A Framework for Assessing the Health, Environmental, and Social Effects of the Food System

Type: Consensus Study
Topics: Food and Nutrition, Environmental Health
Boards: Food and Nutrition Board, Board on Agriculture and Natural Resources

Activity Description

The architecture of the U.S. food system carries many essential benefits such as providing varied, nutritious diets in a consistent manner and contributing to the economic development of communities. Yet, it also carries costs to the environment (for example, due to effects on biodiversity, water, soil, air, and climate), human health (for example, due to direct health effects, such as foodborne illnesses or diet-related chronic disease risk, and indirect health effects, such as those associated with air and water pollution), and society (e.g., due to effects on food accessibility and affordability, land use, labor, and local economies). Expert speakers at an April 2012 Institute of Medicine/National Research Council workshop on Exploring the True Costs of Food shared such tools and methodologies as life cycle assessment and health impact assessment that are designed to examine impacts. However, individual speakers at the workshop stressed the need for an evidence-based, integrated framework that systematically examines the complex relationships between environmental and health effects of the U.S. food system.

An IOM/NRC committee will develop a framework for assessing the health, environmental, and social effects - positive and negative - associated with the ways in which food is grown, processed, distributed, and marketed within the U.S. food system. The framework is envisioned as a systematic approach, using a variety of methods, to compare different configurations and their respective effects. Configurations may be activities, practices, or other aspects of concern within or across the food system. The committee will describe examples to illustrate the potential utility of the framework, and identify additional needs for its further improvement. This study will be useful in three ways: facilitating common understanding of the environmental, health, and social effects associated with all stages of the food system and of metrics to identify and measure them; forging connections between the agriculture, health, and environmental nexus; and, ultimately, enhancing decision making about agricultural and food policies and practices.

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