The food system is a complex web of activities involving production, processing, transporting and consumption. Issues concerning the food system include governance and economics of food production, its sustainability, the degree to which we waste food, how food production affects the natural environment and the impact of food on individual and population health. In other words, food systems should sustainably deliver healthy diets.
There are five food system types: Informal and expanding, emerging and diversifying, modernising and formalising and industrialised and consolidated.
These food system types correspond with income groups, but most countries have a mix of systems: Africa has four of the five types, Asia all five and Europe three types. Consumption of whole grains and pulses is common in the rural and traditional food system. Diets low in cereals and starchy foods are more varied with an increase in nutrient-dense foods, as well as higher intakes of processed foods and are common in the more affluent food types.
The food systems have subsystems within them like farming systems, agricultural ecosystems, economic systems, social and social systems. Food systems also face challenges that threaten sustainable food production. These challenges include population increase, urbanisation, competition for land, energy and water, unsustainable food production (overfishing, erosion) population health manifesting as poor-quality diets (hidden hunger and non-communicable diseases like obesity). It is important to note that the food system essentially refers to how food is produced and consumed but also the processes and infrastructure required to feed a population.
The Nigerian government embraces sustainable food system approaches in its policy and programmes to address malnutrition problems in the country. Food systems approaches take a holistic understanding of all activities and processes involved in food production, processing, storage, transportation, trade, transformation, retail and consumption.
Actions by the government to improve the nutrition situation in the country include the National Policy on Food and Nutrition (2016), which uses a multisectoral approach to tackle the problems of malnutrition identified and leverages on food systems to combat malnutrition and the Agriculture Food and Nutrition Strategy launched in 2017. Likewise, the health sector launched the National Strategic Plan of Action on Nutrition (NSPAN) to focus on the health sector component of the policy.
Other efforts prioritise expanded access and use of biofortified crops such as pro-Vitamin A cassava and orange-fleshed sweet potato.
Despite the various interventions by the government to boost food production, Nigeria’s food systems are plagued by constraints like weak institutions and infrastructural deficits, which limit food production. Rates of malnutrition are high with stunting at 37 per cent. A lot more needs to be done to make the food systems responsive and provide Nigerians with high quality, safe and sustainable diets.
In recent years, Nigeria has recorded a high burden of non-communicable diseases. A major concern is to ascertain if nutrition has contributed to any of these.
This rise can be attributed to several factors – genetics, diets, physical exercise, environment, to mention a few. Diet plays a key role, namely the amounts of dietary fats (mainly saturated fats), salt and sugar consumed. Likewise, low consumption of fruits and vegetables that have protective effects play a role.
Urbanisation is a key factor that has changed nutritional practices. These days, most people hardly have time to prepare meals at home. Consequently, people consume mainly ready-to-eat food or street food. These foods have different levels of quality (in terms of nutrient composition) and safety (exposure to microbes). In urban centres, fast food outlets have high patronage. A look at the menus reveals calorie-dense food, with high levels of salt and sugar. In other words, we tend to consume more processed foods that do not necessarily meet our nutritional requirements.
These days, food lacks adequate amounts of fruits and vegetables with all the benefits but contain more foods of animal origin. Our diets lack the variety needed for healthy living. A suggested rule is this: the more the variety of colours on a plate, the healthier it is.
Dietary fats play a key role in the human body. First, fats are an important source of calories, providing the body with more energy (9kcal/g) than either carbohydrates or proteins (4kcal/g) can. Second, they are a source of essential fatty acids which the body cannot make itself. Third, fat aids absorption of vitamin A, D and E. Fourth, fatty acids participate in tissue metabolism, hormonal and other signals, regulation of membrane structure and function as well as a host of other physiologic functions. We should bear in mind that there are many compounds necessary for metabolic processes that the body makes from fats like cholesterol.
Our diets comprise saturated fats and unsaturated fats. For healthy living, the proportion of unsaturated fats should be higher than saturated fats which are found mainly in foods of animal origin. Most oils from plants and fish are unsaturated and, therefore, healthier for consumption. We should aim to include foods with high levels of mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil, rapeseed oil and nuts (especially groundnuts and almonds). These fats protect the heart by maintaining levels of high-density lipo-proteins (HDLs).
In recognition of the dangers posed to human health by consumption of saturated fats or trans fats, the WHO called for the elimination of these harmful substances from our food supply and diets.
Trans-fat is an industrial product and elimination from the diet can only be through specific policy provisions and regulations that have stringent indicators for monitoring compliance. While we can create awareness to sensitise people about the dangers of consuming trans-fat, real progress will come when there is a policy that makes the product unavailable to the public.
Dr. Lekan Olubajo, a human nutritionist from the University of Ibadan, is currently a consultant in Abuja. He can be reached via Leks.email@example.com.