Food Environment and Consumer Behavior

The food environment is the complex physical and social space where consumers make our food choices. Unfortunately, today’s food environment is driving two billion people to suffer from malnutrition in the form of hunger, obesity and micronutrient deficiencies, while current food production creates around 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

2019 saw the Alliance jump-start the global discussion on diets that ensure both humans’ and the planet’s health, pore through statistics to map food system sustainability and analyze healthy food access in rural and urban regions. This work across Latin America, Africa and Asia is improving understanding of the food environment and consumer behavior to help make food systems healthier and more sustainable.

Setting the stage for a Transformation: The EAT-Lancet Report

Diverse table in Yunnan, China. Bioversity International/B.Samors

The EAT-Lancet Report ignited discussion and debate that continues over a year after its initial appearance in newspapers worldwide. The report, which represents the collaboration of 30 scientists with expertise ranging from environmental science to human health, is the first full scientific review of what constitutes a healthy diet from a sustainable food system.

A graphic from the report illustrates the relationship between human health and planetary boundaries. EAT-Lancet Commission

Advocating for shifting production from high quantity of food to diverse, healthy foods, the report proposed the “universal adoption of a planetary health diet.” This call to action made waves in the media, and while controversial, brought much-needed attention to the relationship between what we eat and how it impacts our environment.

In addition, the report proposed targets specifically related to food’s role in global change, linked to six key Earth system processes:

  • climate change (greenhouse gas emissions)
  • nitrogen cycling (nitrogen application)
  • phosphorous cycling (phosphorous application)
  • freshwater use (consumptive water use)
  • biodiversity loss (extinction rate)
  • land-system change (cropland use)

The EAT-Lancet report set the stage for a wider discussion on planetary health and diet. Continued research is essential to add further context-specific nuance to this dialogue, which continues to evolve amid heightened awareness of our food systems’ vulnerabilities.

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A new world map for food system sustainability

Many experts doubt that our current attempts at feeding the planet are sustainable. But our understanding of what makes food systems sustainable (or not) is limited, and comparing food system sustainability between countries and regions is complicated.

The global map of food system sustainability for 20 indicators and 97 countries. CIAT/C.Béné

In the first study of its kind, Alliance researchers pored through countries’ official statistics and the scientific literature to create a world map of food system sustainability. They found, perhaps unsurprisingly, that wealthier nations have the highest scores, while many nations across the Global South fared poorly. They also discovered that a dearth of available data means that about half the nations on Earth cannot know how sustainable their food systems are.

The research comes at a critical moment in history. Because the data establish a baseline, researchers and policymakers can better understand whether a nation’s food system security is improving or declining. Understanding this will be critical over the long term as human populations grow and ecosystems needed to produce food come under increasing stress. The baseline also gives researchers a tool to evaluate system sustainability in the face of major shocks like the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study poses new questions to change diets for the health of the planet. While it is one thing for resource-rich nations to guide citizens toward plant-based diets, it is entirely another to prescribe similar recipes to millions of people who require animal protein to stay healthy. Socioeconomic variables of sustainability were key to creating the indicator.

The research was published in Scientific Data, a Nature journal in November 2019. Within weeks, it became the second-most downloaded paper of the year for that journal. It was also one of the Alliance’s highest-scoring papers on Altmetric, which rates online attention to scientific journal articles. News organizations including Fast Company, Mongabay, and UPI covered this study.

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Bringing diversity from farm to table in Kenya


Diversity can be found in the field and on the table. But what exactly is the correlation, and how does it affect children, who are often the most vulnerable to malnutrition? Alliance researchers in Kenya went door-to-door to find out.

Two studies (published by PLOS ONE and Maternal & Child Nutrition) detail the work of Alliance scientists in Vihiga, Kenya, who surveyed 634 smallholder households to assess the local prevalence of agrobiodiversity (with different crops including 80 species harvested from the wild), along with child dietary diversity.

Survey results showed that one in four children did not meet the minimum dietary quality score, with notable deficiencies in zinc, iron, and calcium. But the analysis also showed a positive correlation between agrobiodiversity and dietary diversity, suggesting a yet untapped opportunity to use naturally occurring resources to improve food security and child health.

A child holds a nutritious cassava root. Bioversity International/Y. Wachira

With a focus on benefiting the community’s women and young children, the team developed an integrated participatory approach in which communities developed and implemented their own action plans to improve diet quality through farm diversification. This was done in collaboration with local health or agricultural extension workers, a local NGO, and researchers.

Women took leadership roles in action plans that included poultry raising and kitchen gardening, which included traditional leafy vegetables and legumes. They also received education on nutrition.

