The Food Systems Dashboard is a new tool to inform better food policy

The Food Systems Dashboard brings together extant data from public and private sources to help decision makers understand their food systems, identify their levers of change and decide which ones need to be pulled.

The Global Burden of Disease study showed that unhealthy diets contribute to 11 million deaths per year. The double burden of malnutrition — the coexistence of overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases with underweight, micronutrient deficiencies, wasting and stunting — is being driven by changes in food systems and in some cases increased availability of cheap, highly processed, nutrient-poor foods, impacting the lowest-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa, South and East Asia, and the Pacific the hardest.

Diets are shaped by food systems. Food systems are made up of all the people, institutions, environments, infrastructure and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, marketing, sale, preparation and consumption of food. Food systems are intrinsically related to health, environment, culture, politics and economy. The food systems framework depicts these outcomes as well as characteristics such as food availability and affordability and personal knowledge, preferences, resources and behaviours (Fig. 1). Policy interventions that address one part of the system will impact many outcomes that food systems contribute to. Importantly, actions can have both unintended consequences and multiple benefits due to this interconnectivity.

Though there is widespread agreement that our food systems are unsustainable, identifying ways to change and improve them is difficult. Food systems are complex and offer many entry points for change. Additionally, even when actions have been identified, they often lack public acceptance and may not be politically feasible. However, it has been found that policies can be modified or combined in ways that increase their acceptance and, therefore, policy packaging is an important strategy to make policies both effective and politically feasible. Policymakers, non-governmental organizations, civil society leaders and other actors do not currently have a holistic tool to enable visualization of their own national food systems, understand the interconnections across multiple sectors, perform comparisons with other countries, identify key challenges and prioritize actions.

This lack of accessible information on the status quo significantly hinders evidence-based policymaking to improve food systems. Given the level of complexity and interconnections inherent to food systems, the data that describe these systems and their linkages to diets and nutrition need to be aggregated and presented in a way that is easily understandable. Data visualizations are potentially an important way to facilitate understanding, decision making and advocacy.