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Cover of Building a More Sustainable, Resilient, Equitable, and Nourishing Food System

Building a More Sustainable, Resilient, Equitable, and Nourishing Food System

Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief

; Melissa Maitin-Shepard, Rapporteur.

Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); .
ISBN-10: 0-309-68524-9

December 2020

On July 22–23, 2020, the Food Forum of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (the National Academies) hosted a virtual workshop that explored the integration of the health, societal, economic, and environmental effects and future needs of the food system. Naomi Fukagawa, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), planning committee chair, provided opening remarks on the goals of the workshop and the Food Forum. The main objective of the 1.5-day workshop was to understand how to achieve a more sustainable, resilient, equitable, and nourishing food system. Workshop sessions examined three main dimensions of the food system: vulnerabilities, resiliency, and transformation. The workshop included discussions on global change, access to health and food, resiliency in complex dynamic systems and resiliency for the future, and consumption- and production-oriented strategies that could transform the food system.

As Fukagawa described, and the workshop agenda notes, the Food Forum convenes scientists, administrators, and policy makers from academia, government, industry, and the public sector on an ongoing basis to discuss problems and issues related to food, food safety, and regulation and to identify possible approaches for addressing those problems and issues. The Food Forum provides a rapid way to identify areas of concordance among these diverse interest groups. It does not make recommendations, nor offer specific advice. It does compile information, develop options, and bring interested parties together.

This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief summarizes the key points made by workshop participants during the presentations and discussions and is not intended to provide a comprehensive summary of information shared during the workshop.1 The views summarized here reflect the knowledge and opinions of individual workshop participants and should not be construed as consensus among workshop participants or the members of the Food Forum or the National Academies.


Patrick Stover, Texas A&M University, provided introductory remarks on the new expectations for the food system and highlighted several recent publications relevant to the workshop. As he described, the two main goals of the USDA Agriculture Innovation Agenda are to increase food production by 40 percent and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture by 50 percent by 2050.2 Stover pointed out that food systems, the environment, people, and the economy are interconnected and interdependent, and they all require a systems thinking approach.

Stover explained that the number of people globally who are food insecure is expected to increase, as are costly diet-related chronic diseases. Historically, the food system was designed to maximize production to fuel the economy, and now it must also achieve goals related to health, the environment, and agriculture. Advances in science and technology have allowed, and will increasingly be essential, for the food system to address issues such as nutrient deficiencies, chronic disease, environmental impact, economic sustainability, food supply diversity, food affordability and accessibility, and health care costs.

Stover highlighted a series of National Academies workshops and consensus study reports that provide background and context for the current workshop. The speakers at the 2012 workshop Exploring the Health and Environmental Costs of Food highlighted that our food system’s focus on reducing hunger and providing access to affordable, accessible calories has shifted costs into other domains such as health care, the environment, and national security (IOM and NRC, 2012). Stover stated that a systems approach is needed to address these externalities.

The 2015 consensus study report A Framework for Assessing Effects of the Food System facilitated making holistic, science-informed decisions about food system policy and practice (IOM and NRC, 2015). As shown in Figure 1, the report states that the food system is a complex, dynamic, adaptive system with goods and services flowing from farm inputs to the consumer, and money and demand information flowing from the consumer back to the farm inputs. Many actors, players, and domains influence these flows.

Conceptual illustration of the links between the food supply chain and the larger biophysical and social/institutional context, including flows in food systems.


Conceptual illustration of the links between the food supply chain and the larger biophysical and social/institutional context, including flows in food systems. SOURCES: Presented by Patrick Stover on July 22, 2020; IOM and NRC, 2015.

Stover also provided context regarding technological advancements that could transform the food system, including a reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, as agriculture accounts for 10 percent of all U.S. GHG.3 Referencing Rattan Lal, the recipient of the 2020 World Food Prize, Stover stated that a 2 percent increase in the carbon content of the soil could offset 100 percent of all GHG emissions. He also shared recommendations for other food system innovations that could reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, but he noted that they are not all cost competitive with traditional agriculture.

Stover also highlighted the 2017 consensus study report Guiding Principles for Developing Dietary Reference Intakes Based on Chronic Disease (NASEM, 2017). The report reflects a shift from using nutrient deficiencies to using prevention or management of chronic disease as the basis of determining nutrient needs. As chronic diseases are complex, a systems approach is needed to understand how nutrients, physiology, and metabolism lead to disease.

Stover suggested that improved understanding of the economics of the food system is also needed, as it provides 10 percent of U.S. employment and produces 5.4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP). Changes to the food system to achieve health and environmental goals will also need to be profitable.

As coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has affected the entire agriculture and food system value chain, the National Academies’ Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources held a webinar in June 2020 on COVID-19 and the food system, which featured former U.S. and California secretaries of agriculture.4 Key points from the webinar, as reported by Stover, are that the food system was not as resilient as it could have been in response to COVID-19; faster responses were needed to changes in markets and consumer behavior; people with diet-related chronic diseases are the most vulnerable to experiencing adverse health effects from COVID-19; and underserved minority communities, particularly those of whom work in the food system, have been disproportionately affected.

In conclusion, Stover stated that the new expectations for the food system are clear, and the highest level of science is needed to determine the paths for achieving them.


Session 1, moderated by Matt Liebman, Iowa State University, focused on the vulnerabilities of the food system, including the biophysical challenges, the social and economic shortcomings, and the need for an agroecological framework for improvement.

The first speaker, Cynthia Rosenzweig, National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University Earth Institute, spoke about the food system’s planetary boundaries and global change, with a particular emphasis on the effects of climate change. Rosenzweig stated that much of the work to address climate change globally has focused on crop agriculture, with less attention paid to livestock and fisheries. However, other components of the food system, such as food processing, supply chains, shipping, demand, and consumption, and the food loss and waste therein, also affect climate change. There is now movement to consider the food system in the context of the climate system, global ecosystems, and socioeconomic systems.

Rosenzweig pointed out that COVID-19 has highlighted the cascading effects of disruptions in production, supply chain, and demand in the food system. Rosenzweig explained ways that the food system is both successful and falls short in achieving food security and planetary health. She noted that expanding irrigation, fertilizer, and cropland; managing water, nutrients, and land; reducing food loss; and dietary changes to more evenly distribute calories around the world could allow the global food system to feed the world’s population (Gerten et al., 2020). Challenges in achieving this goal include competition for water between ecosystems and food production and changes in temperature and precipitation caused by climate change. Using rice as an example, Rosenzweig described research finding that high CO2 levels also adversely affect nutrient quality (Zhu et al., 2018). Livestock diseases are also affected by global temperature increases. Rosenzweig outlined several proposed solutions to address the effect of climate change on food production.

Rosenzweig closed by considering the parallel global systemic threats of COVID-19 and climate change, noting that while the former came on quickly and the latter slowly, they both disproportionately affect poor and minority populations and impact our food system and food security around the world.

The second speaker of the session, Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists, planning committee member, spoke about access to health and food. Salvador began by referencing the framework shown in Figure 1 and highlighted a real-world example, describing dimensions of quality, quantity, distribution, and resilience within the health, environmental, and socioeconomic domains.

Salvador emphasized the dynamic nature of the food system and noted that natural resource and human systems affect each other. In response to a natural disaster like a flood, Salvador pointed out, the impact on outcomes stem from human decisions in addition to the natural event. Socioeconomic outputs can be assessed in the areas of health, markets, public resources and policies, and public well-being.

Salvador used the example of meatpacking workers during the COVID-19 pandemic to further illustrate his points. He shared statistics about the high rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths among the low-income slaughter line workers, who are mostly people of color, lamenting that many of the infections and deaths could have been prevented. Salvador stated that the meatpacking workers were exploited because they were obligated to work in hazardous conditions, while the meatpacking plants demonstrated their significant political and economic clout in having the workers be designated as essential, compelling them to work without the company facing liability. Salvador concluded with a call to action for science-based organizations to recognize the data, apply the food systems framework, and advocate for policies that improve socioeconomic outcomes and resilience.

The final speaker of the session, Paula Daniels, Center for Good Food Purchasing, spoke about the need for an agroecological framework for the food system. She opened by briefly describing the work of the Center for Good Food Purchasing. As presented in her slide, the center uses “the power of procurement to create a transparent and equitable food system that prioritizes the health and well-being of people, animals, and the environment.” The center works to achieve this goal through the adoption and implementation of the Good Food Purchasing Program by major institutions.

Daniels pointed out that one intention in creating the Center for Good Food Purchasing was to increase the regional food economy, as most regions consume only about 5 to 15 percent of their food from local sources. The Los Angeles School District, with a $150 million per year food budget, adopted the program in 2012 and within 1 year went from purchasing 10 percent of its food locally to purchasing 60 percent, providing $12 million for the local food economy and creating 150 new jobs. The program is a lever for creating change in five aspects of the food system: (1) health and nutrition; (2) environmental sustainability; (3) valued workforce; (4) local economies; and (5) animal welfare.

