Obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity are complex and often connected challenges, but there are many innovative solutions helping to create a healthier and more equitable food system. Here we explore a selection of promising opportunities.
Obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity: the size of the challenge
Despite great progress and clear goals set out in the European Farm to Fork Strategy for healthier diets, the global challenges of obesity and malnutrition continue to accelerate while food insecurity grows. Some two billion people face food insecurity globally and, since 2014, these numbers have been rising dramatically (1).
Almost two billion adults and 380 million children and adolescents are also either overweight or obese globally (2), while 462 million adults are underweight and over 200 million children under five are wasted or stunted (3).
What is food insecurity?
Food insecurity is the state of living without reliable access to affordable, nutritious food. It can be linked to malnutrition, including overweight and obesity, primarily due to the types of food people have access to and the quality of their diets (4). Having a lack of financial or geographical means to have a regular, healthy diet, for example, could result in a person or family being food insecure.
Social exclusion, which refers to having a lack of participation in society via education, politics or economics for example, can also impact food security. One in four Europeans are at risk of poverty or social exclusion and almost 10% of the EU population are only able to afford a quality meal every second day (5).
On an episode of the Food Fight podcast, Professor Chris Elliott of Queen’s University Belfast said that the UN is issuing warnings about "the biggest crisis in the history of people being malnourished” due to severe inequalities in the current food system (6).
The different levels of food insecurity are categorised as people being either food secure, moderately food insecure or severely food insecure.
The solutions to obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity
The causes and drivers of obesity and malnutrition are complex, from medical reasons to food accessibility and poverty. However, when considering links to food insecurity, what are the solutions and agrifood innovations leading the way?
1: Mapping out future food environments and setting goals
In order to tackle obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity in Europe, future food environments need to be mapped so that better interventions can be made now to prevent and reduce challenges in the future.
The European Commission’s Food 2030 Pathways for Action puts forward a roadmap for better and fairer food environments. Pathway seven focuses on healthy, sustainable and personalised nutrition and sets out key enablers of change:
- Integration across policy areas: coherent policies that incorporate all aspects of the food system, from food production to advertising for example, should be put in place to address challenges such as obesity more collaboratively
- Political commitment: more commitments from governments and influential bodies should be made to support the goals set out in the Green Deal and the Farm to Fork strategy
- EU and national dietary guidelines: better guidelines about misleading health claims as well as what constitutes a healthy diet should be developed to give consumers a clearer understanding of the dietary choices they should make
- Price and availability of foods: healthy foods should be made more affordable so that they are the easiest option for consumers
- Research: more research about the factors that can influence consumer choice should be carried out in order to empower them to make more conscious and responsible choices
- Education, training and communication: education about what makes a healthy diet should be better encouraged throughout food systems, with methods adapted to different cultures, values and beliefs
- Open science: data and research should be shared more openly in order to better understand and compare relevant data in food and nutrition that could lead to change.
Read the Food 2030 Pathways for action here.
Projects such as Impact on Urban Health’s Urban Food Futures also set out future food system roadmaps in order to understand whether efforts and resources are being best used and if there are new opportunities for innovation that can change things for the better.
“A reduced household budget and the reduced headspace that stressors such as poverty affords makes navigating these unhealthy food environments even more difficult. To address this issue, we need to reshape our food environments so that nutritious diets are the easier and not hardest thing to achieve.”
Sarah Hickey, Programme Director (Childhood Obesity) at Impact on Urban Health
2: Increasing awareness and training of nutrition and food security
The upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) is also striving for better and fairer food environments. Action Track 1 will work to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition and reduce the incidence of non-communicable disease through both innovation and education initiatives.
As a core partner of the UNFSS, EIT Food is launching an online course on nutrition and nutrition interventions for doctors and medical professionals. Unless specialised in nutrition and dietetics, medical professionals often do not receive adequate education about nutrition and food. This course aims to fill this gap so that better interventions can be made. The course is launching in July 2021 at the UN Food Systems Pre-Summit and registrations are open now.
FoodUnfolded, EIT Food’s consumer facing platform, is also connecting diverse stakeholders and millennials through a series of Food Systems Summit Dialogues. The Dialogues will dive deep into topics such as food accessibility and how to ensure no-one is left behind in the transition to sustainable agriculture. Find out more and register to attend the Dialogues here.
3: Combating obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity with innovation
Accelerating innovation within the agrifood industry in fields such as personalised nutrition is a key way to mitigate and reduce malnutrition and obesity. This plays a central role in our work at EIT Food to build a future-fit food system that produces healthy and sustainable food for all.
