We face a major shift in the global conversation on health. Chronic or noncommunicable diseases are leading causes of death worldwide and they play a major role in the viability of national economies. The United Nations will discuss these issues this week in New York. At the root of many of these diseases lie unhealthy diets, whether caused by under- or over-nutrition.
Many approaches have been put on the table to tackle the issue of poor nutrition and make healthy food and drink options available, accessible and affordable for consumers. Those with the greatest potential for success address the heart of the problem: an outdated policy approach to agriculture and food production. Several reports discuss these issues, including a report out of the UK called "The Future of Food and Farming," and Jason Clay's article in Nature titled, Freeze the Footprint of Food.
The first step toward modernizing the approach is to change the way we define malnutrition. Today's system reflects the old mindset that to be under-nourished is to lack enough calories. While this remains true for almost a billion people, we now know that people whose caloric intake is adequate -- or even excessive -- can still be under-nourished due to a deficiency of nutrients in the food they eat. They are also at a higher risk for developing often disabling chronic diseases that are expensive for society to treat. Across the globe, a change in government incentives and policies to address the sharp rise in chronic diseases and the crucial role of nutrition in their prevention is imperative. This must be done in ways that not only meet the needs of all people for a diversified diet, but also do not damage the environment.
The second step is incorporating more whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds into food products and maintaining their nutritional value during manufacture, packaging and distribution. This will allow urban citizens access to quality nutrition that complements fresh produce. To a large extent, this is already underway. Since 2009, global industry leaders have begun reformulating their food and beverage products to include a more diverse range of crops. For PepsiCo and other food companies, these changes require identifying new sustainable, locally relevant supply chains for healthy raw materials like vegetables (including tubers), fruits, legumes (including chickpeas), and seeds (including sunflower). PepsiCo does this by helping small farmers - in Mexico, China, India, Mongolia, Peru, Canada and the United States - to improve yields by supporting new farming techniques and technologies. For more information, see the Chicago Council report on "Bringing Agriculture to the Table" and a recent New York Times article regarding PepsiCo's partnerships in Mexico to promote sunflower production.
Yet all of this will take us only so far. The third and most important step is to influence the process from "farm to fork" by focusing on food's origin, as well as examining its path to the plate. We must realign agricultural policies to better incentivize the production, distribution and consumption of healthier foods. Reorienting a range of public sector financial and related policy incentives (including support for agricultural and nutrition science and trade policy) toward "healthier" crops would have a tremendous impact on not only the quality of food produced, but the availability and cost of raw materials to produce it.
Imagine, for an instant, that tomorrow, Americans started to eat according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. Every breakfast plate in America might look like MyPlate, but every tree and field in America would be bare. Under the current agricultural system, there is simply not enough fruit and vegetable acreage to meet the demand that would be created if Americans followed these guidelines. Furthermore, many people currently cannot afford or access the fruits and vegetables that they should be eating daily.
New policies and incentives can help farmers take action. But this is not a change that they can or should undertake alone. Land needs to be repurposed for cultivation of these crops, or reclaimed from other uses to make way for more acres of fruits and vegetables. Business, with its significant experience in this are,a can be a valuable partner for government and farmers to ensure that the equipment and infrastructure is in place to meet the demand for "good for you" crops and foods. What is true for the United States is equally true for many developing countries.
Changes such as these can't happen overnight. It takes years for an orchard to grow. Yet with proper cultivation now, through improved government policy, we can ensure that more healthy and wholesome options are available for the next generation of consumers - and together reap the health and economic benefits of our labors.
Dr. Derek Yach is Senior Vice President, Global Health and Agriculture Policy at PepsiCo, Inc. He is the former Executive Director for Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health at the World Health Organization.