Michigan State University (MSU) professor Scott Swinton was among more than a dozen researchers from around the country issuing a report that can aid policymakers and others who make decisions about the nation’s food system.

The report, from the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council, offers a framework for assessing the health, environmental, social and economic effects of proposed changes to the system.

Often, making a change that affects one part of the food system for one purpose has consequences – intended or unintended – for other parts of the system, the report said.  For example, a recommendation to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables to promote healthier diets raises questions about the potential environmental or social impacts of increasing their supply, such as a greater need for irrigation water or farm labor.  The framework encourages broad and methodical thinking about the complexity of the food system and its relationship to health, environment, society and the economy.

“We hope this analytical framework will be widely used by researchers, policymakers and others when they consider alternative policies or potential changes that affect the U.S. food system,” said Malden C. Nesheim, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and provost emeritus and professor of nutrition emeritus at Cornell University. “Such assessments can help ensure that the food system supports the health and the quality of life of our citizens and the sustainability of the environment.”

Swinton, associate chair of the MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics and a member of the council, said his experience working on interdisciplinary projects at MSU served him well in this effort.

“I accepted the invitation to work with this group with gusto because I enjoy partnering with thoughtful people from other fields to explore interdisciplinary issues,” he said. “This report provides a framework to identify potential repercussions of changes of policy or practices that policymakers or stakeholders may be considering. Two undersecretaries in the USDA have expressed the hope that this framework would affect policy in the future.”

The report recommends six steps: identify the problem, define the scope, identify the scenarios, conduct the analysis, synthesize the results and report the findings. It also includes a set of principles to be considered throughout all steps of the process:

  • Consider effects across the full food system. Positive and negative health, environmental, social and economic effects occur all along the food supply chain.
  • Address all domains and dimensions of effects. Any single assessment should consider health, environmental, social and economic effects and recognize that trade-offs between the various effects will often be necessary.
  • Account for system dynamics and complexities. An assessment should account for the food system being a complex, adaptive system with a wide variety of actors and processes that are interdependent and can adapt their behavior.
  • Choose appropriate methods.  Careful choice of metrics and methods is fundamental to conducting a meaningful assessment. These vary across health, environmental, social and economic effects because of measurement challenges specific to each of these domains. The report identifies selected metrics, data sources, analytical techniques and simulation models that might be used to assess a policy or action affecting the food system.

The report also offers six examples to illustrate how the framework might theoretically be applied to analyze actions or policies, including the use of antibiotics in animal feed, policies mandating biofuel blending in gasoline supplies, and recommendations for fish consumption and health.

Copies of the report are available for sale on the NAS website at http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18846/a-framework-for-assessing-effects-of-the-food-system.

The study was sponsored by the JPB Foundation. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted in 1863.