‘We urgently need to redesign the system’: Unhealthy food production makes healthy eating ‘impossible’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

A new report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has concluded that so-called “hidden killers” caused by food production are making healthy eating “impossible” for people around the world.

Air pollution, water contamination, pesticide exposure and excessive use of antibiotics and fertilisers are making healthy eating an impossibility, according to the report’s authors.

The research, released today (24 January) at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, found excessive use of pesticides, antibiotics in livestock farming, and poor management of fertilisers, could lead to five million deaths a year globally by 2050. The report, Cities and Circular Economy for Food​, noted that this is twice the current number of deaths caused by obesity and four times the number of people who die from road traffic crashes.

It highlighted the “enormous environmental damage”​ caused by food production. Synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and mismanaged manure exacerbate air pollution and contaminate soils and water, the Foundation noted. Meanwhile, food production is currently responsible for almost a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The way food is produced puts consumers at risk even when they are trying to make healthy dietary decisions, the report concluded. 

To provide global access to healthy diets, the food industry and regulators must consider not just what we eat, but how it is produced.

“The way we produce food today is not only extremely wasteful and damaging to the environment, it is causing serious health problems. It cannot continue in the long term. We urgently need to redesign the system. People around the world need food that is nutritious, and that is also grown, produced and delivered in a way that benefits their health, the environment and the economy,”​ Ellen MacArthur, who formed the Foundation, said.

Vision for a new system

For every $1 spent on food currently, society pays $2 in health, environmental, and economic costs. These negative impacts cost $5.7 trillion each year – as much as obesity, malnutrition, and other food consumption issues combined, the report stressed.

The Foundation detailed its vision for a “new system”​ where food is grown locally in a way that regenerates natural resources. Waste – that fails to utilise natural resources and can be damaging to the environment – must be eliminated through better redistribution and by-product use.

The researchers estimated that eliminating waste and improving health through the circular economy could be worth $2.7 trillion a year to the global economy. Health costs caused by pesticide use would decrease by $550 billion a year, and antimicrobial resistance, air pollution, water contamination, and food-borne diseases would all reduce “significantly”​.

Greenhouse gas emissions would be expected to decrease by 4.3 Gt CO2e, the equivalent of taking one billion cars off the road permanently. The degradation of 15 million hectares of arable land would be prevented and 450 trillion litres of fresh water saved annually.

Cities key to food revolution

By 2050 cities will consume 80% of food, giving them the power to drive the shift to this healthy system, the Foundation argued.

Cities themselves can unlock $700 billion a year by using organic materials to help produce new food and products, and by reducing edible food waste, the report suggested.

The publication of Cities and Circular Economy for Food follows the launch of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. Dr Gunhild Stordalen, founder and executive chair of EAT, said: “We cannot achieve a healthy planet and healthy population without a fundamental transformation of our entire food system. Cities and Circular Economy for Food describes an approach starting with cities and presents a vision of a future where the way we produce and consume food contributes to environmental and health benefits, instead of damaging human health and the environment.

“Achieving this is urgent, but no quick fix will get us there. We do have the knowledge and tools to act – and the circular economy approach will be a critical component.”

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1 comment

An excellent summary

Posted by Jennifer Kaplan, Instructor, Introduction of Food Systems, Culinary Institute of America-Greystone,

An interdisciplinary approach to food system challenges is essential for progress and the report appears to synthesize many salient topics in an accessible way. I applaud all efforts to communicate the true cost accounting of food and plan to make this article required reading in my food systems class. Thank you for reporting on this topic.

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