Food systems are complex networks that address our farms and fisheries locally, regionally and globally. The policies we have concerning land use, farm worker rights, use of chemicals, transportation and distribution systems all impact the ability of individuals and communities to access high quality, affordable foods. Even issues like food waste impact our communities in substantial ways. Here, various components of this ecosystems are addressed.
Q1. Can you explain the connection between health and food systems? Is it just about things like nutrition and affordability?
A1.— The connection between the food system and health can be succinctly defined by acknowledging what is grown, how, where, and at what cost it is grown contribute substantially to population health. Issues like nutrition and affordability control most of the conversation because these are highly visible, longstanding global food system issues. The food system is defined as all activities and resources that contribute to and influence producing, distributing, and consuming food; a soil-to-soil system that includes all the resources, technologies, stakeholders, relationships, policies and laws that shape and influence how food moves through the system – from farm to plate and back to the farm again . As such, all stages have connections to health, and adoption of a food system that is “environmentally sustainable, improves nutritional quality, and supports human dignity and justice” is a priority. In addition to nutrition and affordability, there are other well-researched determinants of health correlated to the food system, such as: food access and insecurity, child food insecurity/obesity, farm worker rights and health, environmental impacts of the food system, and climate change.
Q2. What do you mean stages of the food system?
A2.— The food system is a “soil-to-soil” connection between food production, processing, distribution, consumption and waste management stages of agriculture and food. In the stages, research considers all of the natural, human and material resources, technology and cultures, policies and laws, etc. which contribute to the opportunities & challenges of our food system. The production stage includes everything from traditional farming practices and resources to fishery management and sustainability and includes the agricultural inputs like soil and water that allow them to produce food. The processing stage is usually associated with unhealthy, inexpensive goods, but processing involves the basic steps needed to ensure longevity of consumer goods from “farm to plate,” and even provide variety to food choice. The distribution stage of the food system is the bridge between producers and consumers. Food distributors are also part of the reason foods are transported long distances. Larger, more competitive distributors may buy only from large farms that provide a steady supply of goods at the lowest prices—even if those farms are halfway across the globe. The consumption stage of the food system is probably the most visible since we are all consumers of food! This is often at a retail or commercial level of interaction, but consumers also play a role in holding earlier system stage actors accountable for their practices and products.
Q3. Who are the stakeholders in the food ecosystem?
A3.—We can broadly define the stakeholders in the food ecosystem as the global community and economic actors involved in the stages defined earlier. Everyone eats food and is affected by the food ecosystem; we all deserve access to food that is healthy, affordable, sustainably and inclusively produced—and of course, tasty. Generally, we define the stakeholders as those in the ecosystem who have impact or are impacted by changes in related policies, systems or environments. Stakeholders include but are not limited to farmers and farm workers, fisheries, transporters, government, small businesses, and consumers.
Q4. What are issues across the food ecosystem? (farmworkers, pesticides, drought)
A4.— Each stage of the food ecosystem has its own issues. Most of the most popularly researched and clearly detrimental to population health are related to farm worker rights and pesticide use , , safe food supply and access, and food access and insecurity . Other issues that research has focused on include environmental impact of food production, food waste/loss, and the impact of climate change.
Q5. What are some innovations we see here in the US or around the world to address food ecosystem issues?
A5.— On the bright side, there are people in all stages of the food ecosystem working to create more sustainable practices and solutions of the challenges in the food system. We are seeing innovations in the use of hydroponics to grow food more efficiently , supply chain management changes, eco-labeling to help improve farm worker conditions and quality/safety of food , and insurance companies using meal delivery kits as a method to improve health of policy holders. Innovators and startups around the world have created ways to improve food sovereignty, alternative consumer options , and mitigating the effects of climate change .
Q6. What are strategies AHA is considering regarding improved food ecosystems?
A6.—The AHA is committed to supporting our partners in housing and related areas of development through advancing policy agendas continuing to build an evidence base of effective solutions, and by addressing the health needs of those in affordable and/or homeless situations. Specifically, we seek to partner with faith-based organizations seeking to build housing opportunities, health systems adding housing to their solutions as well as community initiatives in addressing homelessness. We also support the advancement of neighborhoods that provide access to transportation, quality parks, streets, and sidewalks, as well as healthy food and job opportunities.
Q7. We hear about disasters recovery and food systems? Tell me how those issues are being addressed?
A7.— Climate change has had a direct effect on the number of natural disasters and the impact is immediately felt within the food system—from hampered farm production to total loss of resources. Recovery is often difficult, expensive and time consuming. The population health impact of climate change shows in food scarcity and rising cost . Some solutions that are being researched focus on mitigating the short- and long-term issues arising from food security, nutrition, diet-related disease, food safety, and environmental and occupational health by increasing partnerships between food, health and agriculture industry stakeholders.
Q8. How might increasing numbers of disasters impact the long term viability of food ecosystems?
A8.— In recent years, with increasing disasters arising from the adverse effects of climate change and carbon dioxide deposits in the ecosystem , food ecosystem stakeholders and researchers have a grim outlook. Reduced food supplies and rising food prices are predicted with some areas of the world “already suffering from high rates of hunger and food insecurity, including parts of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, are predicted to experience the greatest declines in food production.