“Diet related disease affect the overweight and obese, the elderly, people who suffer with metabolic syndromes and communites affected by poverty. Our community is coming together to focus on these key target areas.”
Lorena Savani, Programme Innovation Manager at EIT Food
Here are three innovative solutions combating food insecurity and malnutrition:
Developed by the consortium of Leuven 2030, shifitN, KU Leuven and Rikolto, the EcoFoodMap Leuven is a digital food system mapping tool that aims to better understand the complexity of the food system in and around Leuven.
The tool aims to develop a complete overview of the entire system and the interactions amongst stakeholders to create a shared understanding of key issues and helps constructive dialogues to take place. The project aims to align all Leuven actors and define actions, efforts and responsibilities required to reach goals such as combating obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity.
A member of the EIT Food RisingFoodStars Association, Eagle Genomics uses data science to solve health and environmental challenges, including malnutrition and obesity. With a particular focus on the microbiome, the platform helps researchers and organisations to put data into actionable insights.
Foodmaestro uses digital solutions to help shoppers find healthier foods. The solutions enable retailers, food manufacturers and healthcare to provide patients and consumers transparency into the foods they eat and also nudge them to suitable or healthier products based on personal dietary needs. The solution can be used to support people with nutrient deficiencies or those struggling with obesity, for example.
4: Reducing obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity through policy interventions
Policy interventions have also been proven to combat malnutrition and food insecurity effectively. The Amsterdam Healthy Weight Programme, for example, set a city-wide goal of ‘healthy weight for all children by 2033.’ The programme aims to have a positive impact on the health of children across Amsterdam by changing some of the environmental drivers of obesity. It is targeted to areas with the highest proportions of overweight and obese children, as well as those with at risk from poor health due to low income status.
It also offers support and advice for children and their parents/carers, recognising that the solutions are neither simple nor achievable in narrow time constraints. It states that constant monitoring is required to achieve the evolving goals.
“Industry players need to uncouple their sales and profits from unhealthy food, and turn their research and development, shelf space and promotions to healthier products. Government industry policy can support this through increased regulation; rather than stifling industry this would create a level playing field for businesses to shift towards healthier product offerings.”
Sarah Hickey, Programme Director (Childhood Obesity) at Impact on Urban Health
Find out more about policy interventions and strategies in Europe combating food insecurity and malnutrition here.
5: Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic
The World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic in March 2020 and, as the world navigated outbreaks, lockdowns and regulations, new food insecurity and malnutrition challenges emerged.
It is estimated that between 83 and 132 million additional people will experience food insecurity as a direct result of the pandemic (1). This is made worse by the fact that malnutrition (including obesity) increases vulnerability to COVID-19 (1), creating a vicious cycle where COVID-19, malnutrition and food insecurity collide.
But even with the complexities of a pandemic, innovation across the world meant that these challenges were mitigated and reduced. Robin Food, for example, set out to provide vulnerable and food insecure families with healthy soups made from surplus produce during the pandemic. Robin Food was a beneficiary of EIT Food’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Innovation initiative, demonstrating the role that funding and collaboration across the food system can play in combating food insecurity and malnutrition, particularly in times of need.
The pandemic also sparked greater demand for healthier, more accessible foods from consumers. The EIT Food study into changing consumer food behaviours revealed that 32% of people will consider access to food at affordable prices more important post-pandemic as well as a third of people (34%) saying a healthy diet will matter more (7). This presents an opportunity for the agrifood industry to work alongside consumers to embed resilience in the food system and create affordable, healthy food choices that work for everyone.
Read more about the impacts of COVID-19 on the agrifood sector here.
There is no universal solution to the challenges of obesity, malnutrition and food insecurity. However, many great solutions already exist to reduce their severity, impacts and health consequences. Check out our Get Involved page and our work supporting the UNFSS to find out how you can join the conversation and learn more about the projects and solutions working towards a healthier and more equitable food system.
- EIT Food: How can we all fight childhood obesity?
- EIT Food: Can the food sector combat food insecurity and malnutrition?
- EIT Food: How can we improve food system resilience for good?
- Committee on World Food Security: HLPE: Impacts of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition: developing effective policy responses to address the hunger and malnutrition pandemic
- WHO: Obesity and overweight
- WHO: Malnutrition
- FAO: Food security and nutrition around the world 2020
- Eurostat: Europe 2020 indicators - poverty and social exclusion
- EIT Food: Food Fight podcast: Food in crisis: is the food system resilient enough?
- EIT Food: COVID-19 impact on consumer food behaviours in Europe