Opinion: We need to transform how we grow, market, consume and dispose of our food, and fast.

We need to transform how we grow, market, consume and dispose of our food, and fast, according to two major reports in the Lancet earlier this year and two follow-up international conferences I recently attended.

Food systems generate over half New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions, damage our environments by polluting rivers and collapsing biodiversity, and drive up our obesity and diabetes rates. On the other hand, agricultural exports contribute greatly to our national wealth and diverse cuisines contribute greatly to our cultural richness. Our future food systems must continue to add to our wellbeing while fundamentally changing those aspects which damage our health and our environments. Fiddling around the edges will not get us there.

We need to re-orient all aspects of our food systems to deliver much better outcomes.

How can intensive dairy operations reduce the methane belched into the atmosphere and pollution run-off into our rivers? How can our fisheries reduce the overexploitation of many species to below sustainable levels? How can we bring sustainability into nutrition education so people can choose foods for their health and the environment's health? How can we make children's food environments healthy by default and stop junk food ads targeting children? How can food retailers, restaurants and households reduce the one third of food we throw away – most of it ending up in landfill and producing more methane? How can we build on our existing diversity of cuisines so that we celebrate the ways that they contribute to our enjoyable, healthy, sustainable food cultures of the future? How can we add real substance to our seriously tarnished clean/green image by exporting sustainably-produced, healthy, whole foods that fetch a premium price?

Despite being so central to all aspects of our wellbeing, the word "food" barely appeared in our first Wellbeing Budget – not in the Budget, the Living Standards indicators, the mental health report, or the Government's response to it.

Professor Boyd Swinburn School of Population Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences

Many people have very good answers to these questions but first we need to collectively understand the urgent need for systemic transformation and then provide the platforms for those solutions to come forward and be implemented.

In 2013, I attended a joint meeting on food of two UN agencies: the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO), which was principally focused on helping farmers increase the volume and efficiency of their agricultural production, and the World Health Organisation, which was trying to reduce the still-high rates of undernutrition and ever-growing rates of obesity.

I could not believe how resistant FAO was back then, even to the gentle concept of "nutrition-sensitive" agricultural policies. Their old-school agricultural blindness to the health and environmental damage caused by food systems came from their fixation on the metrics of increasing dollar profits and tonnes per hectare production.

Now, in 2019 at their Future of Food Systems conference in Rome, the FAO rhetoric has changed remarkably. Its mission is re-focused on food systems which promote health, social equity, environmental sustainability, and economic prosperity. That meeting was immediately followed by the EAT Forum for healthy and sustainable diets in Stockholm – a similar science-based conference but with a more upbeat and entrepreneurial flair than the stodgier FAO affair.

New Zealand featured at the EAT Forum because our Wellbeing Budget was seen as a platform to highlight major societal and environmental issues alongside GDP growth and traditional budgetary balances. New Zealand was also hailed because our Ministry for the Environment had an official delegation in Stockholm to find the best science available to inform the very tough decisions ahead for New Zealand. This proactive, science-based approach to our food system challenges shows excellent leadership by the ministry.

By 2050, food systems will be transformed whether we like it or not. One option is to sit back on our 20th century thinking and leave the destiny of our food systems to others. Let the climate crises, world politics, carbon and methane accounting systems, global trade arrangements, environmental labelling for food and many other factors dictate the conditions for our food systems.

The other option is to take the lead ourselves and to explicitly apply our Kiwi values, our best science, and our renowned innovation to create healthy, sustainable, equitable and prosperous food systems.

Despite being so central to all aspects of our wellbeing, the word "food" barely appeared in our first Wellbeing Budget – not in the Budget, the Living Standards indicators, the mental health report, or the Government's response to it.

We have no national food policy. We have no central food agency pulling together all the ministries and agencies dealing with food. Yet food is everywhere. We urgently need a coherent national vision for our future food systems and revising our food-based dietary guidelines to include environmental sustainability would be a very good start.

Boyd Swinburn is a professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland. This article reflects the opinion of the author and not the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from the New Zealand HeraldBoyd Swinburn: Drastic change in our food systems needed, published on Tuesday 2 July, 2019.