Optimizing Our Food System for Nutrients…
Rafael Flor

Rafael Flor Former Director, YieldWise,

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April 18, 2019

Optimizing Our Food System for Nutrients Over Calories

Rafael Flor

Rafael Flor Former Director, YieldWise,

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April 18, 2019

This is Part 1 of our April 2019 series on building a more nourishing and sustainable food system. Read Part 2 here


Life is improving for most people around the world. According to the World Bank, the percentage of the world’s population living with less than $1.90 per day (the poverty line) dropped from 11.2 to 10 percent between 2013 and 2015[1], a great achievement. Yet, as economic prosperity rises around the world, diets deteriorate at an alarming and unprecedented pace.

Figure 1: Share of the Global Population Living in Absolute Poverty [1820 – 2015 in PPP]
After World War II, governments around the world established the current multilateral system—a global institutional form, and group of organizations, that coordinates relations among states on the basis of generalized principles of conduct, and made eradicating famine and hunger a top priority. That shift coupled with subsequent efforts like the Millennium Development Goals and Sustainable Development Goals galvanized political will and financial support to establish a global food system geared towards eliminating hunger. For decades, eliminating hunger was the foundation of peace and stability at the national, regional, and global level. The Rockefeller Foundation played a prominent role in that history. We helped launch the Green Revolution and supported its subsequent achievements while seeking to address the environmental and social challenges it created. These efforts were effective as measured by the decades-long decline of undernourishment around the world. And yet, those efforts have also been blindly fixated on a food system’s quantity at the expense of its quality or impact on the environment.

If we are to solve our nutrition and environmental crises, we need to start by addressing our daily food choices.

Figure 2: Prevalence of Undernourishment in Developing Countries [1970 – 2015]. Source: Our World in Data
While effective in terms of reducing hunger, these historical efforts have prioritized a system that optimizes for calories over nutrients. Calories have become so abundant in our food system that our psychology of eating and the nutrient content of our meals have dramatically changed—to the detriment of our health and our planet’s health. Food companies have invested heavily in marketing and increasing availability of energy-dense, nutrient-poor, and ultra-processed foods. Simply put, the collective focus has been on providing a growing population with sufficient quantity of food, without paying attention to whether that food was beneficial for human health or produced in an environmentally-friendly manner. The consequences created by this imbalance are dire. One in three people around the world is malnourished—suffering from undernourishment, over-nourishment, micronutrient deficiency, or some combination of the three. In 2017, 11 million deaths and 255 million Disability-Adjusted Life Years (or DALYs) were attributable to dietary risk factors[2]. The cost to human life is high, as is the economic cost. Worldwide, malnutrition costs $3.5 trillion annually[3], with overweight- and obesity-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, adding $2 trillion. [4]

Figure 3: Historic and Projected Obesity Rates [1970 – 2030]
If we are to solve our nutrition and environmental crises, we need to start by addressing our daily food choices. Our choices matter. What we eat—and more importantly, do not eat—is killing our environment and us. Improving diets could potentially prevent one in every five deaths globally [5] and bring balance to nutrients and processes in our environment so that we do not go beyond our planetary boundaries [6].


[1] https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty

[2] GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators. 2019. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990 – 2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Elsevier.

[3] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), State of Food and Agriculture 2013: Food Systems for Better Nutrition (Rome: FAO, 2013), http://www.fao.org/publications/sofa/2013/en/.

[4] Richard Dobbs et al., Overcoming Obesity: An Initial Economic Analysis (New York: McKinsey & Company, 2014), https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/how-the-world-could-better-fight-obesity.

[5] GBD 2017 Diet Collaborators. 2019. Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990 – 2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017. Elsevier.

[6] “Transgressing one or more planetary boundaries may be deleterious or even catastrophic due to the risk of crossing thresholds that will trigger non-linear, abrupt environmental change within continental-to planetary-scale systems

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