New research unveils the not-so-hidden costs of affordable food

The past half-century has seen dramatic changes in the ways food is produced, making diets more affordable for billions of people across the globe. But those gains have come with inequitable costs to human and environmental health, according to new research that points the way towards more sustainable ways to structure food systems.

In a recent study published in Nature Food, researchers compared food systems transitions for 155 countries by exploring changes that include rising incomes, increased urbanization, and intensified agricultural methods.

In nations with industrial food systems, nearly everyone can now afford a recommended diet. Diets are considered affordable if it costs less than roughly two-thirds of the median income. People living in countries with emerging food systems fair less well, with only 82% able to afford a nutritious diet. Those unable to afford nutritious food are most often located in countries with rural food systems.

But for the success in making food more abundant and affordable to billions of people, food systems have failed to deliver optimal nutrition and health outcomes, environmental sustainability, and inclusion and equity, according to researchers at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“Food systems have come a long way and achieved commendable food production, but the tradeoffs have been less nutritious food and accelerating climate change,” said lead author Ramya Ambikapathi, a nutritional epidemiologist at Purdue University. “Food systems are in a state of constant change at various levels—country, regional, city, local—and these changes are happening much more rapidly in some low and middle income countries so it’s critical that we understand current trajectories for responsive policies if we are going to deflect food systems in a positive direction that promotes equitable livelihoods, environmental sustainability, and affordable nutritious foods.”

The authors compared the shifts using five food system categories to track systemic changes from rural and traditional to industrial and consolidated. The shifts have led to major changes in land distribution, smaller shares of agricultural workers in the economy, and changes in diets towards processed foods. While food affordability is way up, nourishment has gone in the reverse direction.

“This research shows that while global food systems have provided affordable food, there is a need for a more comprehensive approach to agricultural development,” said co-author Paul Winters, Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame. “We need food systems that make nutritious food both available and affordable for all people, while ensuring these same systems minimize climate impacts.” 

The price we pay to our health and the health of the planet is staggering, and the costs are mounting.

“These trends show some success of modern food systems making food far more affordable. But the price we pay to our health and the health of the planet is staggering, and the costs are mounting,” said co-author Mario Herrero, professor of sustainable food systems and global change at Cornell University and a Cornell Atkinson Scholar. “The world faces a bleak food future if we don’t transform food systems with equity, nutrition and the environment at its core.”

Historically, the industrialization of food systems has tended to shift labor and capital from agriculture to more lucrative sectors. This pattern has powered societal changes that increase urbanization and productivity. With more urbanized populations come higher wages that push demand for more convenient, processed foods that are less nutritious. For example, the availability of per capita pulses is low among countries with modern and industrial food systems, while those countries also tend to have high ecological footprint of consumption.

Yet at the same time, the rise of middle-class consumers also increases demand for animal-source foods, fruits and vegetables that are more intensive to produce and have larger carbon footprints. One result, according to the researchers, is an industrialized food system with more greenhouse gas emissions and higher uses of energy to move, process and package agricultural production.

“Every country will have a different path to more sustainable transformation and these data suggest that there are lessons to learn for how countries have transitioned and how to potentially avoid some consequences for transitioning,” said senior author Jessica C. Fanzo, the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Food Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins University.

Additional co-authors include Kate R. Schneider, an applied economist and public health nutritionist at Johns Hopkins University, and Benjamin Davis, director of Inclusive Rural Transformation and Gender Equality Division, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

A version of this story was originally published at on September 22, 2022

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