15 October 2017

Food-Health nexus: priority to public interest, independent research and reshaped power balance are indispensable ingredients for reengineering our food systems and make them healthier

Despite considerable success achieved in terms of growth of availability of food, our food “systems affect health through multiple, interconnected pathways, generating severe human and economic costs”. This is, in a nutshell one of the main conclusions of a report published this month by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) co-chaired by O. de Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food.

The report identifies five key channels through which food systems impact health:

  1. Unsafe working conditions: people get sick because of the unhealthy conditions under which they work (farmers, agricultural labourers and other food chain workers are exposed to acute and chronic pesticide exposure, are likely to incur injuries at work and suffer stresses);

  2. Pollution of the environment: People get sick because of contaminants in the water, soil, or air due to food production and processing, and because livestock production creates antimicrobial resistance [read];

  3. Contaminated, unsafe and altered foods: People get sick because specific foods they eat are unsafe for consumption because they may contain pathogens or chemical products (i.e. various additives such as colourings, preservatives, antioxidants, emulsifiers, acidifying agents, thickeners, stabilizers, coatings, taste enhancers, sweeteners, salt and other substances, including nano-particles) [read] that may be toxic or disrupt the functioning of the organism (endocrine disruptors);

  4. Unhealthy diets: People get sick because they have unhealthy diets induced by the characteristics of food system and that lead to obesity and non-communicable diseases including diabetes, heart disease and cancers [read];

  5. Food insecurity: People get sick because they can’t access adequate, acceptable food at all times [read].

On the basis of this diagnosis, the report believes that “an urgent case for reforming food and farming systems can be made on the grounds of protecting human health. Many of the most severe health impacts trace back to some of the core industrial food and farming practices, e.g., chemical-intensive agriculture; intensive livestock production; the mass production and mass marketing of ultra-processed foods; and, the development of long and deregulated global commodity supply chains.”

It also stresses “the low power and visibility of those most affected… [which] jeopardizes a complete understanding of the health impacts” because health risks incurred by those powerless people are not well documented.

As a result, “power — to achieve visibility, frame narratives, set the terms of debate, and influence policy — is at the heart of the food–health nexus”, and currently power mainly rests with the private sector, governments and, in poor countries, donors. The more complex food systems, the more concentrated power is in the hand of those who control technology and knowledge, leaving the mass of food consumers in the margin and without the capacity to influence strategic decisions and propose solutions.

This points to the need of “urgent steps …to reform food systems practices, and to transform the ways in which knowledge is gathered and transmitted, understandings are forged, and priorities are set”.

The authors identify five leverage points for building healthier food systems:

  1. Promoting food system thinking: “we must systematically bring to light the multiple connections between different health impacts, between human health and ecosystem health, between food, health, poverty, and climate change, and between social and environmental sustainability. Only [then] …can we adequately assess the priorities, risks, and trade-offs”;

  2. Realigning research with principles of public interest and public good: influence of vested interest has introduced dangerous biases in research and in solutions [read];

  3. Bringing alternatives to light: this requires “to know more about the positive health impacts and positive externalities of alternative food and farming systems” so as to be able to design alternative and more beneficial ways of organising our food systems;

  4. Adopting the precautionary principle: leave time to accumulate indispensable knowledge to help policy makers act in a highly complex context;

  5. Designing and implementing integrated food policies under a participatory governance: broad participation of the public and of potential “victims“ of our food systems can help overcome traditional biaises and vested interests.

A range of actors — policymakers, big and small private sector firms, healthcare providers, environmental groups, consumers’ and health advocates, farmers, agri-food workers, and citizens — must collaborate and take shared ownership” in the process of building healthier food systems.

At, we find that this IPES-Food report is a valuable contribution that goes very much in the direction of our own thinking. The issue however remains on how to create the power balance that can lead to the necessary change. The on-going experience with France’s National Food Conference (États Généraux de l’Alimentation) that are heavily dominated by large private interests (agroindustry and retail groups in particular) shows that creating this power balance is not easy even in what is widely considered as an advanced democratic set-up. Left is to us to assess, with time, what the actual outcome of this process will be and whether it will lead to a healthier food system in France.


To know more:

  1. C. Rocha et al., Unravelling the Food–Health Nexus: Addressing practices, political economy, and power relations to build healthier food systems. IPES-Food. 2017.

Earlier articles on related to the topic:

  1. $1.2 trillion annually, is the estimated cost of obesity by 2025, unless proper action is taken, 2017

  2. US Food and Agriculture: present and (perhaps) future situation, 2017

  3. Food, Environment and Health, 2017

  4. J. K. Sundaram and T. Z. Gen, Catastrophic Antibiotic Threat from Food,  2017

  5. Is there a new paradigm of agricultural research?, 2017

  6. Food quality and safety, 2015

  7. Hunger is a political issue: its eradication will require more democracy, 2014

  8. The food and agricultural policy paradox, 2013

  9. Main stakeholders of food and agricultural policies and their motivations, 2013

  10. Food security: definition and drivers, 2013


Last update:    October 2017

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