Healthy Diets and Good Nutrition: Who's Responsible?

The views presented in these blogs are those of the authors.

Originally published by the Chicago Council for Global Affairs on their blog – Global Food for Thought.

The recently-issued, first-ever Global Nutrition Report calls for holding “key stakeholders” accountable for the actions they take regarding nutrition and, through a process of monitoring, motivating them to be responsible for improving the world’s nutritional status. But who are these “key stakeholders?” What should they be doing to improve global nutrition? As the report notes, “The large number of actors, the long-term benefits to action, and the invisibility of some consequences of malnutrition all work against accountability.”

In spite of the difficulties, there is a growing urgency to change the status quo: poor nutrition is increasingly recognized to be an issue of worldwide concern. Under-nutrition continues to affect more than 800 million; over-nutrition, an estimated 1.4 billion. Micronutrient malnutrition is even more widespread. The failure to eat well has significant implications for human health and wellbeing. Acute and chronic diseases, increased morbidity and mortality, cognitive impairment, and diminished economic futures are all associated with unhealthy diets and poor nutrition.

AGree, an initiative established to drive positive change in the food and agriculture system through dialogue, analysis, and building of diverse coalitions dedicated to transformative change, has focused on the importance of food and nutrition interventions to community health. Our work affirms the challenges noted in the Global Nutrition Report: there are large numbers of people and organizations involved in the food environment, the effects of unhealthy eating are not immediately visible, and nutritional results are only possible with sustained actions on a number of levels.

So who’s responsible for those actions? How does each “key stakeholder” involved in the supply chain – from farm to fork – contribute to promoting healthy diets and better nutrition? Consumers, of course, wield the fork. The food choices they make reflect their knowledge about nutrition, but also the time, money, and market access they have to purchase and/or prepare their daily diets. Consumers must be the “first movers” toward healthier diets, but their progress will rely on the actions of many others. They look to farmers and ranchers, the bedrock of the food system, to produce a mix of crops and animals that respond to changing signals of market demand as well as to the diversity of agroecologies in which farms and ranches are located. Food processors are essential to transforming raw commodities, reducing post-farmgate losses, and creating a range of tasty, convenient foods that meet a variety of consumer needs. Retailers ensure year-round access to a variety of fresh and processed foods by managing efficient supply systems that end in neighborhood supermarkets. Restaurants and fast-food outlets claim a substantial share of consumers’ purchasing power. Educators and school administrators define the food environment that kids experience every day, helping those kids to think about and shape their future eating habits. Healthcare providers treat diet-related diseases, in some cases “prescribing” foods as well as medicines as a way to better health.

Less visible in the food value chain are the individuals and agencies that guide food and agricultural policy, regulations, and public investments. Scientists at US land-grant universities, for example, rely upon federal and state funding to help farmers and ranchers solve problems standing in the way of increasing and sustaining agricultural productivity. Policymakers draw upon the latest medical and nutritional science to develop national dietary guidelines to promote consumers’ healthy food choices. Food safety inspectors help to reduce food-borne pathogens in the food supply and the incidence of food-borne illness. Social safety net programs help those with low incomes to access the food they need.

Acknowledging that healthy diets and good nutrition are a broadly-shared responsibility is an important first step toward building a better food environment and mobilizing the resources for action.