Daniels also described externalities of the food system that are not included in the cost of the food. Beginning in about the mid-twentieth century, “diabesity”5 rates skyrocketed, the percent of the workforce involved in farming declined dramatically, and farm outputs increased while the number of farms decreased. Highly processed, cheap, unhealthy foods became America’s legacy.

With respect to food production, Daniels noted that current production exceeds global caloric needs, but the food is not equitably produced or distributed. She suggested that the United States move away from producing and exporting cheap, processed foods and consider food in the context of social and cultural factors, healthfulness, and availability. Sharing a framework from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and experts from Tasting the Future and the Global Alliance for the Future of Food,6 Daniels outlined differences in existing food systems thinking compared with new food systems thinking. For example, the existing food systems thinking is that “we” feed the world, while the new food systems thinking is that the world feeds itself as people are empowered to grow their own food. Daniels suggested that food be valued as a public good rather than a commodity, with values, rather than profits, being maximized. She noted that the United States ranks in the bottom half of 67 countries on a food sustainability index (The Economist Intelligence Unit and Barilla Center for Food & Nutrition, 2018) and suggested that it needed to do more to catch up to other countries. It also needs to embrace the 10 elements of agroecology, which, as described by the United Nations, is a holistic multidisciplinary view of the food system, encompassing sociology, economics, and history. Daniels closed her presentation by proposing a new narrative of a food system that is resilient and supportive of local food economies, its workforce, the humane treatment of animals, sustainability, and nutrition. She suggested that this vision could be achieved with a shift from primary dependence on an export model toward investment in a diverse, renewable, and regionally sustainable system, following the model of the shift toward renewable energy.

Panel Discussion

Following the three presentations, Liebman led a panel discussion with Rosenzweig, Salvador, and Daniels. When asked about the major vulnerability in the food and agriculture system, Rosenzweig stated that it is increasing climate events, while Salvador posited that it is socioeconomic disparities, as those with greater socioeconomic standing can better withstand challenges such as climate change. Daniels suggested that it is the corporate consolidation and vertical integration, as evidenced by Salvador’s example of the challenges that meatpacking workers faced.

To increase attention to food safety, Daniels and Salvador suggested using technology to improve transparency and traceability, which could allow contamination to be quickly identified and mitigated throughout the supply chain. Rosenzweig noted that climate change could increase microbial contamination.

In response to a question about research priorities, Daniels highlighted opportunities in environmentally sustainable animal food production through aquaculture and innovations in converting food waste to fish feed. Rosenzweig pointed to the need for improved response to complex, global cascading risks such as COVID-19 and climate change. Salvador recommended more research into agroecology.

An audience member asked how to best leverage the knowledge of Indigenous and Black farmers and other people of color in the food and agriculture system to ensure food sovereignty and agroecological health. Salvador responded that an important goal should be to provide more equitable financial resources to break the cycles of racial inequality, hunger, and poverty that repeat themselves over generations. Rosenzweig added that intergovernmental science bodies have begun to more intentionally include broader knowledge systems, including indigenous and local knowledge.

Addressing a question about the role of livestock in climate change, Rosenzweig acknowledged that with half a billion smallholder farmers around the world depending on livestock for their food and livelihood, there is a need to create just transitions to sustainable agroecological systems that include livestock in ways that are more resilient and responsive to climate change challenges.

Liebman concluded the session by asking the panelists to address vulnerabilities in water quality and quantity. Daniels posed the possibility of using retreated, recycled water in agriculture. Rosenzweig and Salvador pointed to the need for increased awareness that water systems are shared between agriculture and other ecosystems.


Session 2, moderated by Kristie Ebi, University of Washington, focused on the resiliency of the food system. Presentations during this session addressed topics of complex dynamic systems, resiliency in the food system, and needs for resiliency in the future. Stover began the session with a brief recap of his remarks from Session 1.

Following Stover’s introduction, John R. Porter, Agropolis Fondation, France; University of Copenhagen, Denmark; and University of Greenwich, United Kingdom, provided remarks on resiliency within complex dynamic systems. Porter opened by stating that robustness, resilience, and efficiency are important elements of a twenty-first century food system. He noted that climate change is the challenge that will define our future and that reducing GHG emissions will require both production and consumption strategies. He suggested that the goal for consumption should be “enough from less.” Porter shared four hypotheses related to system redundancy and resilience: (1) more from less does not lead to increased robustness, meaning system redundancy is a good thing; (2) increased complexity can and cannot lead to increased robustness and resilience; (3) decreased robustness leads to decreased efficiencies; and (4) increased robustness leads to increased efficiencies. He used different countries’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic as examples to illustrate these hypotheses.

