systems are complicated.

Food systems are all the people, places, and practices that contribute to the production, capture or harvest, processing, distribution, retail, consumption, and disposal of food.

For another, it presents data on compliance with indicators in more comprehensible ways, for example, these two indicators from the Diet theme.

As the report makes clear, this use of indicators has useful functions:

  • Global monitoring of food systems
  • Tracking UN Food System Summit commitments
  • Development of national monitoring systems

This initiative reminds me a lot of the decades-long US Healthy People process—currently 359 (!) health objectives to be achieved by 2030—with no responsibility assigned for making sure they are achieved (which they mostly have not been, unsurprisingly),

Initiatives like these are great about identifying gaps.  What they can’t do is hold governments accountable.  They are supposed to inspire advocacy; to the extent they do, they might have some chance at stimulating progress.

As you can tell from my insertion of parenthetical explamation points, I think there are too many things to keep track of.

But then, I’m a lumper; this is a splitting initiative.

Both have their uses, but I want to see priorities for action.

Nov 17 2023

Weekend reading: externalized costs of the global food system

I received an e-mailed news release from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) about its latest report.

The press release headline: Hidden costs of global agrifood systems worth at least $10 trillion.  154-country study makes case for true cost accounting to guide policy.

Our current agrifood systems impose huge hidden costs on our health, the environment and society, equivalent to at least $10 trillion a year, according to a ground-breaking analysis by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), covering 154 countries. This represents almost 10 percent of global GDP.

According to the 2023 edition of The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA), the biggest hidden costs (more than 70 percent) are driven by unhealthy diets, high in ultra-processed foods, fats and sugars, leading to obesity and non-communicable diseases, and causing labour productivity losses. Such losses are particularly high in high- and upper-middle-income countries.

This report, FAO says, presents initial cost estimates.  A report next year will focus on ways to mitigate these costs.  Governments, it says, “can pull different levers to adjust agrifood systems and drive better outcomes overall. Taxes, subsidies, legislation and regulation are among them.”

The FAO director says: “the future of our agrifood systems hinges on our willingness to appreciate all food producers, big or small, to acknowledge these true costs, and understand how we all contribute to them, and what actions we need to take. ”

The report urges governments to use true cost accounting to address the climate crisis, poverty, inequality and food security.

True cost accounting (TCA), according to the report is:

A holistic and systemic approach to measuring and valuing the environmental, social, health and economic costs and benefits generated by agrifood systems to facilitate improved decisions by policymakers, businesses, farmers, investors and consumers.43

Translated, this means trying to assign numbers to the externalized and hidden costs of food production and consumption, meaning not just what you pay at the cash register but also the costs you pay in other ways for health care, animal welfare, biodiversity, polluted water and soil, and climate change.

These, says this report, add up to about $12.7 trillion a year.

The idea is to get food producers to pay their fair share of these costs—issues of accounting and accountability (according to the Scientific Group of the UN Food Systems Summit). 

The report comes with a big collection of resources:

Read the background papers:

That should be plenty to keep us all busy for quite a while.  Enjoy and ponder.

Jun 23 2023

Weekend reading: IPES Food on corporate governance of food systems

The prolific International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems has produced another must-see report:

Here’s what it’s about:

Corporate influence over food system governance has become the new normal: the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit exposed the ability of multinational agri-food corporations to influence food system decision-making and dominate seemingly inclusive ‘multi-stakeholder’ processes…corporations have
succeeded in convincing governments that they must be central in any discussion on the future of food systems. Public-private partnerships and ‘multi-stakeholder’ roundtables…have normalized a prominent role for corporations and given them an inside track to decision-making.

Here’s where it’s headed:

To meet the needs of those impacted by  worsening hunger and malnutrition, it will be necessary to address the influence of corporations at all levels, including through a UN-wide Corporate Accountability Framework and robust conflict of interest policies, taking inspiration from World Health Organization frameworks for tobacco control and engagement with non-state actors.

IPES Food is doing great work.  Read their reports!

