Food, agriculture and nutrition are intrinsically linked, holding the keys to saving lives lost to diet-related chronic diseases, and as we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic experience that exacerbated the effects of these diseases, it’s time to focus on ending this underlying epidemic of malnutrition. As policy discussion in Washington moves from food security to nutrition security, agriculture is the primary solution.
Health care spending by U.S. businesses grew from $79 billion to $1.18 trillion over the last 50 years. The treatment of diabetes alone (about $160 billion year) costs the U.S. government more than the annual budgets of many key federal departments and agencies. Today, half of all American adults suffer from diabetes or pre-diabetes, and 122 million Americans have cardiovascular disease, which alone results in around 840,000 deaths each year. These crippling costs affect every American.
The reality is that food security is not enough; we must focus on nutrition security for all populations. Low-income, minority and rural populations are disproportionately affected by nutrition-related diseases. With the coronavirus, people with diet-related chronic disease are facing more adverse outcomes when they contract the virus, underscoring the need to invest in addressing this underlying disease, its causes and practical solutions.
In addition to the diet-related chronic disease impact, disparities in access to quality food result in poor nutrition, which often translates into poor health. Before the pandemic, one in eight Americans faced food insecurity. Now, high rates of unemployment driven by the pandemic are expected to cause food insecurity for another 18 million U.S. children. Of all U.S. youth, 40 percent are soon to be food insecure. We must resist the temptation of telling people “what to eat,” but rather work within the cultural contexts of our many food systems and improve them — food is deeply rooted in our rich cultures.
A responsive agricultural and food system capable of adapting to changing demands to promote human and environmental health while being economically sustainable for producers seems, now, like an abstract concept. Yet, by keeping agriculture producers and researchers involved in the conversations about these challenges, we will be able to meet the needs of a growing population and changing environment.
Food systems can promote sustainable health and wellness, as well as developing responsive agriculture and food systems that meet the unique nutritional needs of our diverse population is critical. The diversity of the U.S. food supply (and the U.S. population) is one of our greatest strengths and sustaining this diversity is critical to our national security as well as to meeting the varied nutrition needs of individuals.
Despite our food system’s strengths, the pandemic has exposed vulnerabilities that underscore the need for more mechanization, distribution changes to enhance the adaptability of our system and the importance of a diverse food supply that promotes a more resilient system.
To lower diet-related health care costs and promote a sustainable and viable food supply, we must connect precision nutrition and responsive agriculture. Even the last Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s 2020-2025 Scientific Report emphasized the dearth of quality scientific evidence in nutrition. Nutrition is among the most complex sciences, with strongly linked biological and behavioral dimensions. Precision nutrition — the study of how people respond differently to food and nutrients — uses the latest scientific and technological advances to assess individual biological and social responses to food and health outcomes.
Our unique responses to nutrition are based on a variety of genetic, physiological, environmental and behavioral factors and change over our lifetime. Understanding which foods best serve the nutrition needs of individuals in given circumstances is possible through precision nutrition. Armed with high-quality evidence, we can shape agriculture production to meet the unique needs of individuals and diverse needs of our population in a way we’ve never been able to do before.
Research that bridges food, agriculture and nutrition and focused on fostering human health in an economically feasible way for farmers, manufacturers, foodservice operators, retailers and consumers is sorely needed. Quite frankly, past experiences and current science tells us that we have no other choices — the only way forward is with agriculture in a leading role.
It is time to bring precision and a higher level of rigor to nutrition research and recommendations because when it comes to nutrition, there is no average person. We need to keep nutrition connected to food – and the agriculture practices that produce quality food. Public health, and our economy, depend on it.
Patrick Stover, Ph.D., is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and vice chancellor and dean of Texas A&M AgriLife, which is composed of the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and four state agencies that provide agriculture and life sciences education, research and service across the state of Texas. He is also a member of the International Council on Amino Acid Science Scientific Advisory Committee and member of the Marabou Foundation Scientific Advisory Board.