Paper summarizes findings of the 22nd Annual Harvard Nutrition Obesity Symposium, “Global Food Systems and Sustainable Nutrition in the 21st Century,” outlining challenges and opportunities


  • Summarizes the findings of the 22nd Annual Harvard Nutrition Obesity Symposium, “Global Food Systems and Sustainable Nutrition in the 21st Century.”
  • Advocates for the transformation of global food systems to ensure that everyone has access to a sustainable and healthy diet.
  • Addresses malnutrition and non-communicable diseases, climate change, and economic and social inequities, three key challenges to global food systems.
  • Urges the nutrition and health communities to play a significant role in transforming food systems for the better.

Rockville, MD –– According to the authors of “Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition in the 21st Century: A Report from the 22nd Annual Harvard Nutrition Obesity Symposium,” published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “there are vast opportunities to ensure that food systems produce healthy and safe food in equitable ways that promote environmental sustainability, especially if the world can come together at the UN Food Systems Summit this September 23, 2021 and make strong and binding commitments towards food system transformation.”

Simply put, food systems feed the world.  They are complex, encompassing everything from the ecological systems that underlie food production to food processing, packaging, distribution, and consumption.  Roughly 1.5 billion people work in some aspect of food systems in order to feed almost 8 billion people around the world.

Today’s food systems have become increasingly interconnected, globalized, and efficient at moving a tremendous amount and array of food products from producers to consumers worldwide; however, they are not perfect.  They are vulnerable to climate change and, at the same time, contribute to climate change.  They produce large amounts of unhealthy highly processed foods, leading to malnutrition and non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.  Finally, they do not meet the nutrition needs of many socially and economically disadvantaged populations.

With an eye towards addressing these challenges, the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at Harvard and the Harvard Medical School Division of Nutrition held the 22nd Annual Harvard Nutrition Obesity Symposium, entitled “Global Food Systems and Sustainable Nutrition in the 21st Century,” in June 2021.  Following the symposium, the speakers summarized their findings, resulting in the scientific paper, “Sustainable Food Systems and Nutrition in the 21st Century: A Report from the 22nd Annual Harvard Nutrition Obesity Symposium.” 

Lead author Dr. Jessica Fanzo, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Global Food & Agricultural Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, believes their recently published paper can make a difference.  She hopes that nutrition scientists around the world will join the call at the United Nations Food Systems Summit, advocating on behalf of equitable and sustainable global food systems.  According to Dr. Fanzo, “there is currently sufficient food available for everyone to be well fed and well nourished, yet we still have many people who suffer from hunger.”

The authors began with the premise that our global food systems must be transformed to ensure that everyone has access to a sustainable, healthy diet.  Currently, the authors point out, what is grown on the finite amount of arable land around the world is inconsistent with a healthy diet.  Models suggest that if the global population were to consume the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommended 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per capita per day, our food systems simply would not be able to meet the demand.  In response, the authors believe, “there is a need to rebalance the agriculture sector’s research and development towards healthy crops, repurpose the sector’s subsidy policies towards nutrient-rich foods, scale-up incentives for nature-positive on-farm technologies, and focus on new job creation of non-farm rural food services.”

Right now, healthy diets are unaffordable to almost half of the world. The cost of a diet offering minimum nutrient adequacy can be 200% of a household’s food expenditure in some low-income countries.  Highly processed foods with high levels of added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats are often more affordable; however, these foods are less nutritious and associated with an increased risk for several non-communicable diseases.

Changing food systems for the better means changing how we think.  Today, for example, one prevailing narrative assumes that we need to maximize food production yields, enabling the industrial food system to focus on the quantity of food and calories produced.  Efforts to minimize the social, health, or ecological costs of food systems are seen as less important than the goal of increasing food production.  The authors believe, “transformational change in food systems will not occur without a shift of narrative, mindsets, assumptions, and most importantly, an inspirational vision of what is possible.”  

Dr. Fanzo urges nutrition scientists to read the paper and become involved: “Now is the time for nutrition scientists to collaborate with other sectors, disciplines, and experts to make shifts in food systems and put them on a trajectory toward lasting sustainable development.”


Jessica Fanzo, Coral Rudie, Iman Sigman, Steven Grinspoon, Tim G Benton, Molly E Brown, Namukolo Covic, Kathleen Fitch, Christopher D Golden, Delia Grace, Marie-France Hivert, Peter Huybers, Lindsay M Jaacks, William A Masters, Nicholas Nisbett, Ruth A Richardson, Chelsea R Singleton, Patrick Webb, Walter C Willett, Sustainable food systems and nutrition in the 21st century: A report from the 22nd annual harvard nutrition obesity symposium, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2021;, nqab315,