For most people, the idea of “healthy food” sounds like a luxury—a premium product not readily available, and which might take some learning, some searching, and some budgeting. A shocking number of people (957 million) still face hunger, while many more (1.9 billion) have diets that degrade their health. This situation is an overwhelming market inefficiency, which puts individual lives, the wellbeing of communities, and even the stability of nations at risk.

In 2018, it was reported that only 12% of adults in the United States are “metabolically healthy”. That high incidence of dietary ill health corresponds to a high incidence of non-communicable diseases, which greatly enhance vulnerability to COVID-19. If large numbers of people are predisposed to worse outcomes from a novel pathogen, then infectious disease will spread faster, kill more people, and more deeply disrupt everyday life and the economy of the nation in question.

With the 21st century already showing itself to be an age of zoonotic pandemic disease outbreaks—the transfer of novel pathogens from animals to humans—poor diets are proving to be catastrophically costly. Managing and building back from the COVID crisis will cost the United States alone more than $20 trillion (counting lost economic activity, direct and indirect economic relief, quantitative easing, and longer term recovery and reinvestment measures).

Unsustainable industrial land use destroys habitat, degrades ecosystems, undermines biodiversity, and contributes to climate change. All of these are accelerators of food scarcity, and so will have the effect of multiplying overall vulnerability to diet-driven negative outcomes. Poor diets also create other system-level risks, including the depletion of human capital—a measure of access to health, opportunity, and inclusive prosperity.

In combination, these forces add up to a steadily escalating risk of resilience failure on a grand scale. COVID-19 is likely just the first of a wave of “Anthropocene shocks”—major disruptions of human and natural systems caused by unsustainable human activity. So, the question is whether we can turn around our unhealthy relationship to the economics of food, and how quickly.

After World War I and the 1918 flu, during the Great Depression, and again during the mid-20th century, hunger spread rapidly around the world. A coordinated response was needed, and a transition to modern industrial agriculture, with specific crops producing nutrients more efficiently, provided a solution.

Now, however, the economic benefit of mass production of low-cost food has shown itself not to be the most direct route to ending mass human suffering and fostering sustainable development. A different approach to food systems, at scale, is needed—one which values low-income and marginal communities as vital contributors to the wellbeing of all, and which recognizes healthy food not only as a right of all people, but as a driver of macrocritical resilience.

We can start from the insight that healthy food makes a livable future possible.

  • More nutritious diets—both in the quality of food and in the culture of avoiding unhealthy excess—build a more solid foundation for individual, community, and national health and wellbeing.
  • Elimination of chemical additives, especially endocrine disrupters, must be a priority.
  • Success must be measured not against the dollar value extracted from excess corn syrup, but against the overall health and wellbeing of people the food system is supposed to serve.
  • Financial incentives need to shift—both at the structural level and in the specifics of everyday investment and enterprise—to value alignment of human, ecological, and economic health.

Such innovations would constitute a paradigm shift in how we conceive of, invest in, and manage food production at scale: Instead of the poorest being seen as marginal and uninvestable, improving the quality of food for those who live at the margins of the mainstream economy would constitute the biggest expansion of new investable value on record.

The most valuable food and agriculture companies should be those that make it easy for people everywhere, at all levels of income, to access sustainably produced, whole foods, and to live safer, healthier lives. This means big institutions getting comfortable with:

  • decentralized systems;
  • human-centered and Nature-positive practices;
  • managing cost by maximizing overall resilience value.

Decentralization is critical, because vertically integrated systems optimize by trimming redundancies and selecting which beneficiaries have access to what level of quality. Decentralization also allows local organizations to actively deepen and diversify food system capacity for local job creation, local investment value, and the expansion of access to better diets.

Solving the climate and Nature challenges means we need to match planetary insights to local experience, with high precision, and that means local actors, spread across the landscape, need the agility that comes with economies of scale, access to integrated data systems, and innovative finance. Big institutions, and international trade flows, need to learn to connect to, serve, and benefit from small local innovators.

Data sharing, integrated systems, and deep diversification of value chains, in line with science-based targets for climate, Nature, health, and resilience, will be central. Learning from each other will reveal the most efficient means of honoring everyone’s right to know—the right to understand the health and environmental impacts of personal and political choices, and to make informed choices to improve lives.

Healthy diets are foundational for sustainable shared prosperity. That insight will drive tens of trillions of dollars in new climate-smart, resilience-building opportunity—if we make sure to bring the benefits of the transformation to everyone.