In the wake of COVID-19, it’s hard to imagine a greater opportunity for positive and overdue change to revolutionize the global food system.
The UN Food Systems Summit offered that opportunity: to create a more equitable, health-promoting food system that not only feeds the world with nourishing foods but is also sustainable. While this idealism offered hope for transformative change, addressing complex food system challenges like obesity requires pragmatism and a healthy portion of realism too.
Over the last year, there has been an epic effort towards the Summit, however the idealism of a ‘people’s summit’ has not yielded hoped-for results and many parts of civil society felt excluded, with advocates and leaders side-lined as the status quo played out and opportunities for transformative change were missed. Meanwhile, it was not clear how the Summit was being governed and who had a seat at the real decision-making tables; nor was it obvious to those on the outside how the process of synthesising thousands of crowd-sourced ‘game changing’ solutions came about. And the reality is, when it comes to addressing obesity through food systems, we don’t need ‘game changing’ idealism - we need pragmatism to implement tried and tested policies like marketing, labelling, and sugar taxes.
Although the Summit aspired to the ideal of cross-sector silo-busting, the way the Action Tracks were organized arguably disincentivised this. The obesity and NCD community were for the most part absent from Action track 1, where health and nutrition concerns were being addressed: malnutrition was often limited to undernutrition and diverted by an outdated narrative that separates undernutrition and overweight/obesity, disregarding that they are in most respects two sides of the same problem. As Corinna Hawke recently described: “The big governance challenge thrown up by the Summit process is how to ensure the diversity of action begins playing to the same tune. That surely would be the real gamechanger.”
Most concerning, Action Track 2, where NCDs were to be addressed through healthy and sustainable diets, was dominated by a misleading and confusing” responsible consumption” agenda dominated by Global North and food industry perspectives. This narrative put the onus for dietary patterns on the individual (shaped in part through huge marketing budgets to influence choice) while the very term “responsible consumption” risks perpetuating the harmful myth that unhealthy diets are merely a matter of poor decisions and personal failure.
None of this is surprising; like many high-level moments before, the UNFSS is a microcosm of the political economy in the wider food and economic systems, where commercial actors have more power and influence than governments, and where the incentives are skewed towards industrialised means of production of foods that will generate the most profit, eclipsing h global nutrition goals. Indeed, while the Summit process has focused much airtime on the opportunity for small and medium enterprises, there has been mostly silence about the need for regulation of some activities of transnational companies, leaving strategies to increase sale and marketing of ultra-processed foods to low and middle income countries largely unchecked.
Unhealthy diets are the leading modifiable risk factor for premature mortality globally. Availability and marketing of ultra-processed foods, loaded with salt, sugar and fat, is homogenizing global food culture. Cheap fast food is ubiquitous, and young people in most countries get most of their calories from these unhealthy products. Obesity rates among children, especially those in lower middle-income countries are increasing at unprecedented levels.
The Summit had, in theory, an opportunity to redress these issues and put pressure on the largest commercial actors) at the top of the current food system. Crucially, by bringing food to the heart of the UN - to the Secretary General’s table - the Summit was an opportunity to catalyse accountability. The UNFSS could have cemented nutrition and health issues on the food system agenda, by highlighting established policies like front of pack labelling, marketing, and taxes. Yet, as Nicholas Nisbett and colleagues write: “…the UNFSS exhibits blindspots in areas most challenging to “big food,” including growing evidence of the significant health and planetary consequences of ultra processed foods, and deafening silence on food system governance, including power imbalances, unethical lobbying, and inappropriate marketing to children.”
So where now? The legacy of the UNFSS is unlikely to be the summit itself. Rather, it will be the coalitions and actions that follow that will count. The newly formed Action Coalition on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems is reason for cautious optimism within the obesity and wider NCD community; however, as with the Summit itself, concerns remain around governance and accountability.
While both the distracting “idealism” and governance issues around the Summit have deprived it of opportunities to address malnutrition in all its forms and to recognise the role of food systems in health, there remains hope to use this moment to transform food systems for better health and to reduce NCDs and obesity alongside undernutrition. Nourishing the world has never been more possible, and, if we can be realistic and honest about what needs to be done, the legacy of 2021 could still be one of practical and quietly game changing transformation. still to fight for…
Food systems policy dossier
Through this new Food Systems dossier, we will be collating evidence, resources, and materials pertaining to obesity and food systems. The dossier will also explore global recommendations and country-specific case studies on policies and interventions that have been or should be implemented to transform food systems for healthy diets and improved nutrition.Food systems