We are what we eat: Transforming diets to transform agri-food systems

Transforming agri-food systems story series: Part 1 - Consumer behavior and collective demand

Tapping into the influence of consumers and collective demand to transform agri-food systems, making them more inclusive, resilient and sustainable, is one of FAO’s goals. ©FAO/Max Valencia


Jumla beans. Black, red and yellow spotted, cultivated by hand in one of the most remote districts of Nepal’s mountains. Despite their great nutritional value and environmentally friendly production, jumla beans threaten to be replaced by other crops because mountain producers cannot make a decent income from them. Reading the story of these pulses on the Mountain Partnership Product label, we are perhaps compelled to buy it. They aren’t just beans anymore, they are the product of hard work and tradition of a people in another culture.

Consumers have power.Knowing the backstory of food, together with better knowledge and access, can help people make wise choices for healthy diets, but it can also help protect the environment, support family and smallholder farmers and improve other parts of the supply chain.

Tapping into the influence of consumers and collective demand to transform agri-food systems, making them more inclusive, resilient and sustainable, is one of FAO’s goals.

Firstly, what exactly is an agri-food system?

It is the world behind our food and much more. It includes the solar system of how food is grown, harvested, processed, packaged, transported, distributed, traded, bought, prepared, eaten and disposed of. Not to mention all of the uses of agriculture for non-food products (including forestry and biofuels as two examples) that also constitute livelihoods. This system encompasses all of the people, activities, investments and choices that play a part in getting us these food and agricultural products. It is a fascinating world but a complicated one. There are many processes and within each one, there are a lot of influences and inputs, a lot of results and repercussions.

Like planets in a solar system, each part of the agri-food system has its own characteristics and acting forces. So when we say, we need to transform diets to transform agri-food systems, we mean changing a series of actors and actions. Fortunately, we, as consumers, are one of those actors.

Where do consumers fit in an agri-food system?

To answer that, we need to understand the main elements of an agri-food system. There is the production of food, what we also call the food supply chain. This includes the growing, storing, distributing, processing, packaging and even retailing and marketing of food. With these many processes, some even occurring across borders, the supply chain is often long and complex.

The food environment comprises the places and situations in which we get our food. This includes not only the physical places where food is acquired like markets and stores but also the signage, labeling and messaging around the food. The food environment is also influenced by trade. Issues like accessibility and affordability of foods are important aspects of this element of the agri-food system.

Consumers and our behaviours, such as selecting, preparing, consuming, feeding others and disposing of food, are a central element of agri-food systems. Consumer behaviours are influenced by cultural, socio-economic, political and individual factors, and ultimately, they determine our diets and influence other parts of the agri-food system.

Shaping consumer behaviours and collective demand can help change markets. Left/Top: ©EBRD/FAO Dermot Doorly Right/Bottom: ©FAO/Pier Paolo Cito

Consumption, consumer behavior and collective demand

The part of the system that is probably most familiar to all of us is this last part: consumption. We might not know how food got to us, where it was produced or how it was transported, but we do know what we chose to buy, where we bought it from, what we paid for it, how we prepared and ate it or threw it out.

Consumption of food might be the part we are most familiar with, but it may not be one that we think about all the time. In many ways though, this area can be the most effective for transformation. Shaping consumer behaviours and collective demand can help change markets.

The power of consumers

Consumers are more and more interested in knowing from where their food and goods originate. FAO’s Fishing Areas classification is one tool that makes this more transparent. Learning that you are purchasing fish from nearby waters can help support your local economy. This classification also ensures that the catch has been legally sourced, protecting against overfishing and destruction of ecosystems.

Another consumer-oriented initiative that supports smallholder producers is the Quality and Origin Program. For several years, FAO has been working together with partners, governments and producers worldwide to register traditionally made products with Geographical Indication (GI) labels. Some examples include Darjeeling tea (India), Manchego cheese (Spain), and Taliouine saffron (Morocco). These labels help consumers link product characteristics - such as taste or quality - with GI status. As such, they are willing to pay higher prices, translating into higher incomes for rural households.

The aforementioned Mountain Partnership Products (MPP) Initiative is yet another project that taps into the power of choices. This FAO-supported programme provides technical and financial support to smallholder mountain producers from developing countries to improve product marketing and streamline value chains. These products receive an MPP narrative label that provides consumers with information about the product’s origins, processing, nutritional value and role in local cultures. The MPP label helps to make certain unique foods and products more widely available in markets, raising their value and thereby incomes for the producers.

With changing consumption patterns brought on by the pandemic, we have an opportunity to build back better. ©FAO/Max Valencia

Why do agri-food systems make a difference in my life?

Our modern world is putting enormous strain and competing pressures on our agri-food systems. Growing populations, growing cities, growing wealth with its connection to changing consumption are all challenging our agri-food systems’ ability to provide nutritious food and decent livelihoods for producers in a way that is sustainable for our natural resources and environment. Combined with the changes in climate, including extreme weather, land degradation and biodiversity loss, the pressures are unprecedented and need urgent addressing. Our collective choices as consumers and producers today impact what tomorrow will look like.

COVID-19: An opportunity to make a change

Even before the pandemic, more than three billion people couldn’t afford a healthy diet. In this time of COVID-19, many more people are unable to afford or access nutritious foods, often resorting to cheaper, readily available ones. Consumption patterns are also changing for others who are focusing more on the role of diets on their health, enhancing demand for fresh and nutritious foods. This situation has brought an opportunity to build back better.

Governments can capitalize on this to implement and strengthen policies not only in agriculture, but also in other sectors such as trade, health, environment, education and infrastructure, to create the conditions for better diets. Policies and incentives should encourage growing a variety of fruits and vegetables instead of just cash crops.

We also have a role. Informing ourselves about what makes a healthy diet and how our choices can collectively affect the sustainability of agri-food systems is one place to start.

In this story series, we are exploring the various parts of the agri-food system to demystify all that goes into producing our food, as well as agricultural products not for food, and examine the ways that we, consumers, producers, traders, can make changes that will transform these systems into ones fit for the future. These main themes will be covered in the United Nations Food Systems Summit coming up this September 2021.

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2. Zero hunger, 3. Good health and well-being, 12. Responsible consumption and production