Three billion people—a third of the planet’s population—can’t afford a healthy diet. This stark number is what drives Patrick Webb, the Alexander McFarlane Professor of Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, in his work to transform food systems to ensure everyone on the planet has enough nutritious food to eat.
Now, with a $40 million award from USAID, Webb is leading the new Feed the Future Innovation Lab on Food Systems for Nutrition, based at Tufts.
“Our lab is focused on identifying and promoting technology and practice innovations that can better protect nutrient-rich foods as they travel from farm to fork, improve food safety, and significantly reduce food loss and waste,” says Webb.
He spoke with Tufts Now about the major food security and nutrition challenges around the world, how his new lab plans to address those needs, and how even small choices by individuals can make a difference.
Tufts Now: What are some of the major food security challenges facing our world today?
Patrick Webb: Old threats have reemerged, such as famines in Africa, but we’re also facing greater planetary challenges like climate change.
From the mid-2000s to around 2014, there was a period where we essentially didn’t have any famine in the world. We got very good at growing more food, and globalization allowed that food to move around the world. Poverty was falling, lifespans increasing.
Then suddenly, wham! In the past half-decade, armed conflicts escalated across the world: Syria, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Nigeria, Myanmar. And climate change impacts have been getting dramatically worse, such as extreme droughts, floods, and fires, particularly in low-income countries that can cope the least.
“We need to resolve hunger to resolve the underlying dissatisfaction that fuels many major conflicts.”
“Food lies at the core of many of the world’s problems,” says Patrick Webb. “We need to resolve hunger to resolve the underlying dissatisfaction that fuels many major conflicts.” COVID hasn’t helped—it’s accelerated the increase in hungry people and in undernutrition during the last two years. This has forced everyone to recognize the fragility of global food systems. Trade stopped, people stopped moving, and shelves were empty. Even the U.S. and Canada were hit hard in the early days.
The pandemic also showed that food systems and poor nutrition drive people to look for food in places you could never imagine. Over time, smallholder farmers in resource-limited nations have been forced to move farther into forest margins to make ends meet, trapping wildlife, felling trees to make charcoal. In so doing, they have displaced the hosts of many zoonotic diseases like coronaviruses.
The degradation of natural environment, linked to poverty and food insecurity, gives rise to these kinds of new and emerging threats. The interlinkages between food systems, climate systems, poverty and health are only now becoming obvious—and inescapable.
Why is it critical to address food and nutrition security now?
The benefits are huge. The food system contributes roughly 35 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. Refocusing investments and innovations toward supporting healthy sustainable diets for all can generate benefits for both human and planetary health.
To achieve that, we need to rethink what we produce and how, how that food is stored and transported, how to rebalance prices and consumer demand between so-called empty calories and nutritious foods and products.
Transforming food systems that were designed to tackle problems of the last century into ones that meet 21st-century needs will be key. This will reduce health-care costs, reduce emissions, limit the pressures on wild areas, and enhance the human growth, education, and productivity of future generations.
Food lies at the core of many of the world’s problems. We need to resolve hunger to resolve the underlying dissatisfaction that fuels many major conflicts. But feeding people is not enough; we must nourish them. Innovating in the food space will help address planetary challenges while locally producing millions of jobs. There’s a major opportunity here.
There aren’t many domains where if you fix things in one sector, you have so many positive outcomes in other sectors. The climate is one of those. Food systems to support nutrition-positive growth is another. Governments are beginning to pay attention. They used to say it’s too hard to transform food systems in these ways. But it’s gradually dawning on policymakers that the cost of doing nothing is much greater.