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By Professor Sharon Friel
Highly processed foods including confectionery, savoury snacks, processed meats and soft drinks now dominate the food supply of high- and middle-income countries. In Australia, almost 40 per cent of people’s energy intake comes from these sorts of foods – foods which provide very little nutrition.
Consumption of such foods is rapidly increasing in many countries across Asia and the Pacific. High levels of consumption of highly processed foods are a significant contributor to the current and future disease burden from non-communicable diseases, including type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, in Australia and across the region.
Producing and consuming these foods are contributing to harming the environment as well as human health. The latest IPCC report suggests that agriculture, forestry, and related land use accounts for approximately 24 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The industrial food system drives deforestation and biodiversity loss, land degradation, water overuse, and pollution.
Notably, there is a bi-directional relationship between climate change and food systems. Climate change affects the production and availability of food by placing stress on the quality and availability of water, by creating conditions hospitable to pests and disease, and by reducing biodiversity.
Food production and availability are also being affected because changes in hydrological systems and an increase in severe weather events, such as storms and flooding, are contributing to worsening soil erosion and degradation, and crop damage.
The increasing supply of highly processed foods comes via globalised food systems. This is where food manufacturing, retail, and marketing – often by transnational food and beverage corporations – shape national and local food systems in ways that alter the availability, price, nutritional quality, desirability and ultimately consumption of highly-processed foods.
All stages of this industrial food system – from growing, harvesting, processing, packaging, transporting, marketing, selling and consuming, through to the decomposition of food waste in landfills – produce greenhouse gases and contribute to climate change and environmental degradation.
From a demand perspective, what, where and how much people eat are responses to their economic, environmental and cultural contexts.
This has been observed over the past few decades, with consumption of these foods growing with rising incomes, changing labour market structures, increasing urbanisation and greater normalisation of highly processed foods which are poor in nutrients.
There is growing international agreement on the need to move to healthier and more environmentally sustainable food production and consumer behaviours to promote population and planetary health.
The principles of healthy and sustainable food behaviours are: avoiding excessive food consumption beyond nutritional needs; reducing consumption of highly-processed foods that are energy-dense but nutrient-poor; reducing food waste; and shifting dietary intake towards relatively more plant- and less animal-based foods.
Developing policy and action to support the uptake of food behaviours that are both healthy and sustainable requires a new approach – one that brings together formerly distinct policy areas such as agriculture, food, commerce, health, planning and social policy. This provides great opportunities for policy co-benefits, but also brings challenges to ensure cross-portfolio collaboration and coherence.