Photo of tomatoes sold by a woman at a market

Catalyzing change for healthy and sustainable food systems

This five-year, CA$11-million partnership aims to support healthier, more sustainable food systems in East Africa.

IDRC and The Rockefeller Foundation have partnered on a five-year, CA$11-million research funding initiative called “Catalyzing change for healthy and sustainable food systems”. The partnership aims to improve quality of life for low-income and vulnerable populations in East Africa who face the double burden of malnutrition and environmental threats like climate change.

The challenge

Climate change and global malnutrition are the predominant global issues of our time because they threaten all aspects of human development and environmental wellbeing, including the rights of people to safe, affordable, healthy, and sustainable foods. Understanding and improving global food systems lies directly at the intersection of global health, environmental sustainability, and equity for vulnerable populations, including women and girls.

Over the past five decades, global food systems and human dietary patterns have changed substantially, shifting from traditional diets predominantly composed of healthier, minimally processed foods towards diets loaded with ultra-processed foods. These dietary patterns are primary contributors to the rampant rise in global malnutrition and diet-related, non-communicable diseases like obesity. Currently, 14% of deaths in East Africa are attributable to individual dietary risks. If this trend is left unchecked, by 2030 it is estimated that deaths from diet-related diseases will surpass deaths from infectious diseases.

Transitions to unhealthy and unsustainable diets have not only increased the burden of obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases but have also contributed to environmental degradation and climate change. Unfortunately, the effects are experienced by the most vulnerable in society, with women and children disproportionally affected. These food systems and consumption transitions also damage and degrade natural ecosystems through exploitative and unsustainable land-use practices.

Finally, new dietary changes around the world are promoting or further exacerbating social and economic inequities, with already vulnerable populations disproportionately facing health and environmental burdens resulting from inadequate food systems.

Despite these challenges, research offers promising opportunities to leverage the power of food systems to improve population health and create more sustainable and resilient environments.

The partnership

“Catalyzing change for healthy and sustainable food systems” will look at ways to improve our  understanding of the complex interplay between the market competitiveness of different foods, individual and household vulnerabilities, and drivers of food purchasing habits in East Africa. The partnership will synthesize new evidence for multidisciplinary approaches that address the challenge of achieving healthy, equitable, and sustainable diets, and will analyze the means of curbing rising levels of malnutrition and diet-related non-communicable diseases.

Building on the collective experience of IDRC and The Rockefeller Foundation to invest in research in low- and middle-income countries, this partnership will support researchers and stakeholders in East Africa (initially Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda) to build more equitable, sustainable food systems while promoting healthy diets.

The research funded through this initiative will be high quality, interdisciplinary, and accessible. It will also be driven by local expertise and rooted in principles of social and gender equity, cultural sensitivity, and economic viability. Research findings will be aimed at supporting governments in East Africa and other key stakeholders in designing policies, regulations, and public education efforts to develop healthy, equitable, and sustainable food systems.

Within this overarching goal, funded projects will explore one or more of the following research areas:

  • Effective public policies and regulations

These include research to inform the This builds on successful global policies that have reduced the demand for unhealthy food products (such as taxation, labeling, and marketing policies) and applies lessons learned from these experiences towards stimulating demand for healthy foods.

  • Enabling business environments

Research that provides the economic rationale for businesses to invest in healthy and sustainable foods while making a business case for reducing or eliminating their investments in unhealthy, unsustainable foods. This recognizes that market forces are powerful influences on people’s diets and that business actors can and should be active and engaged participants in the design and promotion of healthy and sustainable food systems.

  • Empowering communities and consumers

Research aimed at to generate greater local demand for affordable and sustainable protective foods, and to promote effective and accountable public policies.