Porter explained how production efficiencies for the economic and energy sectors could be calculated based on GHG emissions per energy, energy per GDP, and GDP per population (the so-called Kaya identity). He noted that since World War II, GDP per population has approximately doubled as GHG per energy and energy per GDP have decreased. He then showed how this methodology can be used to calculate emissions from the food system on a per area and per product basis, via the Kaya-Porter identity. Porter pointed out that, because of production increases, GHG emissions from soil and total GHG emissions per produced crop have declined since 1970.

Porter described three resource use efficiencies: (1) radiation efficiency, or how much dry matter is produced for a given radiation; (2) water use efficiency, or production per water used; and (3) nutrient use efficiency. He noted that these efficiencies are often considered separately, but they interact. He shared a framework that can be used to explore the trade-offs between them. As Porter explained, there are also trade-offs among wealth, health, consumption, and GHG emissions and that the Kaya and Kaya-Porter identities need to be joined to give a multidimensional picture of food production, consumption, and health.

Porter next described the difference between linear and circular food systems. He noted that with linear food systems, about 50 percent of the expected production is lost to waste at various points in the system. However, with a circular food system, losses are minimized and recycled back into the system. He noted that studies of circular food systems lag far behind research done with linear food systems.

Cynthia Daley, Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems at California State University, Chico, spoke about resilient properties in the food system from the perspective of the farmer. She opened by stating that farmers are in a time of crisis because of climate change, trade wars, and declines in commodity prices. Perishable commodity producers have been particularly affected by COVID-19 because they are price takers, unable to control input costs, and unable to switch to alternative markets; in other words, they are not resilient. On the other hand, local food systems are particularly resilient, and demand for local food is higher than ever.

Daley shared the example of the Sloot Farm in Minnesota, which, prior to COVID-19, sold hogs as a commodity but has since adapted and began processing the meat locally and selling it online. Demand through the local food system has outpaced supply. Daley suggested that a resilient food system should reward farmers for good stewardship and lamented that the current system is resulting in a loss of soil, nutrients, institutional knowledge, farmers, and species diversity. Referencing the report On True Cost Accounting & the Future of Food,7 Daley noted the need for better accounting of the true cost of our cheap food policy, which is efficient but not resilient. She suggested that regenerative farming could help to increase resiliency and reduce emissions, pesticide use, runoff, and nutrient loss. Daley highlighted several programs to help farmers increase resiliency, move toward regenerative agriculture, and reduce GHG emissions. She also shared photos that illustrate regenerative farming practices. Daley closed with the quote from Rattan Lal that was previously shared by Stover about the potential effect on climate change of increasing soil carbon content.

The final speaker of the session, Rosamond Naylor, Stanford University, spoke about resiliency for the future and blue foods, which are foods produced in freshwater and ocean aquatic systems. Naylor defined a resilient food and agriculture system as one that can quickly rebound in response to a stress or shock caused by factors such as climate change (drought, flood, temperature fluctuation) or market shocks (recession, COVID-19). When assessing resiliency, Naylor suggested one should ask: To what? In what? For whom?

With respect to COVID-19, Naylor suggested that hunger resulting from the economic impact of the pandemic may kill more people globally than the disease itself, with more than 1 million people in the United States using food banks for the first time. She also noted that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected workers at meatpacking plants, as Salvador described, and people with diet-related diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, both of whom are disproportionately people of color.

Naylor suggested that a resilient food system should focus on producing more variety rather than more calories, noting that aquatic foods can provide nutrients and protein affordably. Considering resilience within the context of an interconnected global food system, Naylor noted that growth in population and incomes drives demand for food, animal protein, and animal feed. More substitution options in production and consumption can help to reduce price variations.

Naylor explained that she is engaged in an assessment aimed at incorporating blue foods into international discussions on the global food system and evaluating the role of blue foods in nutritious, sustainable, and equitable diets. She noted that global capture fish production has remained relatively constant in recent decades, and that there has been more than a three-fold increase in aquaculture production in the past 20 years. More than half of capture fish production comes from small-scale fisheries, and more than two-thirds of farmed aquatic foods come from small-scale systems.

Naylor closed by noting sustainability issues associated with aquaculture feeds—a major sustainability issue in aquaculture. She stated that the ratio of fish feed to fish produced through aquaculture has dropped substantially in the past 20 years. A substantial portion of the feed now comes from fish processing waste, livestock waste, grains, and even algae and insects in some places, perpetuating the circular system.

In response to a question about ensuring food safety in aquaculture when waste is used as feed, Naylor explained that processing waste from one species is not used as feed for the same (or similar) species, and feed companies test the feed to ensure its safety. Food safety is a more significant issue in low-income countries, where human and other wastes are often dumped into aquaculture ponds. She also noted concerns with plants potentially contaminated with pesticide residues being used for feed.

