The hidden costs of nutritious foods

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The hidden costs of nutritious foods

The world’s current food systems have been producing relatively inexpensive calories. However, as we discussed in our previous article, the cost of nutritious foods remains high and thus unaffordable to billions in the world. To account for the hidden costs related to the production and consumption of food, we cannot only consider the cost and affordability of different diets. This is because all foods around the world, ranging from those that only fulfill dietary energy needs to those considered to be healthy and therefore nutrient- adequate, have hidden costs to them that we must understand in order to identify synergies and trade-offs that influence the attainment of other SDGs.

To begin, we will group these hidden costs pertaining to our dietary patterns and in the food systems that aid them, into two groups;

  • Hidden costs that relate to SDG 3 (the health-related costs for many people).
  • Hidden costs that relate to SDG 13 (climate-related costs incurred by the whole world).

The first hidden cost

Assuming the current patterns in food consumption continue, health costs that are diet-related and associated with the morbidity and mortality of non-communicable diseases are expected to exceed USD 1.3 trillion per year by the year 2030. On the other hand, a shift to healthy diets would result in a projected 97% reduction in direct and indirect health-related costs. This would create significant savings that could be used as an investment now to reduce the cost of nutritious foods.

The second hidden cost

Suppose the current dietary patterns persist, the diet-related cost of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is estimated to exceed USD 1.7 trillion per year by the year 2030. Adopting healthy diets would significantly lower the cost of GHG emissions in 2030 by approximately 41–74 percent. These healthy diets include sustainability considerations with lower hidden costs as compared to those of current food consumption patterns. There are various healthy diet patterns that can help reduce GHG emissions and thus allow people to adapt to climate. These patterns depend on individual preferences, country contexts, and in each country, the nutrient needs of different population groups.

A lady checking the cost of food while shopping in a supermarket

Healthy diets play an important role in improving the environmental sustainability of food systems. However, not all sustainable diets are always healthy, and not all healthy diets are sustainable. This important variation is often not well grasped and hence often misses from ongoing debates and discussions regarding the potential contribution healthy diets have towards environmental sustainability.

In some countries, the food systems also drive the rural economy. In such cases, care must be taken to alleviate the possible negative impacts on livelihoods and incomes, as food systems rebuild to deliver affordable healthy foods. In low as well as lower-middle-income countries, people still suffer from nutrient deficiencies and undernutrition. To meet the recommended nutrition goals and dietary needs and particularly prevent undernutrition, there is a need for an increase in the consumption of nutritious foods, although they might lead to higher national carbon footprints. In high-income and upper-middle-income countries, diet patterns surpass optimal energy needs and people indulge in more animal proteins than is needed. This calls for major dietary and system-wide changes in food production, trade, and food environments.

Dealing with the above hidden costs of diets is important as failure to do so would lead to a serious underestimation of the cost of attaining food security and nutrition, hence ignoring the challenges related to the achievement of global health and environmental sustainability. A shift towards healthy diets that as we have discussed, includes sustainability considerations, requires huge modifications in food systems, as there is no one-size-fits-all solution for countries. It is critical to assess context-specific barriers, manage short-term and long-term trade-offs, and exploit synergies. To learn more about nutrition in regard to achieving the global targets, enroll for a course in Food Security & Nutrition in Emergencies today and get a 10% discount!


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