Industrial food and farming systems are making people sick in a variety of ways, and are generating staggering human and economic costs – according to a major new report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food).
Decisive action can be taken on the basis of what we know, the Panel found, but is held back by the unequal power of food system actors to set the terms of debate and to influence policy.
Lead author Cecilia Rocha said: “Food systems are making us sick. Unhealthy diets are the most obvious link, but are only one of many pathways through which food and farming systems affect human health.”
“This means that there are multiple entry points for building healthier food systems. We must urgently address these impacts wherever they occur, and in parallel we must address the root causes of inequitable, unsustainable and unhealthy practices in food systems.”
Launched today at the UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome, the report places the debilitating health impacts of inadequate diets side by side with environmental health risks (e.g. nitrate-contaminated drinking water and the spread antimicrobial resistance) and the endemic occupational hazards facing food and farmworkers.
IPES-Food found that many of the severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world – from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers and systematic livelihood stresses – are linked to industrial food and farming practices, i.e. chemical-intensive agriculture, concentrated livestock production, the mass production and marketing of ultra-processed foods, and deregulated global supply chains.
The economic costs of these impacts are huge and likely to grow. Malnutrition costs the world $3.5 trillion per year, while obesity alone is estimated to cost $760 billion by 2025. Meanwhile, combined EU and US losses from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals amount to $557 billion per year, while anti-microbial resistant infections are already thought to be incurring $20-34 billion of annual costs in the US.
IPES-Food co-chair Olivia Yambi said: “What is troubling is how systematically these risks are generated – at different nodes of the chain and in different parts of the world.”
Fellow co-chair Olivier De Schutter, former UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, added: “When all of these health impacts are considered collectively, the grounds for reform are compelling. And when health impacts are placed alongside social and environmental impacts, and the mounting costs they generate, the case for action is overwhelming. It is now clearer than ever that healthy people and a healthy planet are co-dependent.”
The report found that those without power or voice are often exposed to the greatest health risks in food systems, meaning that these impacts often go unseen, undocumented and unaddressed. “Here as elsewhere”, De Schutter said, “political disempowerment and marginalization goes hand in hand with risks to lives and livelihoods.”
Furthermore, the health impacts of food systems are interconnected, self-reinforcing, and complex. They are caused by many agents, and exacerbated by climate change, unsanitary conditions, and poverty – factors which are shaped by food and farming systems.
Rocha said: “The industrial food and farming model that systematically generates negative health impacts also generates highly unequal power relations. Powerful actors are therefore able to shape our understanding of food-health linkages, promoting solutions that leave the root causes of ill health unaddressed.”
“The complexity of health impacts in food systems is real and challenging, but should not be an excuse for inaction. Urgent steps can and must be taken to reform food system practices, and to transform the ways in which knowledge is gathered and transmitted, understandings are forged, and priorities are set.”
IPES-Food identified five key leverage points for building healthier food systems: i) promoting food systems thinking at all levels; ii) reasserting scientific integrity and research as a public good; iii) bringing the positive impacts of alternative food systems to light; iv) adopting the precautionary principle; and, v) building integrated food policies under participatory governance.
The report, commissioned by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, builds on IPES-Food’s first thematic report, ‘From Uniformity to Diversity’ (2016), which identified factors locking in the industrial food and farming model, and called for a paradigm shift towards diversified agro ecological systems.