Panel Discussion

After the presentations, Ebi facilitated a discussion among Porter, Daley, and Naylor. She began by asking about the key research needs to increase understanding of the resiliency of complex, adaptive systems. Porter noted that much work has been done on the consumption side of food security, and more research is needed on the production side and the integration of production and consumption. Naylor described the need for more research on both improving nutrition, food safety, and the environmental impacts of aquaculture involving lower-value fish around the world, and on the contribution of antibiotic use in aquaculture to antibiotic resistance. Daley added that there is a need for more socioeconomic research on how to implement the changes that are needed, including adoption of more sustainable practices by farmers and public policy changes.

Ebi asked about incentives that could help to more quickly transition the consumption side of the food system. Daley responded that increasing consumer awareness of the impact of production practices on nutrient density and GHG emissions could help to change behavior, noting that several brands are using this messaging as consumers are willing to pay more for food produced in a superior way. Naylor noted that a segment of consumers concerned about sustainability is driving change in global markets. Porter and Daley suggested that successes in changing social norms around tobacco use could serve as a model for food system change. Ebi and Naylor pointed to a need for greater understanding of motivations for consumer behavior and increased reliance on the field of behavioral economics. They suggested that leadership modeling positive behavior could also be influential, particularly for children.

On the production side, Porter suggested addressing climate change through macroeconomic changes such as the development of a carbon standard that values the economy on the basis of carbon stocks. Daley recommended incentivizing farmers to switch to a perennial farming system, noting that in the current system, farmers with fixed costs want to produce as much as possible. She also pointed out that nutrition labeling regulations that prohibit identifying the superior nutrient density of foods produced in certain ways disincentivizes changing production methods. Naylor added that farming only a small number of high-value fish species could have an adverse ecological impact, highlighting the need for more incentives to adopt sustainable approaches. An economist by training, Naylor noted that economics is often the “invisible hand” that spurs change for both producers and consumers. She also pointed out that being able to afford to eat clean, safe food is a global social justice issue, as some populations have to put access to safe food second to having access to food at all.

Ebi asked the panelists a set of audience questions about how to ensure food safety and reduce contamination. Daley suggested the use of remediation measures to remove heavy metals from farmland. Porter added that certain trees can be used to extract heavy metals from the soil, harvest the metals, and create energy.

In closing, Ebi asked for recommendations about where researchers can obtain funding and how practitioners can get started in implementing the priorities identified. Ebi and Daley both noted the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration. Naylor suggested using social media, approaching smaller, regional funders, and thinking creatively about how to solve problems, such as connecting food banks with local farmers.


The third session, moderated by Christian Peters, Tufts University, planning committee member, focused on food system transformation. Speakers addressed both production- and consumption-oriented strategies to transforming the food system and the policies needed to support transformation. Peters began by providing a recap of the first two sessions and an introduction to the third session.

Setting the stage for Session 3, he posed the question of the goals of food system transformation. Referencing the Brundtland Report, Peters defined sustainable development as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). He highlighted two key concepts from that report: (1) the essential needs of the world’s poor should be a priority, and (2) technology and social organization limit the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs. Peters shared the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), established in 2015, noting that they are an international agenda for achieving sustainable development and cover many topics relevant to food systems. Peters described how the 17 SDGs fit into the categories of (1) planet; (2) people, dignity, and justice; and (3) prosperity within agriculture and food systems. Relevant outcomes include food security and nutritional diversity, cultural diversity, ecological long-term stability, and sustainable agriculture systems.

Peters spent the rest of the presentation focusing on how to create a more sustainable food system. He outlined several production-oriented, supply chain, and consumption-oriented strategies for feeding the world’s population and achieving food security. Peters also discussed Figure 1, noting the supply chain elements and emphasizing the importance of working at multiple levels and within multiple dimensions of the food system. Addressing a question from Fukagawa about whether to start with food system transformation at the local, national, or global levels, Peters responded that he sees the effects at each level as the sum of the effects of the levels below. He suggested that the level at which to start depends on readiness for change.

Pradeep Prabhala, McKinsey & Company, spoke about incentivizing food systems transformation. Prabhala noted that progress toward the SDGs has been uneven, as food systems have focused on increasing production to address hunger and malnutrition and they have not made as much progress in protecting the environment and developing integrated health outcomes. He noted that the food system overall creates more cost than benefits, and many of these costs are borne by the health and environmental sectors. Transformation requires fundamentally changing the way food is produced and consumed, including getting 500 million smallholder farmers to change their farming practices and 7.7 billion consumers globally to change their consumption. Potential challenges to achieving these outcomes are economic, educational, and attitudinal. There are also ecosystem barriers. Prabhala suggested that effective incentives fund behavior change costs, mitigate transition or switching costs, and cover ongoing economic costs resulting from the change. He also noted the need to remove disincentives, including $100 billion in government subsidies for the agricultural sector.