Mar 17 2023

Weekend reading: IPES Food

If you aren’t familiar with IPES Food, here is your chance.

IPES-Food – the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems – is a diverse and independent panel of experts guided by new ways of thinking about research, sustainability, and food systems. Since 2015, IPES-Food has uniquely shaped the debate on global food systems reform, through policy-oriented research and direct engagement with policy processes.

The IPES Food panel is an impressive bunch, starting with its co-chairs, Olivier De Schutter, currently UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, and Maryam Rahmanian, independent expert on agriculture and food.

Their two most recent reports:

I.  Smoke & Mirrors: Examining competing framings of food system sustainability 

This comes with a background report: Agroecology, Regenerative Agriculture, and Nature-Based Solutions: Competing framings of food system sustainability in global policy and funding spaces.

Together, these cover those key terms, their emergence and evolution, and the ways they are used in global policy and funding.

The report favors use of Agroecology:

Agroecology, and in some uses regenerative agriculture, offer a more inclusive and comprehensive pathway toward food system transformation because they connect social
and environmental aspects of sustainability, address the whole food system, is attentive to power inequalities, and draws from a plurality of knowledges emphasizing the inclusion of marginalized voices.

II.  Special Report: Debt & Food Crisis: Breaking the Cycle of Unsustainable Food Systems, Hunger and Debt

Unsustainable food systems, this says, are major drivers of “the debt crisis. Import dependencies, extractive financial flows, boom-bust commodity cycles,” leaving countries exposed to shocks and unable to invest in climate-resilient food production and food security.

The IPES panel calls for:

  • Debt relief and development finance
  • Reparation of historical food system injustices and the return of resources to the Global South.
  • Putting the interests of the world’s poorest countries and marginalized populations first.

The documents

IPES Food deals with Big Picture issues.  What they say is worth attention.

Mar 1 2023

Weekend reading: Biden Administration accomplishments

I got sent a mailing from USDA: “FACT SHEET: Biden-Harris Administration Delivers on its Promises to Invest in Rural Communities, Nutrition Security, Climate-Smart Agriculture, More and Better Markets and Lower Costs for Families.”

This is a summary of an extraordinarily long list of actions taken by the administration, many of them having to do with food production and consumption.

Food System Transformation: USDA is transforming the food system and improving the resilience and security of the food supply chain through more than 60 programs so that today’s markets work better for family farmers and the families they support. This multi-billion dollar effort …touches all parts of the food supply chain – from food production, food processing, food aggregation and distribution, to consumers.

A great many other sections also deal with food issues.  Here are a few examples of the range.

Food System Transformation: USDA is transforming the food system and improving the resilience and security of the food supply chain through more than 60 programs so that today’s markets work better for family farmers and the families they support. This multi-billion dollar effort is funded largely by ARP with some additional investments from the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021 (CAA), the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, and the Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC). It touches all parts of the food supply chain – from food production, food processing, food aggregation and distribution, to consumers. Select programs include:

  • The Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program will make beneficiary payments to reach at least 1 million farmworkers, meatpacking workers, and front-line grocery workers who incurred pandemic-related health and safety costs.
  • Organic Transition Initiative: USDA launched a $300 million Organic Transition Initiative including establishing the Transition to Organic Partnership Program (TOPP) in six regions across the U.S. as part of USDA’s Organic Transition Initiative to help transitioning and recently transitioned producers who face technical, cultural, and market shifts during the transition period and the first few years of organic certification.
  • new online tool called allows farmers and ranchers to report potentially unfair and anticompetitive practices in the livestock and poultry sectors.
  • Assistance for Distressed Producers: USDA provided nearly $800 million in financial assistance to more than 13,000 distressed farmers and plans to provide assistance to thousands more in 2023. This work accompanies an ongoing effort to transform USDA’s farm lending programs with a focus on proactive loan service and support to keep farmers farming, rather than requiring farmers to become distressed before assistance is provided.
  • In August, USDA announced up to $550 million in funding to support projects that enable underserved producers to access land, capital, and markets, and train the next, diverse generation of agricultural professionals.
  • More than 41 million Americans participated in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and 2022 marked the first full calendar year that participants received a 21% average increase in monthly SNAP benefits due to USDA’s reevaluation of the Thrifty Food Plan – the first permanent increase to the purchasing power of SNAP benefits since the Thrifty Food Plan was introduced 45 years ago.
  • USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) launched a new initiative to reduce Salmonella illness linked to poultry through a strong, comprehensive framework to address Salmonella in poultry that is responsive to evolving food safety hazards and embraces the latest science and technology.
  • USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service is advancing tribal self-determination and awarded $5.7 million to eight tribes for demonstration projects that gave them more options to directly select and purchase foods for their Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). This is an important step to increasing tribal food sovereignty in the program and support tribal economies, vendors, and producers.

