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Systemic policies towards a healthier and more responsible food system
  1. Frank J van Rijnsoever1,
  2. Harro van Lente1,
  3. Hans C M van Trijp2
  1. 1Innovation Studies, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, Utrecht, The Netherlands
  2. 2Marketing and Consumer Behaviour Group, Wageningen University, Wageningen, The Netherlands
  1. Correspondence to Dr Frank J van Rijnsoever, Innovation Studies, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, P.O. box 80115, 3508 TC, Utrecht, The Netherlands; f.j.vanrijnsoever{at}

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Since the 1980s, the number of obese people has increased steadily across the globe.1 Consequently, more patients have serious medical conditions2 3 such as cardiovascular diseases and type II diabetes. As a result, medical expenses increase dramatically. An important cause of obesity is unhealthy dietary habits, such as increased size of portions, eating away from home and the consumption of high-energy dense foods.4 Measures have been taken to change these dietary habits to a more responsible pattern, but with limited success.

A systemic perspective

We analyse the problem from a systemic perspective, thereby acknowledging the interdependencies between the demand and the supply sides in the broader food system (see figure 1). The demand and supply sides can be viewed as sets of heterogeneous agents in which segments can be distinguished that behave differently. Segments on the demand side consist of groups of consumers that attach different meanings to food, depending on circumstances, habits and cultural conditions.5 For most people, food is more than only fuel for the body and consuming food is an enjoyable experience, which allows people to express their social values and their cultural identities. In many cultures, for example, it is a custom for hosts to show hospitability at dinner parties by presenting guests with an abundance of unhealthy but enjoyable foods.

Figure 1

A representation of the locked-in food system.

On the supply side, segments consist of large generalist ‘multinational’ companies offering a broad range of products targeted at the mass market of consumers and a large number of smaller companies offering specialised products catering to consumer segments with more specific preferences when choosing food products.6

The current situation persists because both demand and supply are faced on a daily basis with an unequal contest between short term benefits versus long-term socially responsible interests. Research has …

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  • Funding This research was funded by the Socially Responsible Innovation programme of the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO).

  • Competing interests None

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.