Prabhala proposed four pathways to incentivize key actors to create a food system that is sustainable, nutritious, inclusive, and efficient: (1) repurpose public investment and policies (i.e., change how and why governments spend money and construct more effective policies); (2) business model innovation (i.e., change the way companies do business through technology, product, or business model innovation); (3) institutional investment pathway, such as investor-set standards for how the money is spent; and (4) consumer behavior change pathway, as consumer demand can lead to changes in other parts of the ecosystem. Prabhala noted that different pathways are appropriate for different countries and contexts, and there is a need to manage trade-offs in their implementation. He pointed out that many of these changes need to happen at the national, rather than international, level.

Prabhala emphasized the importance of considering how to activate the pathways and overcome challenges. For example, governments may make suboptimal decisions about food systems because of poor communication, limited evidence for interventions, lack of political will, stakeholder resistance, limited capacity, or transition costs. Prabhala shared examples of successful government case studies, including the Great Lakes Protection Fund, in which governors collaboratively invested in projects to improve the water basin, and the Save Water, Earn Money program in Punjab, India, that reduced electricity and water use in agriculture.

A risk with business model innovation is innovating while still making the economic model work, particularly if the innovation is more costly. With respect to the institutional investment pathway, Prabhala suggested that investors could do a better job of channeling institutional capital into natural capital, such as through the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program of the World Bank. With respect to consumer behavior change, Prabhala noted that there is a need for consumers to make sustainable changes, and businesses can better support them in doing so.

Philippe Caradec, Danone North America, spoke about consumption-oriented strategies. He noted that consumers are interested in the value proposition for products, and to be credible and authentic, companies should consider the entire value chain, including the agricultural input, food processing and production, brand commitments, and packaging. Sharing findings from the nationwide International Food Information Council’s Food and Health Survey,8 Caradec noted that about 60 percent of consumers want food that is produced in a sustainable way, and they use labeling and packaging, among other factors, to determine whether this is the case.

Caradec provided background on Danone, including the company’s 2030 goals. He noted that the company is the largest public benefit corporation in the world, as certified by the B Corporation, using business as a force for good. He also highlighted the company’s emphasis on partnerships, including its One Planet Business for Biodiversity, a coalition of 21 companies and organizations worth more than $500 billion that is focused on scaling up regenerative agriculture, product diversification, and supporting high-value ecosystems. Caradec noted that for a portion of its supply of milk in the United States, Danone has changed its business model to reduce the price volatility of milk by using a model that pays for the farmer partner inputs and guarantees farmer partners a specific profit margin, thus allowing the farmer partner to try changes in agricultural practices to increase sustainability at scale without risk to the farmer. Danone also works with farmers to support the implementation of sustainability practices. The Danone Horizon Organic brand’s Next Frontier Project, which is focused on regenerative soil health, farmer care and safety, and reducing the environmental footprint, has a goal of becoming the first carbon-positive brand by 2025. With respect to packaging, Caradec explained how Danone takes a circular approach and aims for 100 percent of its packaging to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Hildreth England, MIT Media Lab, spoke about design strategies for the future food system. Her presentation addressed the benefits of thinking like an artist and a designer and why inclusive co-design strategies optimize the food system for all people and promote resilience. She offered examples of using design to make an impact and co-design principles that are based on her research. England began by sharing an anecdote from her involvement doing user experience testing for a shopping app for mothers participating in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), when a colleague questioned the need for good design. This experience made her realize that good design is a collective good, and all people respond to and deserve good design.

England has dedicated her career to making design choices with the people for whom she designs. In considering how to achieve food system transformation, she quoted a former director of the MIT Media Lab as saying, “You can’t change culture by winning an argument. You change culture by changing hearts and minds.” Art and design are the heart of food system transformation, she stated. She explained that behavior change involves triggering emotions like desire that prompt people to act, and culture is “a collection of behaviors at scale shifted by creative perception and production.”

England described how one might approach the food system as an artist and a designer. She proposed the need for design strategies that integrate emotions into the supply chain, and she said that co-design principles should be optimized for both products and the people in the center of that chain. She noted that when people are engaged at scale, there is an opportunity to create a more equitable, modular, and sustainable food system. She also highlighted the importance of design co-creation, particularly with marginalized communities, to balance academic expertise with lived experience and provide for more equal and scaled distribution of the design benefits. The food system is built on existing inequities and injustice, and co-design allows for the creation of tools that support more equitable outcomes and help to build social resilience.

