New research shows how we can innovate our way out
of a double crisis
With widespread hunger continuing to haunt developing nations,
and obesity fast becoming a global epidemic, any number of efforts
on the parts of governments, scientists, non-profit organizations
and the business world have taken aim at these twin
nutrition-related crises. But all of these efforts have failed to
make a large dent in the problems, and now an unusual international
collaboration of researchers is explaining why.
Publishing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, the researchers argue that while hunger and obesity are
caused by a perfect storm of multiple factors acting in concert,
the efforts to counter them have been narrowly focused and
isolated. Overcoming the many barriers to achieving healthy
nutrition worldwide, the researchers argue, will instead require an
unprecedented level of joint planning and action between academia,
government, civil society and industry.
In particular, the authors of the papers in the PNAS special
feature propose an ambitious plan to remake the ways food is grown,
processed, distributed, sold and consumed. The plan focuses on
innovations that simultaneously take into account the needs of
farmers, the complexity of nutrition-related human biology and
decision-making, and the power of profit incentives in the
commercial sector. The result, the researchers say, is “a roadmap
for a transdisciplinary science to support change of sufficient
scale and scope” to carve out “an alternative path from tradition
to industrialization” — one that “promotes healthy lifestyles and
environments rather than undermining them.”
Global food output has doubled in the past half-century,
representing a nearly 20% increase in per-capita food supply, note
the lead article’s co-authors, Prof. Laurette Dubé of McGill
University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, Prabhu Pingali of the
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Prof. Patrick Webb of the
Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts
University. Yet the remarkable gains that flowed from the
improvements in agriculture — known as the Green Revolution —
have led to some new and unexpected health and nutrition problems,
while leaving others unsolved.
Hunger and malnutrition continue to plague the world’s poorest
populations. At the same time, an obesity epidemic is fueling
diabetes, cardiovascular ailments and other chronic diseases in
developed and developing countries alike, straining healthcare
systems and public finances.
How can 21st Century society do a better job of translating the
benefits of agricultural and industrial growth into improved
nutrition? That is the core question addressed by the
With the transition from traditional lifestyles and subsistence
agriculture to a Western-type diet and lifestyle now occurring
within a few decades in many parts of the world, new approaches are
needed to alleviate hunger and prevent rising obesity and
non-communicable diseases from undercutting these countries’
fragile health systems, the researchers conclude.
Among the paths explored in the papers are promoting fuller
integration of small farmers into national and global value chains
and health systems; fostering collaboration among business, civil
society and public organizations; and applying computer technology
and systems-science models to make new streams of critical
demographic, consumer and health data readily available to networks
of policy makers, producers and market entrepreneurs.
The authors also stress the importance of harnessing the profit
motive of the private market in order to unleash product and
marketing innovation that is focused on the need to change the way
people eat. “Business innovation as a catalyst for change is a key
to full and sustainable nutrition security,” says Prof. Dubé.
Taken together, the papers in the PNAS feature represent a
significant contribution to the growing debate over the obesity
epidemic, the globalization of food markets, and the role of food
companies in addressing health and nutrition problems.
The PNAS special feature grew out of a 2008 conference hosted by
the McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence (MWP)
with support from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The MWP
has been researching these problems for almost a decade.
The MWP recently co-hosted, with INCLEN Trust International, a
major workshop in Delhi, India. The meeting brought together
researchers, senior government policy makers, and top executives
from major multinationals to discuss innovative projects with the
potential to help curb hunger and improve nutrition and health
around the world. The most promising of those projects will be
further developed at an MWP gathering at the Rockefeller
Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy in late November.
For more information on the MWP: http://www.mcgill.ca/desautels/mwp/vision