Diets play a critical role in transforming food systems. However, our current diets are neither healthy nor sustainable. Sustainable and healthy diets were proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission in 2019, but what is sustainable and healthy diet for the Chinese population? How can sustainable and healthy dietary patterns be promoted? These are the issues this report will focus on.
To address these questions, the Academy of Global Food Economics and Policy (AGFEP) of China Agricultural University, the National Institute for Nutrition and Health(NINH) of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention; the China Academy of Rural Development (CARD) of Zhejiang University, the Center for International Food and Agricultural Economics (CIFAE) of Nanjing Agricultural University, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU) and the World Resource Institute (WRI) jointly published the 2023 China and Global Food Policy Report.
Based on cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary collaborative research, the report highlights the close integration of international perspectives and Chinese practices related to sustainable and healthy diets and aims to provide policymakers, researchers, and practitioners of the agrifood system with systematic, scientific, and cutting-edge references for decision making and research.
First, there is high global consensus on the importance and urgency of shifting to sustainable and healthy diets. Sustainable and healthy diets will reduce risks both of being overweight and obese and of chronic diseases and cognitive disorders while reducing environmental impacts in terms of GHG emissions, water and land use, and nitrogen and phosphorus emissions. However, the current diets of Chinese residents are neither healthy nor sustainable, and there is an urgent need to promote the transition to sustainable and healthy diets.
Second, increasingly imbalanced diets of the Chinese population has caused nutritional and health problems that require close attention. Unbalanced diets lead to a rise in the risk both of being overweight or obese and of the onset of chronic diseases and morbidity; such diets are reflected in the insufficient intake of dietary fiber, vitamin A, calcium, and zinc throughout the country. The current dietary guidelines in China lack systematic consideration of the research on the Chinese population and residents’ dietary habits, and there is an urgent need to propose reforms and optimizations.
Third, current food consumption of Chinese residents imposes tremendous pressure on resources and the environment. Carbon emissions from total food consumption are estimated to increase from 1.18 billion tons in 2020 to 1.28 billion tons in 2030. Combining global food resources, reducing grain consumption reasonably, increasing fruit consumption, substituting meat consumption with soybean consumption, or adjusting the structure of meat consumption can significantly reduce pressure on the environment.
Fourth, global trade and investment in agriculture and food have affected the dietary consumption structure of Chinese residents. In the past 20 years, the trade of agricultural products between China and the rest of the world has reflected a steadily growing trend. Under the influence of international trade and investment, Chinese residents have increased the ratio of fat and protein in their energy supply mix and increased their consumption of sugary beverages, thereby raising the risk of obesity.
Fifth, a sustainable and healthy dietary transition requires effective intervention programs based on barriers to transition, goals, and target characteristics. A range of strategies such as information dissemination, behavioral interventions, economic incentives, and supportive policies can help drive behavioral transformation. Simultaneously, interventions should pay greater attention to the applicability and effectiveness of the programs and focus on specific groups and scenarios.
First, the national dietary guidelines should be optimized further by considering the dietary habits of Chinese population. Region-specific dietary guidelines should also be formulated for residents of different regions based on their common and specific problems of food and nutrient intake. Chinese population should generally increase their consumption of whole grains, fruits, and soy products and reduce their consumption of ultra-processed foods, refined grains and red meat. At the same time, the problem of micronutrient deficiencies in different regions can be improved in three ways: increase in the amount of nutrient-rich food, fortification of food nutrients, and supplementation of nutrients.
Second, optimizing dietary patterns from the demand side is also an important measure to facilitate the transformation of sustainable agrifood systems. With the goal of sustainable and healthy diets, the structure of food production needs to be adjusted: there should be a transition to green and low-carbon production methods. It is also urgent to cooperate with multiple departments to develop a regional guidance plan on “sustainable and healthy diets for residents” to guide the transformation of residents’ food consumption.
Third, it is important to guide investment and trade toward a nutrition-oriented food supply. Both domestic and overseas markets and resources should be used to promote China’s transition to a sustainable and healthy dietary model, which are Combined with foreign direct investment access policies and the inclusion of dietary nutrition improvement targets in World Trade Organization negotiations.
Fourth, highly targeted dietary intervention programs should be designed and implemented to guide concerted efforts of multiple parties to promote the transformation of sustainable and healthy diets for all. A national nutrition improvement plan can be implemented to strengthen nutrition education and guidance, pay attention to different groups of people and various consumption scenarios, and design targeted strategies for dietary intervention. Food education should be introduced to guide citizens toward nurturing good dietary habits and taking direct responsibility for their own health. Furthermore, a favorable market environment should be created to motivate consumers to choose sustainable and healthy diets, while policies, regulations, and financial support can encourage enterprises, institutions, and communities to build central kitchens to improve diets.