England shared a few examples of organizations that use codesign principles, including a playbook for guiding diners toward plant-rich dishes in food service from the Better Buying Lab at the World Resources Institute; a food environment choice architecture platform called Innit that brings consumer packaged goods companies, retailers, and home appliance manufacturers together in a digital platform; IDEO, which is a design firm working with The Rockefeller Foundation that designed place-based, people-centered interventions in the food system; and IKEA’s in-house research and innovation design lab called Space 10, which is exploring more sustainable food and food environment solutions. England concluded by recommending four questions to guide co-designs for food systems transformation, including whether there is flexibility in the designs for co-designers to make changes to stay resilient, to ask who is not at the table, and to ask whether new design is needed and who should develop the solution.

Following England’s presentation, Peters asked her for guidance on how to best bring in others as co-designers without implying that the designer has all of the answers. She responded that the design process establishes a power dynamic from the beginning regarding roles and expectations for solutions. She noted the importance of bringing the people who would benefit from the design into the process early and that the role of the designer should be to facilitate and capture the conversation and increase feelings of confidence and self-efficacy in those who are creating the solutions.

The final speaker of the workshop, Catherine Kling, Cornell University, spoke about policy approaches to enabling multiple pathways to change. Three key themes from her presentation were: (1) incentives, and primarily economic incentives, drive the food system; (2) efficient systems will often be more sustainable and resilient because they use scarce resources without waste to provide the most value; and (3) market failures, such as asymmetry or lack of information, require policies to correct them. Kling shared her goals for food system transformation, which were consistent with those presented by earlier speakers, and included nutritious diets, farm profitability and working conditions, environmental sustainability, animal welfare, and food safety. She also noted market inefficiencies, including (1) externalities, which are unintended side effects of market production or consumption that impose costs on others; (2) market power, as when a small number of buyers or sellers control the market and control prices; and (3) lack of information about the risks and benefits. Kling pointed out that there are many problems with the food system and each requires a different policy solution. She also noted that markets are agnostic about fairness and equity, and while these issues are not market failures, they should also be addressed through policy. For every problem, it is important to understand the incentive causes and identify the appropriate policy options.

Kling used a case study to illustrate her points about agriculture of the Mississippi River watershed, an area covering 40 percent of the continental United States and 57 percent of the farmland. More than 230 million acres of corn, soybeans, and wheat are grown in this area, most of which are used for fuel and animal feed, with only a small amount going to food. Water quality in many of the rivers, streams, and lakes is poor, with a significant reduction in wildlife habitat and biodiversity, and a dead zone the size of Connecticut in the Gulf of Mexico. Kling noted that addressing these challenges would require reducing and optimizing fertilizer use through pricing strategies, as well as changing farming practices through regulation, such as policy changes that would increase prices and improve alignment of incentives in the system.

Regarding the role of policy, Kling stated that policy should address the core problem as directly as possible. Multiple problems require multiple responses, she described, and one size does not fit all. Kling explained that policies level the playing field, allow for supply chain management, and facilitate implementation of consumer preferences.

Panel Discussion

Following the presentations, Peters facilitated a discussion with Prabhala, Caradec, England, and Kling. Peters began by asking the panelists which food system transformations require coordinated actions compared to isolated actions by individual companies or governments. Caradec suggested that actions by both individual companies and coalitions are needed, referencing Danone’s work in both areas. Prabhala and Kling noted that when it is difficult for an individual company or farmer to internalize the external costs on their own, a coalition or multisector collaboration may be needed. In contrast, in situations where entities that implement the strategies will realize returns on their actions, there is not a need for external actors. Kling added that individual farmers and growers can only afford to make costly changes when they are all required to do so and everyone’s costs increase simultaneously, leading to higher prices being passed through the chain. Prabhala noted that in situations where collective action is needed, it is essential for an entity to facilitate and organize the stakeholders.

Peters asked for input on the role of smallholder farmers in advocating for agroecology and in supporting and leveraging local and indigenous knowledge in food system transformation. Prabhala noted that there are different ways in which solutions can be scaled up, and different models will work in different settings. Caradec stated that outside the United States, many of Danone’s suppliers are smallholder farmers organized into cooperatives. England pointed out that allowing smallholder farmers to continue operating without having to scale up may make them more resilient. However, Peters pointed out that in many industrialized countries, farm size and scale are increasing, and farms may have to scale up to stay viable. Prabhala agreed, pointing out that even in places like Africa where there are a lot of smallholder farmers, there is a need to scale up when the entity is too small to implement interventions. He noted that technology and broader economic development can help to support the kinds of transformations in emerging markets that drive productive improvements among small farmers.

