Newswise — 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 at Tufts University, 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 for 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.

Prof. Webb answers questions 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. 

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.

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.

How is the new Food Systems for Nutrition Innovation Lab going to help address these issues?

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.

It’s one thing to produce a green leafy vegetable or grow a fish in a pond—but they’re both highly perishable, prone to contamination, and relatively costly to the consumer. We need to find ways to scale up innovations, particularly in Africa and Asia, that can tackle these underlying problems, thereby addressing hunger, poor nutrition, and food emissions simultaneously.  

Our work is going to focus on a select number of low-income countries. We’ll be looking at innovations that have not yet been taken up at scale and which could make sure nutrients that are produced reach the consumer.

A lot of this involves storage technologies and improved processing, such as drying fruits and vegetables and fish, solar refrigeration, or enhanced packaging to seal in nutrients. Exciting ideas include using simple moisture meters to assess potential for mold growth on stored food or using new types of biodegradable, waxy paper—rather than plastic—to seal perishable foods more effectively.

Or discovering types of bananas or sweet potatoes that have longer shelf lives and making sure they aren’t left behind because their color or shape is less appealing. We will serve as a catalyst to these best-practice ideas and disseminate them to entrepreneurs and policymakers who can facilitate their wide-scale adoption.

What are some ways that individuals can contribute to greater food security for all?

Be more mindful of your food choices and think about how dietary patterns affect climate change. Even small changes, spread across 350 million people in the United States, can have a positive impact globally. Pay attention to food loss and waste. Be mindful that what you throw away—whether that’s greens or a roast chicken—doesn’t go to someone else to eat. Contribute to the food pantry and engage with national food banks.

You can also pay attention to how major food companies produce and sell their food, and the implications for their carbon footprint and human health. There are many credible sources, including apps that allow you to scan QR codes in the grocery store as you shop, that will give you that information.

It’s becoming harder and harder for an individual consumer to say, “I can’t make a difference because I don’t know.” The information is increasingly available—and that’s how individuals can contribute to the solution.

--Interview by Karen Shih