Food and the Future Environment

Human System Factors in Nutrition: Challenges in the Globalized Food System


Human System Factors in Nutrition: Challenges in the Globalized Food System

Although the modern globalized food system is highly dynamic and able to move enormous quantities of food and generate economic activity at a huge scale in response to global demand, the issues of poor diets, malnutrition and constrained food access we have described here are sobering issues that human societies need to confront. From the earliest days of civilization, food has been at once (1) a fundamental human requirement and human right; (2)a source of livelihood and a business as well as (3) the common property of cultures and ethnicities. The rise of a globalized food system, however, has brought new patterns into play because food has become an increasingly fiscalized commodity and experience.“Fiscalized” means that the provision of a fast food item, a food service delivery to a restaurant, or a supermarket buying experience (vs. a traditional regional open-air market, for example) are increasingly not only interactions among farmers, truckers, shopkeepers, and consuming households. Instead, the activities of production, distribution, and consumption within food systems become more and more integrated into the trade and investment patterns of the global economy. Food production, trade, and sales have been absorbed into the purview of profit-driven corporations that seek maximum value for stockholders. These stockholders are in turn citizens, organizations, and even governments that also participate by profiting from the functioning of the global system, demonstrating the involvement of common citizens in this system as well. Food activists, policymakers, and advocates of concepts like “agriculture of the middle” (see module 10.1) have argued that this new corporate character of the food system increasingly creates a food system that has an incentive to ignore important values like food access equity, just treatment of producers and workers, healthy diets, and environmental sustainability as the elements of the three "legs" of sustainability (see Module 1). However, reform movements within the globalized food system also demonstrate that it is able to pay attention to human nutrition goals and environmental sustainability.

In fact, the food system is not a completely unfettered capitalist enterprise.& Examining any food packaging shows the degree to which food is subject to regulation and oversight by the government. Food safety scares and health inspections of restaurants show the close attention paid to the acute impact (if not always the chronic impact over time) of unhealthy food. Education efforts promoting healthy choices in diet and exercise are regularly heard from both government organizations and private advocacy organizations: for example, state cooperative extension agencies, universities, and public service announcements. The efforts to label calories on restaurant menus and the movement of food service companies and local restaurants towards healthy options in menus show the growing awareness and movement of food demand towards healthy options. And many supermarket chains are making substantial efforts to include more local and regionally produced foods and promote healthy diets and nutrition as part of the communication to consumers.

In part, these changes show the changing awareness of the problems in the modern “American diet” among the public, brought on by food activists and authors about the food system. And on-the-ground marketing initiatives for values-based value chains such as those promoted by local and regional food system advocates include improving access to healthier foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. For middle- and higher-income consumers with access to the abundance of foods in typical supermarkets and farmer’s markets around the world, this can incentivize better choices about well-rounded diets. In many cases, these healthier diets also include less reliance on meat because of its water footprint and adverse impacts on health when eaten in excess. One essential question, however, is how these efforts to improve food choices and access can expand their reach to poorer consumers and those who live in food deserts, either by improving geographic access, low-cost alternatives, or income opportunities to these consumers. You’ll explore this question of food equity more in the summative assessment for this module, regarding food deserts and examples of organizations in your capstone regions that are promoting healthy food choices and production.

Optional Reading/Video for Capstone Project

The capstone project, which is introduced at this time in the course and requires you to begin thinking about the food system of a particular focus region, is an opportunity to think about food access and nutrition in your example region. As part of this project, you may want to see some examples of how local governments and organizations of citizens are promoting healthier diets. This may help you to propose similar strategies for food systems. One example you may look into is the website for the Toronto Food Strategy (a part of the municipal government of Toronto, Canada) and the way that their activities are coordinated with the Toronto Food Policy Council (a volunteer study/action and advocacy organization). Many states, counties, and cities in the United States have organizations and government efforts similar to these examples.