10.10.2017 |

Industrial food and farming systems harm human health and the environment, report

A shift away from food systems that result in harm is urgently needed, says IPES-Food (Photo: CC0)

Industrial food and farming systems are taking a heavy toll on human health and the environment, leading food experts have warned. According to a report from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food), launched on October 9 at the UN Committee on World Food Security in Rome, decisive action needs to be taken to build healthier food systems. “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,” said lead author Cecilia Rocha, Director of the School of Nutrition at Ryerson University (Toronto). “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,” she added.

The report outlines five reasons for negative impacts on human health and well-being linked to food systems. First, people are getting sick because they work under unhealthy conditions: Farmers, agricultural labourers, and other food chain workers suffer physical and mental health impacts as a result of health risks in the field, factory or workplace, such as acute and chronic pesticide exposure risks. Second, health impacts arise because people are exposed to contaminated environments “downstream” of food production, via the pollution of soil, air, and water resources or exposure to livestock-based pathogens (e.g., contamination of drinking water with nitrates, agriculture-based air pollution, anti-microbial resistance). Other dangers to human health are caused because people eat certain unsafe or contaminated foods, because they have unhealthy diets resulting in obesity and non-communicable diseases or because they are not able to access adequate and acceptable food at all times. The report found that many of the severest health conditions afflicting populations around the world - from respiratory diseases to a range of cancers - 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 the development of long and deregulated global commodity supply chains.

The expert report also gives details on the huge economic costs of these impacts and warns that they are likely to grow. Malnutrition costs the world $3.5 trillion per year, while obesity alone is estimated to cost $760 billion by 2025. “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,” said IPES co-chair Olivier De Schutter. The report also found that those without power or voice, for example small-scale farmers in the Global South, 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 added, “political disempowerment and marginalization goes hand in hand with risks to lives and livelihoods.”

Furthermore, the health impacts of food systems are caused by many agents, and exacerbated by climate change, unsanitary conditions, and poverty – factors which are shaped by food and farming systems. At the same time, the unequal power of food system actors means that powerful actors set the terms of the debate and influence policies, promoting solutions such as the biofortification of food without addressing the root causes of ill health and the role of industrial food and farming systems in driving health risks (e.g., by perpetuating poverty and climate change).

The expert panel makes an urgent case for reforming food and farming systems. “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,” Rocha said. IPES-Food identified five key leverage points for building healthier food systems and suggest a series of steps: to reconnect the worlds of food production and food consumption; to reconnect the different problems with each other and with their underlying drivers; to rebalance power and bring all health impacts to light; and, to institute more democratic and more integrated ways of managing risk and governing food systems. „In other words, a new basis of understanding and a new basis for political action are required in order to unravel the food-health nexus and pave the way for healthier outcomes,“ the report concludes. (ab)

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