As seems always the case with USDA, there are so many small programs (“trees”) under discussion that the big picture (“forest”) gets lost.

The forest is the need to support food system transformation to focus agricultural policy on the health of humans and the planet.  Will trees get us there one by one?

Only if there are enough of them.


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Sep 9 2022

Weekend reading: State of the world’s food resources (hint: declining fast)

If you are up for a dose of reality, try this report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N.

It does not have much good news.  The key challenges:

  • Human-induced soil degradation affects 34 percent – 1 660 million hectares – of agricultural land.
  • More than 95 percent of our food is produced on land, but there is little room for expanding the area of productive land.
  • Urban areas occupy less than 0.5 percent of the Earth’s land surface, but the rapid growth of cities has significantly impacted land and water resources, polluting and encroaching on prime agricultural land that’s crucial for productivity and food security.
  • Land use per capita declined by 20 percent between 2000 and 2017.
  • Water scarcity jeopardizes global food security and sustainable development, threatening 3.2 billion people living in agricultural areas.

The remedy?  The report talks about technical solutions but also says: “Land and water governance must be more inclusive and adaptive, to benefit millions of smallholder farmers, women, youth and indigenous peoples.”

An important point to recognize is that many agents of change in the landscape remain excluded from the benefits of technical advances. This applies to disproportionately poorer and socially disadvantaged groups, with most living in rural areas. While technical solutions to specific land and water challenges may be within grasp, much will depend on how land and water resources are allocated. Inclusive forms of land and water governance will be adopted at scale only when there is political will, adaptive policymaking and follow-through investment.

If only.


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Aug 26 2022

Weekend reading: the UK’s food system

I’m just getting caught up on reports.  Here’s one from The Food Foundation, an “independent charity working to address challenges in the food system in the interests of the UK public.”

Its report: The Broken Plate 2022: The State of the Nation’s Food System  “documenting the health of our food system, how it impacts on our lives, and why we must change the food environment so that it delivers healthy and sustainable diets for everyone, everywhere.”

Three things about this report make it of special interest: comprehensiveness, clarity of presentation, and forthright statements about what needs to happen.

For example:

The report covers issues such as price and affordability, food availability (in schools and shopping areas), and health and environmental effects (chidren’s weight and growth, diabetes amputations, life expectancy, climate change).

Mar 15 2022

The food politics of the Ukraine War

My NYU department is hosting a discussion of this issue: Feeding Resistance and Refugees of Ukraine: The Humanitarian Crisis in Eastern Europe.  March 22, 1-3 pm (EDT).  Free, but register here.

This panel brings together experts and scholars studying Eastern Europe to share their observations and reflections about food access; local, regional and global supply chains; food production and sovereignty; as well as the unfolding humanitarian crisis. Participants include Agata Bachórz (Sociology, University of Gdańsk, Poland), Eszter Kovacs (Geography, University College London), Simone Piras (Agricultural and Food Economics, The James Hutton Institute, UK), and Mihai Varga (Sociology, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany).  Moderated by Diana Mincyte (Sociology, CUNY City Tech) and Fabio Parasecoli (Nutrition and Food Studies, NYU)

And now, for the items I’ve been collecting.   Not much good news to report.

The big picture

Disruptions in global food systems

Immediate effect: rising food prices

And a small ray of sunshine