Beatrice, a Kenyan widow farmer, grows local medicinal herbs, green vegetables and potatoes and leads a local farmer self-help group. Bioversity International/E.Demartis

A year into the project there has been significant improvement in dietary diversity scores for women and children. Also, the percentage of children meeting minimum dietary diversity has increased, demonstrating the potential for innovative approaches to empower community members to utilize agrobiodiversity. Based on this success, the project is being scaled up to include Turkana, Kenya, and Tigray, Ethiopia, with funding from GIZ.

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Can a market-based approach fix malnutrition among the urban poor?

Perhaps nowhere is the “triple burden” of hunger, obesity and micronutrient deficiency more pronounced than among the urban poor. In the poorest areas of African cities such as Kampala, Uganda and Nairobi, Kenya consumers spend a disproportionate amount of their money on food, and in many cases the food in their price range is of poor nutritional value, making it a key factor in a slew of health problems.

Until recently, very little was known about the so-called base of the pyramid, a term used by economists to refer to the poor majority that makes up a group of consumers in a given area. Among other insights, Alliance researchers made a critical finding: that poor consumers are willing to pay a premium for healthier food. This suggests that market forces can play a role in improving the diets of the urban poor.

The locally produced porridge helps improve community health at the “base of the pyramid”. CIAT/S.Mattson

The market research became key to developing nutritious and affordable alternatives for poor consumers in the capitals of Uganda and Kenya, who often fill their bellies with porridges made from maize. In an unlikely partnership between local food startups, nearby farming cooperatives, and Alliance scientists, two new porridge products reached consumers in Kampala and Nairobi.

The products were successful and were in high demand from women’s groups and healthcare workers who valued the nutritional value of the porridges, which were made from beans, amaranth, maize, millet, soybeans, and other locally produced grains. The multidisciplinary, ground-up approach to solving a nutritional problem could prove revolutionary. “Traditional approaches of many aid organizations simply aren’t sustainable,” said Matthias Jäger, one of the Alliance researchers involved in the project. “We wanted a 100 percent market-based approach.”

The Super Kawomera factory in Kampala, Uganda, uses locally sourced grains for porridge. CIAT/S.Mattson

Stella Namazzi, an Alliance economist in Uganda who was involved in the research, estimates that the base-of-pyramid market for affordable, nutritious food in Kampala could be as high as 2 million people. “Demand is going to grow,” she said. But enabling factors such as policy and climate change adaptation are critical. “The risk is on the production side, especially with unreliable weather.”

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Moving closer to Zero Hunger in Vietnam

Vietnam has taken ambitious strides toward improving the health and nutrition of its poorest households. By 2025, the country hopes to be well on its way to meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger, or SDG2.

Our Vietnam research seeks to address food waste and accessibility for people living in cities and urban slums. CIAT/G.Smith

Alliance scientists are supporting Vietnam’s National Action Plan for Zero Hunger by gathering, synthesizing, sharing, mapping, and making accessible food system data in the 1,000 communities the country has targeted for the country’s initiative, which is led by Vietnam’s National Institute of Nutrition.

“This collaboration is one example of how governments and academic institutions work together to achieve shared goals of sustainability, nutrition, and health, which are essential to development in agriculture and food security,” said Mark Lundy, the Alliance research director for Food Environment and Consumer Behavior.

In 2020, researchers from the Alliance will assist in constructing a web-based database of the Zero Hunger plan to reach more stakeholders. This work is done in collaboration with the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, or A4NH.

Culinary diversity for nutrition

Vietnamese cuisine is globally renowned for its diversity and supporting its rich culinary tradition is one way to improve diets as they become more based on processed food and unhealthy. Alliance researchers found that communities can solve some nutritional challenges by consuming more locally produced foods, including dark green leafy vegetables, other vitamin-A rich vegetables, and legumes.

Diverse food systems in Vietnam are supported by traditional and modern food markets. CIAT/T.Huyen/M.Romero

After identifying these products and encouraging “diversity clubs” to meet and consume more local produce, 37 percent more women and 18 percent more children met minimum dietary diversity scores set by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

In 2019, the Alliance completed the partial food systems baseline survey and food systems profiles in urban, peri-urban, and rural sites in Vietnam.

It was a productive year for nutrition research for the Alliance in Asia, with projects including seed system development in ethnic minorities, increasing fruit and vegetable intake in low-income communities through food system innovations, and studying food flows through free WiFi and big data.

Other noteworthy research included articles on child stunting and potential leverage points in sustainable diets in Vietnam.

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