Measure it to change it

Rome, the United Nations’ capital of food, provided the arena in which the EAT Initiative, together with the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Global Forum for Agriculture Research (GFAR) and World Health Organization (WHO), hosted an Expert Workshop on Integrated Metrics for Healthy and Sustainable Diets. The workshop was held on November 21st 2014, in conjunction with the 2nd International Conference on Nutrition (ICN2), in the aim to advance evidence-based, integrated metrics that would help defining the constituting elements of healthy and sustainable diets.

Dr. Francesco Branca (Director of Nutrition for Health and Development, World Health Organization), Tom Arnold (Coordinator, Scaling Up Nutrition) and Professor Tim Lang (Professor of Food Policy, City University London), each chaired an hour-long session at the workshop, facilitating fruitful and in-depth discussions which resulted in concrete ideas for how to move forward in developing a such integrated framework.

The expert participants shared the view that an urgent research need is to identify and promote diets that enable to meet public health, sustainability as well as socio-economic goals.  In order to do so, a primordial task for these research communities is to develop a holistic framework of indicators on health, nutrition and sustainability that collectively define what constitutes healthy and sustainable diets, and enable to measure the health and sustainability impacts of specific diets across the various steps in the food supply-chain.

Participants highlighted that such a framework could be instrumental in addressing the current confusion of non-expert actors amidst the existing plethora of fragmented indicators, indices, codes, guidelines and certification schemes.

The workshop had set up the ambitious objective of agreeing on the range of key indicators to incorporate in the framework, as well as starting to explore the possibility of setting evidence-based indicator boundaries that would demark the “healthy and sustainable diets zone”. Given the inherent complexity in achieving this objective, however, the participants rather identified key considerations to be made when developing the integrated indicator framework, and agreed on a collective approach for advancing this effort:

  • The indicator framework needs to be useful for all major actors in the food system in order to achieve transformative (system-level) change. Therefore, specific metrics should be developed within the framework for specific target audiences (including consumers, industry, and policy-makers).
  • Not all metrics are appropriate to all levels of governance; a bottom-up approach is thus required, whereby specific indicators and indicator thresholds will need to be developed at local/regional levels, reflecting the social, economic, cultural and environmental conditions in the studied area. At global level, a set of universal indicators can be developed.
  • Process indicators should be developed along with indicators oriented towards specific outcomes.
  • The indicator framework should be sub-divided into the various stages along the food value-chain, in order to identify stages in which impacts could be reduced. Such an approach would also fulfill the potential need to flip the value-chain on it’s head and conduct upstream analyses, from fork to farm.
  • The framework needs to include indicators within the following dimensions: (i) social, (ii) cultural/ethical), (iii) health/nutrition, (iv) environment and climate, (v) economic, and (vi) quality (other elements besides nutritional value).

The workshop rapporteurs will produce a detailed report, with a concrete road map for how the outcome of this workshop will be taken further within the scope of EAT research across its partner network.