Fuseworks Media

Global nutrient supply depends on trade, new study

A new tool developed by Massey University scientists can now measure the health risks of global food trade disruption.

Food imported from overseas features in the diet of every New Zealander – from the wheat that made your sandwich (Australian) to the seasoning on the tomatoes inside it (pepper from Vietnam). But current global instability is not only challenging food imports and food security, but also nutrition.

Researchers at the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative® (SNi), based at the Riddet Institute at Massey University, have published a new study highlighting the importance of the international food trade for better health. Outcomes for anaemia, infant mortality, life expectancy, and other health indicators, are all affected by food trade.

The research, in collaboration with international scientists from Brazil’s State University of Campinas and the University of Sao Paulo, appeared in the international journal Global Food Security this month.

SNi Research Officer Dr Nick Smith says the study looked at flows of food for human consumption between 254 countries for the period 1986-2020, determining the 48 essential nutrients this represented.

The research has led to the launch of the Nutrient Trade Model, an interactive online tool to make nutrient trade data easily accessible to researchers, policy makers, and the public. The online application allows users to view the import or export dynamics for any nutrient and country combination in the dataset, including both the trade partners and the traded food items contributing to nutrient exchange.

Dr Smith says high dependency on trade, particularly from one source, leads to vulnerability to shocks such as global financial crises, natural disasters, pandemics, and wars. In New Zealand, for example, we are heavily dependent on Australian wheat for many of our nutrients.

Dr Smith says the Nutrient Trade Model tool can be used to understand and try to address issues around food supply. The authors hope making this micronutrient data accessible in an interactive format will assist policy makers determining trade policies that better serve the nutritional needs of populations.

“We don’t expect international trade policies will centre around individual micronutrients, but this tool will highlight the vulnerabilities in the global food trade system and the food-based strategies that could mitigate them,” says Dr Smith.

He says food insecurity and malnutrition have been increasing dramatically globally, with the number of undernourished people rising by nearly 200 million since 2015. This been driven by many factors, including global conflict, pandemics, weather events, and inflation. Even the current Red Sea disruption is just the latest in a long line of challenges to food trade, and therefore to nutrition.

Another scientist on the project, Sustainable Nutrition Initiative® leader Professor Warren McNabb, says the Nutrition Trade Model app is one of a suite of open-access interactive online models to help policy makers and researchers.

“The mission of the Sustainable Nutrition Initiative® is to make scientific evidence accessible to improve global nutrition.”

Prof McNabb says SNi also publishes thought-provoking articles about the global food system on its website, and regularly releases short videos and animations on its YouTube channel to inform people of key issues around sustainable nutrition. An animation about the new Nutrition Trade Model can be found here: What is the Nutrient Trade Model? | The Sustainable Nutrition Initiative® (youtube.com).

The Riddet Institute is hosted by Massey University, in Palmerston North, and is a Centre of Research Excellence, focusing on fundamental and advanced food research.


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