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Not just an apple a day: More carrots and celery sticks needed for healthy diets
The global food system is poorly aligned to meet healthy dietary targets today and in the future
Generations of folk-wisdom embodied in many traditional diets has recognized the importance of fruits and vegetables. In fact, the first formal dietary recommendation, issued in 1835 in the United Kingdom, highlighted the importance of citrus fruits for treating scurvy. And today, almost 90 countries have developed food-based dietary guidelines, which promote fruit and vegetable consumption as a part of healthy diets. The World Health Organization recommends people consume a minimum of 400 grams of fruits and vegetables per day, with age-specific recommendations, which range between 330 grams for infants (0-4 years) and 600 grams for adolescents and adults (15+ years).
And yet, despite this common knowledge and the continued prominence of fruits and vegetables in the discussion of healthy diets, far too many of us are not eating enough of them. In 2017, poor diets were the main cause of preventable death, with low fruit and vegetable consumption contributing to 2 million of these deaths, according to the Global Burden of Disease.
So, why aren’t we getting enough fruits and vegetables? In short, our food system is imbalanced, oversupplying unhealthy foods while undersupplying healthy foods.
In research done in collaboration between CSIRO Australia’s national science agency and the International Food Policy Research Institute, published in The Lancet Planetary Health, we explored this question. We looked at how low production leads to high prices and lowered demand as well as how high food waste and consumer preferences lead to lowered demand, smaller markets, and to lower production.
Currently, global production can just supply the world’s population with enough fruits and vegetables if we ignore food waste. However, the current distribution of production means only 85 countries, representing just over half of the world’s population, supply at least 400 g/person/day of fruits and vegetables in 2015. A significant improvement since 1961, when only 17 per cent of the world’s population lived in countries with enough fruits and vegetables to meet minimum recommendations.
Economic growth over the past several decades has contributed significantly to improved diets worldwide and is projected to be a major driver of future progress, particularly in lower income countries.
Nevertheless, progress hasn’t been equally distributed, and we found that while future global production could increase from 500-600 g/person/day to more than 700 g/person/day on average by 2050, many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America will continue having poor access to fruits and vegetables. Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly concerning, as the region could see between 0.8 and 1.9 billion people living in countries with average fruit and vegetable availability below 400 g/person/day.
Economic growth may also lead to increased waste, which could threaten progress. We found that future food waste could increase the number of people living in countries with insufficient fruits and vegetables by up to 1.5 billion people.
We created this visualization that allows people to explore how future economic growth, waste and health targets could impact fruit and vegetable availability and consumption.
Low consumption is driven by many interconnected factors underlining our food system. Shifting to healthier diets will require rebalancing the food system. This relies on changes in consumer and producer behaviour, and a food policy that enables and encourages changes that includes:
- Improving consumer awareness. Too many countries haven’t developed national dietary guidelines, and those that have, still need to do more to ensure consumers understand these recommendations.
- Focusing on the positive. Policies encouraging healthy consumption that reduce the cost burden on consumers are needed in addition to the current focus on reducing unhealthy consumption (e.g. fat and sugar taxes).
- Rebalancing agricultural investments. Increased investment is needed in fruits and vegetables to reduce cost of production, increase input use efficiency and reduce their environmental footprint.
- Reducing food losses and waste. Waste is a major driver of low availability and contributor to the unsustainability of the food system. More investments are needed to develop technologies and systems that reduce waste, while not increasing costs to consumers.
Daniel Mason-D’Croz is a Senior Research Scientist in the Agriculture and Food division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) based in St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia.