The final report for the National Research Programme ‘Healthy Nutrition and Sustainable Food Production’ (NRP 69) was released in June. This interdisciplinary programme has resulted in a series of practical recommendations on how to restructure the Swiss food production system to ensure sustainable and healthy nutrition.
In recent years, nutrition has become an important area of focus for environmental, climate and health policy. This is partly because the way we feed ourselves has a major impact on our ecological footprint. There is also growing recognition of the fact that nutrition has a leveraging impact on public health. The global food production system and the environment are mutually dependent and intertwined. Environmental challenges such as the loss of biodiversity and climate change affect food production just as much as food production affects the environment. Moreover, the world population is growing rapidly, leading to an increasing demand for food.
Wide range of research topics
In order to better understand these challenges, the Federal Council commissioned the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to launch the National Research Programme ‘Healthy Nutrition and Sustainable Food Production’ (NRP 69) in 2011. Under this programme, the SNSF provided a total of CHF 13 million in funding to 26 projects. NRP 69 was intended to provide the information needed to develop a sustainable food production chain and encourage healthy nutrition. The results of NRP 69 were also intended to contribute to ongoing and future reform processes in the Swiss agricultural and food sector. NRP 69 was carried out in partnership with Innosuisse and in collaboration with the European Joint Programming Initiative ‘Healthy Diet for a Healthy Life’.
The various projects were carried out from 2013 to 2019 with NRP 69 reaching completion this summer. The final report presents the findings from individual projects and makes recommendations for policymakers and society. The wide range of disciplines and topics covered by individual projects is a reflection of the complexity of the food production system. As an illustration, NRP 69 included studies on salt consumption and diseases caused by malnutrition in Switzerland. There were also model-based simulations assessing the environmental impact of food production in Switzerland. All things considered, the various research groups took part in 78 national and international cooperation initiatives (exchange of methods, infrastructure, publications, etc.).
Development of a nutrition strategy as the main course of action
Given this complexity, the NRP's overall recommendation is to create a Swiss nutrition strategy. This strategy should ensure that the Swiss population can be provided with sustainably produced food that is adequately nutritious. To this end, sectoral policies must be combined and coordinated in an overarching strategy to avoid conflicting objectives between the policy areas concerned. It is further recommended that an advisory board be established to guide elaboration of this strategy. This advisory board would be comprised of members representing agricultural producers and industry, the retail trade, public health experts and consumers.
The various lessons learnt from the individual NRP 69 projects can provide important input for this strategy. For example, the final report suggests that consumers should be more involved in decision-making. Furthermore, a corresponding National Action Plan should be launched with the aim of halving food waste by 2030. This is important because in Switzerland about one third of total food production is lost. Several parliamentary procedural requests have already been submitted to address this issue.
With its national research programmes (NRP), the Federal Administration supports research projects that provide knowledge that can be used for decision-making and action to address current social and economic challenges. At the request of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER), the Federal Council periodically decides on the topics and budget allocations for new NRPs and then commissions the SNSF to implement these.
For each NRP, the SNSF typically provides between CHF 10 and 20 million in funding to various projects. NRP projects are solution- and action-oriented, inter- and transdisciplinary, and are coordinated in pursuit of a common objective. NRPs reach completion after a period of about five years. So far, the SNSF has launched a total of nearly 80 NRPs on very different topics. The most recent NRP ‘Covid-19’ (NRP 78) was launched in the spring.
Contributions from various disciplines
Finally, the projects also make recommendations for a more sustainable and healthy diet. These include measures to reduce sugar intake and meat consumption. Changes in eating habits not only improve the health of consumers, they also lead to reduced environmental pollution in food production. However, such changes also require adjustments in agricultural production. In order to facilitate the dissemination of research findings, NRP 69 researchers developed an information platform that includes an online tool allowing consumers to assess how different dietary adjustments could affect health and the environment.
Now complete, NPF 69 can be considered a success in terms of the practical recommendations for action. Very different research projects from various disciplines enabled the overarching issues of sustainable food production and healthy nutrition to be examined from various angles. This shows how important inter- and transdisciplinary approaches to researching socially relevant topics are. This insight is important not only for future research on nutrition, but also for a number of other complex social challenges.
Claudine Dolt, SERI
Scientific Advisor, National Research Division