Peters asked about the role of behavior change in supporting dietary changes that lead to food system transformation. Prabhala noted increased interest in precision nutrition, which would allow for the provision of personalized advice based on someone’s genome. Caradec explained that Danone North America is using public policy to push for the adoption of a flexitarian diet with greater plant-based nutrition and less sugar. England added that influencing behavior change involves understanding the role of environments, emotions, and psychology in individual food choices.

The panelists had a robust conversation about the role of public policy in supporting behavior change. Kling suggested that the role of public policy is to provide people with accurate information and education to allow them to make their own choices, but it is not the government’s role to change people’s behavior. Prabhala noted that people often make poor choices because of lack of information or misinformation. Caradec added that public policies, such as nutrition standards for school meals, WIC, and others aligned with Danone’s stealth reduction of sugar in its kids’ yogurts, can also influence changes in the marketplace. He suggested that other food manufacturers also take action to improve their product portfolios. England highlighted how much of our food environment is shaped by policy, including whether a food is available in schools or where it is placed on a grocery store shelf. She pointed out that just because nutrition labels exist does not mean that people will use them at all times to make decisions. She suggested that punitive policies, such as soda taxes, may be appropriate when balanced with positive incentives. Prabhala agreed that there is a need for mechanisms that penalize people for behaving in ways that impose costs on society, such as incurring health care costs borne by government programs.

The workshop concluded with a final question from Peters, asking speakers about their views on shifting the definition of efficiency from getting more from less, to getting enough from less; he asked, “how do we define when is enough?” The speakers’ responses highlighted the complexity of addressing the different dimensions of the food system discussed throughout the workshop. England pointed out that it could be a question of policy and logistics—enough food is produced in the food system, but the challenge lies in the distribution of food to people in need. Caradec described it as a question of caloric and nutrient sufficiency. Prabhala approached the question from a perspective of analyzing the trade-offs between productivity and other consequences, such as environmental harm. ◆◆◆


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See https://www​.usda.gov/aia (accessed September 16, 2020).


See the National Academies’ webinar on COVID-19 and the Food and Agricultural System. Available at https://www​.nationalacademies​.org/event/06-19-2020​/covid-19-and-the-food-and-agricultural-system (accessed September 16, 2020).


Diabesity is defined as “diabetes occurring in the context of obesity” (Farag and Gaballa, 2011).


This Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was prepared by Melissa Maitin-Shepard as a factual summary of what occurred at the workshop. The statements made are those of the rapporteur or individual workshop participants and do not necessarily represent the views of all workshop participants; the planning committee; or the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

*The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s planning committees are solely responsible for organizing the workshop, identifying topics, and choosing speakers. The responsibility for the published Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief rests with the institution. The planning committee members are Naomi Fukagawa (Chair), U.S. Department of Agriculture; Kristie Ebi, University of Washington; Matt Liebman, Iowa State University; D. Julian McClements, University of Massachusetts Amherst; Carrie McMahon, U.S. Food and Drug Administration; Christian Peters, Tufts University; Sylvia Rowe, SR Strategy LLC; Kelsey Freeman Saelens, Cargill, Inc.; Ricardo Salvador, Union of Concerned Scientists; Patrick Stover, Texas A&M University; and Norbert Wilson, Tufts University.


To ensure that it meets institutional standards for quality and objectivity, this Proceedings of a Workshop—in Brief was reviewed by Naomi Fukagawa, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and D. Julian McClements, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Lauren Shern, National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, served as the review coordinator.

For additional information regarding the workshop, visit nationalacademies.org/our-work/food-forum.

Health and Medicine Division


The nation turns to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine for independent, objective advice on issues that affect people's lives worldwide.


SPONSORS: This workshop was partially supported by the National Institutes of Health; U.S. Department of Agriculture; and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with additional support from Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics; American Heart Association; American Institute for Cancer Research; American Society for Nutrition; Cargill, Inc.; Coca-Cola Company; Conagra Brands; General Mills, Inc.; Keurig Dr Pepper; Mars, Inc.; Nestlé Corporate Affairs; Ocean Spray Cranberries, Inc.; and Unilever.

Suggested citation:

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Building a more sustainable, resilient, equitable, and nourishing food system: Proceedings of a workshop—in brief. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25988.

Copyright 2020 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK564950PMID: 33270409DOI: 10.17226/25988


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