The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered food supply failures and shortages, which have been further exacerbated by the current crisis in Ukraine.  As a result, the world is experiencing worsening global hunger and global food and nutrition insecurity.

“Our food systems are failing to produce the foods essential for healthy diets in sufficient quantity and at affordable prices.  They are also driving degradation of the natural environment—soil, water and air quality, biodiversity loss and climate change—and dangerously undermining our future well-being,” according to Future Food Systems: For People, Our Planet, and Prosperity, a report commissioned by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.  The report notes, “today, roughly three billion people are unable to afford even the cheapest, locally available, healthy diets.  This represents a crisis, not just in terms of health, but also the mental and physical development of children and the prosperity of families and growth of countries.”

ASN Journals are also deeply concerned about the future of the global food supply, fostering and publishing original research and perspectives to help us better understand the challenges that we currently face, alongside viable, science-based solutions.  Below is a sampling of articles published in ASN journals that examine not only the underlying mechanisms driving our current food systems, but also how more sustainable and equitable systems can be designed and implemented in the future.

Food Loss of Perishable Produce from Farm to Retail: Evidence from Tomato Supply Chains in South India, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, February 2022

Reducing food loss and waste along food supply chains may narrow gaps between fruit and vegetable production and recommended intake.  In this study, ASN member Jocelyn M. Boiteau et al. focused on the extent and determinants of tomato loss and waste from farm to retail in South India.  To conduct their research, the authors surveyed 75 farm households and 83 tomato traders as well as 52 vegetable traders and 50 vegetable retailers, calculating food loss and waste values at the farmer, vegetable-trader, and vegetable-retailer stages.  According to the study findings, most food loss and waste occurred post-harvest: “aggregate post-harvest food loss and waste from farm to retail totaled between 9.1% to 13.4% of the total tomato quantity.”  In particular, the authors noted, “farmers reported pests, disease, and animals as major causes of post-harvest and pre-auction food loss and waste values (73% and 49%, respectively), followed by too much sun or rain (19% and 26%, respectively).”  Among their recommendations to reduce food loss and waste, the authors believe that “sorting out damaged produce is important to reduce the potential for contamination, reduce the risk of further decay, and ensure the food is edible.”

The Role of Food and Beverage Companies in Transforming Food Systems: Building Resilience at Multiple Scales, Current Developments in Nutrition, August 2021

Nayla Bezares et al. argue that “the scientific community and food and beverage firms must collaborate in the development of measurable and verifiable indicators that support adaptation and mitigation action along food supply chains.”  Specifically, the authors set forth three areas where the scientific community can work with food and beverage companies to build sustainable food systems that respond to the challenges presented by global warming, population growth, and the COVID-19 pandemic.  First, the authors propose “incentives for sustainable intensification,” including “climate-smart, scalable, and sustainable agricultural practices that can close yield gaps, preserve environmental resources, and produce economic benefits.” Second, “expanded reporting standards” are needed to track science-based targets for environmental, nutritional, health, and well-being outcomes.  Third, the authors believe that “pre-competitive partnerships” should be designed that “benefit farmers and ecosystems while reducing the overall greenhouse gas emissions of downstream food and beverage companies.”

Use of the DELTA Model to Understand the Food System and Global Nutrition, The Journal of Nutrition, June 2021

A key aspect of a sustainable food system is its ability to deliver nutrition to the global population; however, quantifying nutrient adequacy with current tools has been challenging.  In response, ASN member Nick W. Smith et al. developed the DELTA Model, which calculates global per capita nutrient availability under conditions of equal distribution and identifies areas of nutrient deficiency for various food system scenarios.  Working with data from the 2018 global food system, the DELTA Model demonstrates that “it supplied insufficient calcium (64% of demographically weighted target intake) and vitamin E (69%), despite supplying sufficient macronutrients.”  The authors then tested various 2030 food system scenarios.  For example, they modeled a 2030 no-meat scenario, in which production of remaining food groups was increased by 20% to meet the needs of a growing population. The authors found that calcium and vitamin E gaps were reduced compared with a basic 2030 scale-up scenario due to increased dairy and oil crop production.  However, “nutrient gaps emerged for iron, vitamin B-12, and zinc.”

Systematic Review of Dietary Patterns and Sustainability in the United States, Advances in Nutrition, July 2020

“While the US government has been assessing and encouraging nutritious diets via the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) since 1980,” according to Sarah L. Reinhardt et al., “the long-term sustainability, and thus availability, of those diets has received less attention.”  In response, the authors systematically reviewed US dietary patterns and sustainability outcomes, working with 22 studies published from 2015 to 2019.  The results of their review “challenge prior findings that diets adhering to national dietary guidelines are more sustainable than current average diets and indicate that the Healthy US-style dietary pattern recommended by the DGA may lead to similar or increased greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, and water use compared with the current US diet.” Three of the four studies examining greenhouse gas emissions, for example, found that moving from an average US diet to a DGA-compliant, Healthy US-style diet would result in similar or up to a 12% increase in greenhouse gas emissions.  Consistent with previous research, however, the evidence from this review continues to “support the conclusion that, among healthy dietary patterns, those higher in plant-based foods and lower in animal-based foods would be beneficial for environmental sustainability.”

A warming planet, coupled with a growing population, presents tremendous challenges to the global food supply, which has been further challenged in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic and mounting global humanitarian crises.  If you are conducting research that may help us better understand how to restructure food systems to better meet the food and nutrition demands of the future, we encourage you to submit your original research study or review to an ASN journal.  We will ensure that your important findings are quickly disseminated around the world, building our knowledge and fostering new research findings.