28 Transforming food systems for healthier diets

What will it take to achieve major acceleration in achieving healthy diets in the Decade of Action on Nutrition?

Organizers: Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH); FAO; Global Panel on Agriculture and Food System for Nutrition; HarvestPlus; IFPRI


In declaring the period of 2016-2015 as the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition, the UN General Assembly places nutrition at the heart of sustainable development, recognizing that coherent policies and actions across the food system are needed to deliver healthy diets and help achieve the 2030 goal of ending malnutrition in all its forms. This panel of experts will present recommended actions to accelerate nutrition gains. The FAO will provide recommended actions for reforming food systems based on the outcomes of the 2nd International Conference of Nutrition (ICN2). Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH) will discuss agricultural diversity and sustainability, focusing on the role of food systems and diets in contributing to improved nutrition. Drawing from Nourishing Millions: Stories of Change in Nutrition, IFPRI will share success stories from the past five decades and provide insight into factors that contribute to success. HarvestPlus will highlight biofortification as a sustainable, cost-effective way to add micronutrients to diets of the poor and discuss partnerships for scaling-up impact. The Global Panel will present recommendations from its Foresight Report on food systems and high-quality diets. Healthy diets are necessary to fuel thriving communities, nations, and economies, and the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition provides an important opportunity to accelerate action.

Key speakers

Sandy Thomas, Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition

Corinna Hawkes, City University of London

James Garrett, Bioversity International

Fabrice DeClerk, Bioversity International

Paul Ilona, HarvestPlus Nigeria

Anna Lartey, FAO 

Main themes/issues discussed

The panel addressed the complex question of what will it take to achieve major acceleration in delivering healthy diets in the Decade of Action on Nutrition, by highlighting recent policy examples and stories of successful programmes. It also discussed factors which inhibit healthy diets consumption.

Key points: 

Prof Corinna Hawkes, Director of Food Policy, City, University of London presented the key findings of the Global Panel’s Foresight Report: Food Systems and Diets: Facing the challenges of the 21st century:

  • Most global burden of disease risk factors are linked to diet. 
  • Food systems provide many opportunities to improve nutrition and health outcomes. 
  • A food systems approach aims to align actions across food supply sub-systems to create healthier food environments for high quality diets.
  • Stakeholders should start with a diagnosis, by taking into account local diet quality gaps, and work back to identify actions to change food systems. 


Dr James Garrett, Senior Research Fellow, Bioversity International, CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, presenting the new IFPRI’s book ‘Nourishing millions: Stories of Change in Nutrition’, shared examples of how to design, implement, evaluate, and scale up nutrition policies and programmes across sectors such as  agriculture, water and sanitation. He highlighted the importance of addressing the three core levels of responses to malnutrition in an integrated way, with nutrition-specific actions at the level of the individual, and nutrition sensitive actions at household, community, and sector levels. 

Dr Fabrice DeClerck, Senior Scientist, Bioversity International, Agricultural Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, spoke about the sustainability angle of landscapes for healthy diets.

  • Agriculture is not only failing nutrition, but also driving environmental harm.
  • Diets have both environmental and health impacts. Food production can generate both invisible negative (soil erosion, species reduction, GHC/climate, etc.) and positive flows (nutrient cycling, pollination, genetic diversity, pest control, etc.). The latter are essential to restore environmental losses. 
  • How we produce food is as important as what we produce. There are opportunities to shift agriculture from a driver of   environmental degradation to a tool for restoration.

Mr Paul Ilona, Country Manager, Nigeria, HarvestPlus outlined opportunities for increasing the nutrient values of staple foods through biofortification:

  • Evidence demonstrated the value of biofortified crops to human health (e.g. Vitamin A sweet potato dramatically reduced prevalence and duration of diarrhea in Mozambican children while biofortified beans provided 75% of Rwandan women’s daily iron needs).
  • There is a need to increase awareness in countries where biofortified crops are not yet being grown.

Dr Anna Lartey, Director, Nutrition and Food Systems Division, Food and Agriculture Organization, spoke about the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition. Six pillars were identified to address issues of healthy diets, the first being ‘sustainable food systems for healthy diets’, which aims to ensure access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round. 

Key messages from the event:

  • Most global burden of disease risk factors are linked to diet 
  • Food systems provided multiple opportunities to improve diets
  • Stories of successful nutrition programmes have a key role to play advocacy for better diets
  • Shifting agriculture from a driver of environmental degradation to a tool for restoration should be a priority
  • Bio fortification has demonstrated its value in increasing the nutrient value of staple foods  and should be scaled up
  • The UN Decade of Action on Nutrition will play a key role in  in helping to drive  the accelerating global nutrition agenda