63 Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus

Addressing practices, political economy and power relations to build healthier food systems


  • International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food)
  • Global Alliance for the Future of Food (GA)
  • Italy
  • Nigeria


Food systems impact human health through a variety of channels, from occupational hazards on farms and food-processing plants to agriculture-based environmental contamination and widespread food insecurity, resulting in a range of debilitating conditions. Food systems also contribute significantly to climate change, poverty and poor sanitation, which exacerbate a range of health risks. An urgent case for reforming food systems can therefore be made on the grounds of protecting human health. However, our ability to act is held back by several challenges. In particular, the visibility of food systems impacts tends to reflect the power and visibility of those affected, meaning that impacts such as food insecurity are systemically underestimated. Furthermore, these health risks are locked into the very fabric of food systems, and are effectively the price to pay for the pool of low-cost commodity production underpinning them.

This side event will explore these challenges and will identify leverage points for building the knowledge base, the science-policy interface and the food systems governance that is needed to guide the transition towards healthy and sustainable food systems. The key findings of IPES-Food’s report on ‘Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus’, commissioned by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, will be shared at the side event.

Key speakers/presenters

  • Ambassador Yaya Olaniran (Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the Rome-based UN agencies)
  • Ruth Richardson (Executive Director, Global Alliance for the Future of Food)
  • Cecilia Rocha (Expert panel member, IPES-Food)
  • Nick Jacobs (Coordinator, IPES-Food)


The side event discussed the challenges and identified the leverage points to guide a transition towards healthy and sustainable food systems. It recognized the need for an integrated and multi-sectoral understanding of the multiple ways through which food systems affect health and well-being.
Ambassador Yaya Olaniran opened the discussion by recalling the 2 billion people worldwide suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, the 800 million suffering from calorie deficiency, as well those experiencing overweight, obesity, or hidden hunger, amongst other health-related diseases. Ruth Richardson emphasized that there is still too little connection being made between food systems and health. Both speakers stressed the role that all food system actors will have to play in setting a collective path forward towards greater food system sustainability.

Cecilia Rocha communicated the key findings of IPES-Food’s October 2017 report, Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus. She identified the five impact channels through which food systems are affecting our health: i) Occupational hazards (e.g. pesticide poisoning); ii) Environmental contamination (e.g. nitrate pollution, EDC exposure); iii) Contaminated, unsafe and altered foods (e.g. food-borne disease); iv) Unhealthy dietary patterns (e.g. obesity-related NCDs); and v) food insecurity.

Nick Jacobs explained that harmful practices persist because of i) systemic blind spots in the evidence base due to power differentials; ii) disconnection of health risks from the underlying environmental and socio-economic conditions for health; iii) isolation of nutrition from agricultural practices, climate change and poverty; and iv) privatization of research combined with shrinking public investment, which favor industry-aligned conclusions and solutions.

From the floor, Peter Schmidt (EESC) stressed that new priorities and business models – supported by appropriate government bodies and cross-sectoral approaches – must be established to avoid a race to the bottom. In the context of the EU, this could be supported by establishing at DG for Food, and more comprehensive food policies.

Peggy Pascal (CSM) emphasized that health is a common good and that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure the heath of its citizens. Better measures should be adopted to account for non-quantifiable food system externalities (e.g. loss of cultural heritage, identity).

Alice Durand-Reville (Danone/WBCSD) agreed that food systems are on an unsustainable trajectory. The business community must shift from a model of mass production and standardization to more environmentally- and health-friendly modes of production, processing and distribution.

Participants raised questions about how to capture of health impacts/benefits through standards and labelling systems, and how to raise consumer awareness. A number of participants stressed the role governments must to play to create an enabling environment to support healthier food systems, and to create the incentives for private sector actors to prioritize health. Questions were also raised on the role of CFS and the UN Decade on Nutrition in achieving these goals.

Key outcomes/take away messages

Five leverage points for change were identified by IPES-Food and discussed by participants:

  • promoting food system thinking;
  • reasserting scientific integrity and research as a public good;
  • bringing alternatives to light and documenting their benefits;
  • adopting the precautionary principle in policy-making;
  • developing integrated food policies through participatory governance.



Side Event - 63 - Unravelling the Food-Health Nexus