Opinion

Eating ourselves out of house and home (and health)

John Ingram looks at the ways over consumption of food affects the environment, our health and society and asks what we can do to turn the situation around.

Image by Michael Tapp, Sourced: Flickr CC

One of the great human achievements over the last half century is that advances in food production have largely kept pace with demand on a global basis. Today, around 6 billion people are not hungry, up from about 2 billion 50 years ago. But we should not be complacent. Despite these successes, nearly 1 billion people are still hungry, and about 2 billion more lack sufficient nutrients. We are well aware of these facts, and although substantial national and international efforts are in place to address them, there is a strong ethical argument for investing even more.

But to my mind the far greater challenge facing global society is not related to the poor, but to growing over-consumption by many. There are already more than 2½ billion of us overweight or obese, and population growth, compounded by increasing wealth and a strongly emerging ‘middle class’ in many nations, will see this number rise in coming decades. This is because as we get richer, we tend to change our diets by eating more energy-dense foods. Average diets in richer countries are already around 3400 kCals/person/day; in developing countries, around 2600. Average needs are around 2500 for men and 2000 for women.

So why do I think over-consumption is the greater challenge? Three reasons: health, cost to society and cost to the environment.

First, diet-related obesity leading to raised blood pressure, raised blood sugar and raised cholesterol poses a major risk factor in many non-communicable diseases, especially Type-2 diabetes. Prevalence of diabetes worldwide is estimated at about 8.5%, but some in some countries it is much higher. Even more people are ‘pre-diabetic’ (or ‘boarder line diabetes’, i.e. blood glucose levels that are higher than normal but not yet high enough to be classed as diabetes); over 50% of adults in China are now pre-diabetic. More worrying still is that, until recently, this type of diabetes was generally only seen in adults, but it is now increasingly occurring in children, leading to life-long health problems.

Second, the financial cost to society through increasing direct health care is already massive. For example, the American Diabetes Association estimate the total cost of diagnosed diabetes in the US alone in 2012 is $245 billion, including $176 billion in direct medical costs and $69 billion in reduced human productivity. People in the US with diagnosed diabetes, on average, have medical expenditures approximately 2.3 times higher than what expenditures would be in the absence of diabetes. For poorer nations with rapidly expanding numbers of diet-related diseases, the financial costs will likely be crippling, certainly diverting resources away from other important development needs.

And third, current methods of producing, processing, packaging, transporting, retailing, and consuming food are significantly degrading the natural resource base upon which our food security depends. If an increase in demand for more of the same food (i.e. without dietary change per se) would impact environmental conditions in an approximately linearly manner, an increase in higher energy-dense foods will likely have even greater impact per calorie consumed: a calorie derived from meat or fat has a much higher environmental footprint than one from a vegetable source. The environmental cost of satisfying more demand of more-energy intense food will be enormous, and to my mind, it is this factor that is most worrisome: the prospect of collapse of the natural resource base upon which food security for us all depends.

So what do we as researchers do about it?

A host of research opportunities spanning the whole food system exists to address this situation, balancing the traditional ‘production’ viewpoint with a stronger ‘consumption’ viewpoint. Research questions falls into three general categories: technical, institutional, and behavioural. An example of each from the recent UK exercise ‘Priority Questions for UK Food System’ is:

  • Technical: How can the fat, sugar, preservative and salt content of foods be reduced while ensuring that palatability is maintained, waste is minimised, and food remains safe and does not spoil?
  • Institutional: How can mismatches between formal risk assessments and public perception be resolved when assessing the use of different technologies that could improve the efficiency and resilience of the food system?
  • Behavioural: Which intervention (or combination of interventions) would be most effective in achieving changes in consumption decisions and which types of intervention are most appropriate for specific contexts and decisions?

Policy makers need to be able to gauge the impacts on both winners and losers of any technical, institutional, or behavioural change. An over-riding research challenge therefore lies in developing frameworks and tools to assess the synergies and trade-offs – i.e. sustainability – among different societal goals of implementing research results. This is encompassed in the emerging CIMSANS agenda on sustainable nutrition security . As food is largely being produced, processed, distributed, and sold by private actors, ranging from smallholder farmers to large food and retail companies, engaging private actors is crucial in the transition towards more sustainable food systems. It needs a joined-up effort as we simply can’t afford to eat ourselves out of house and home!

John Ingram is keynote speaker for the AGRIFOOD XXI Conference, to be held at the University of Sydney from 24-26 November, sponsored by the Sydney Environment Institute. Registrations for AGRIFOOD XXI are open now.


John Ingram is Food Systems Programme Leader at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. Trained in soil science, John Ingram gained extensive experience in the 1980s working in Africa and Asia in agriculture and forestry research projects. In 1991 he was recruited by NERC to help organise, coordinate and synthesise research on global change and agroecology, part of IGBP’s international global change research programme. In 2001 he was appointed the Executive Officer for the international research project “Global Environmental Change and Food Systems” (GECAFS), then based in NERC’s CEH Wallingford site. The GECAFS International Project Office was relocated to ECI in October 2006. On the close of GECAFS in 2011 he was appointed NERC Food Security Leader until assuming his current role of Food Systems Programme Leader at ECI in May 2013.