Sowing the seeds for a better food future

Sara Farley/Deepali Khanna | Updated on October 15, 2020 Published on October 15, 2020

Under stress: Covid-19 has laid bare the vulnerabilities in global food security   -  G Karthikeyan

World Food Day, today, is a good time to reaffirm the commitment to healthy and affordable diets for all

Global hunger has been on an indefensible rise for many years, and Asia — home to nearly half a billion of the world’s hungry and more than half of the world’s malnourished children — has not been spared. While global food systems have long been under stress, the Covid-19 pandemic pushed them to their breaking point, and the imperative to act has never been more important.

In a matter of weeks, Covid-19 laid bare the vulnerabilities in global food security, compounding previous levels of hunger with job losses, supply chain disruptions and declines in revenue. This has had a disproportionate impact on the world’s poor, particularly in India. According to some estimates, as many as 200 million people could slip back into poverty in India, impacting families’ ability to put food on the table. As a result, the number of people facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity is expected to double. This falls alongside other global trends, like climate change, which are threatening global food supply. Over the past couple of years, India has been witnessing more intense droughts, decreases in average rainfall and a higher frequency of cyclones, which will continue to strain crop yields.

Covid-19 has also exposed the risk of poor diets. There is growing evidence that what we eat fundamentally impacts how we experience Covid-19. In one investigation, the odds of hospitalisation were 16 times greater for people with obesity, diabetes or hypertension, and 94 per cent of deaths from Covid-19 has been of those with an underlying metabolic or other chronic disease, nearly all with strong linkages to poor diet quality.

Troublingly, the Asia-Pacific region is home to the fastest growing rates of childhood obesity in the world, with children increasingly exposed to cheap and convenient unhealthy processed foods rich in salt, sugar and fat but poor in essential nutrients. According to the government of India’s Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey, almost one in 10 children, between five and nine years, were found to be pre-diabetic and 1 per cent already diabetic. This is tragic, and it is preventable.

Healthy food systems

If we are to change this trajectory, the food systems of the future must be healthy, reliable and equitable. They must balance the need for economic development and increasing demand for food with sustainability and conservation of natural resources. We can’t do this with patchwork improvements. A whole-systems approach is necessary if we are to succeed in transforming the global food system to nourish people and planet.

Fundamental shifts will be required to get there, because what we consume is about much more than daily individual choices about what to eat. Increasing the plate share of healthy foods, and decreasing the share of ultra-processed and nutrient-poor foods requires action across government, the private sector, food producers and many other food sector actors. Together, we need to tackle challenges as diverse as advancing nutrition research to better understand the costs and benefits of our diets, ensuring our food systems are sustainably powered, growing the capacity of small and medium-size enterprises to increase the availability of healthy foods, changing policies to help communities affordably and equitably access good food, and investing in programmes to help children eat healthier meals.

Getting it right will necessitate bold thinking and action, and local communities will lead the way. That is why the Rockefeller Foundation launched the Food System Vision Prize, a global challenge to gather actionable visions from teams around the world on what our food systems can be. They represent the creativity and big ideas needed to nourish all people and sustain the planet into the next century.

Reducing food waste

One of the Vision Prize finalists, Eat Right India, based in New Delhi, is working to create a national movement towards healthier diets through a systems-based approach of reducing food waste; improving hygiene and sanitation across the value chain; and increasing access to and affordability of healthy foods.

Another key feature of the initiative is the way in which it approaches the issue as a ‘whole government’ issue, encouraging collaboration with ministries upstream and downstream such as agriculture, health, industry, and environment ministries over respective food-related mandates.


Another one of our Vision Prize finalists was the Naandi Foundation, for its ‘Arakunomics’, a new integrated economic model that ensures profits for farmers, quality for consumers through regenerative agriculture. ‘Arakunomics’ is based on the work done with tribal communities in the region of Araku over the past 20 years. The Araku way is a model for responsible and sustainable farming, placing households at the centre of the decision making process, rather than merely the profit motive.

Over the past few months, we have been reminded of the critical importance of a strong and functioning food system — one that empowers everyone to access the good food they need to maintain good health, and that sustains the planet’s resources. To jump-start solutions like those proposed by the Food System Vision Prize finalists, we need dramatic, collective action. This World Food Day, on October 16, is an opportunity to reaffirm our global commitment to healthy and affordable diets for all through bold vision and swift action. As one of the world’s largest food producers, India will play a key role in this transformation. There’s no time to wait.

Sara is the Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Food Initiative; and Deepali is the Managing Director of the Rockefeller Foundation Asia Regional Office

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Published on October 15, 2020
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