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Combined innovations in public policy, the private sector and culture can drive sustainability transitions in food systems

Abstract

Global food system analyses call for an urgent transition to sustainable human diets but how this might be achieved within the current global food regime is poorly explored. Here we examine the factors that have fostered major dietary shifts across eight countries in the past 70 years. Guided by transition and food-regime theories, we draw on data from diverse disciplines, reviewing post-World War 2 shifts in consumption of three food commodities: farmed tilapia, milk and chicken. We show that large-scale shifts in commodity systems and diets have taken place when public-funded technological innovation is scaled-up by the private sector under supportive state and international policy regimes, highlighting pathways between commodity systems transformation and food-system transitions. Our analysis suggests that the desired sustainability transition will require public policy leadership and private-sector technological innovation alongside consumers who culturally value and can afford healthy, sustainable diets.

Main

International agencies, forums1,2 and leading planetary health research groups3,4 are calling for food systems to become environmentally sustainable, equitable and healthier. Current global food production and consumption puts excessive pressure on natural systems3,5 and environmental sustainability6,7. Diet-associated, chronic, non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and coronary heart disease continue to rise8,9,10, while many populations find access to healthy foods difficult and prohibitively expensive11. These grand challenges require major transformations in the way food is produced, processed, distributed and consumed.

Here we identify factors that have shaped past national commodity-level transformations. While the investigated transformations were not motivated by contemporary sustainability goals, they provide useful insights for proactively reorienting food systems for sustainability. We address whether drivers that facilitated changes in the recent past can inform strategies to address dietary changes of the magnitude required by contemporary challenges. We draw upon analytical frameworks from transitions theory12 and the political economy of food regimes13 to explore three historical, commodity-focused case studies.

As dietary shifts are generally propelled by the addition of new foods or substitution of established commodities for new foods, we focused on foods with rapid production–consumption increases in a variety of national contexts to identify common characteristics as the basis for recommendations. From sociotechnical transitions theory14,15 and its emphasis on science and technology, state policy, markets and cultures, we characterize the national context, drivers and actors responsible for promoting evident increases in availability. Food-regime theory allows identification of historical patterns in agrifood investment and accumulation strategies, multistate regulation and farming systems across nations16, including cross-border environmental changes, global macroeconomic developments, intergovernmental governance mechanisms and broad cultural change.

Results

Commodity case study synthesis

Integrating transitions theory and the political economy of food-regime approaches (Fig. 1) provided the multilevel lens which guided the types of case study materials we could use to identify pathways for a transition to sustainable, healthy ‘planetary diets’. We summarized themes identified across countries for the commodity case studies (see Supplementary Information). The analysis referenced four categories of drivers of innovation, derived from transitions theory: science and technology, state policy, markets and culture. We found key differences in the timing, extent and drivers of per capita food availability (as a proxy for consumption) (Figs. 24), showing distinct periods when drivers and innovations within the four categories exerted influence on the production and consumption of tilapia (Egypt, Thailand, United States), milk (China, India, Spain) and chicken (Brazil, Japan, United States) in national food systems. Both continuous influences and discrete events are shown; prominent countervailing forces are also displayed.

Fig. 1: Adapted framework for the multilevel transitions perspective.
figure1

This schematic shows how small, niche innovations (a) can influence commodity adoption (b), diet (c) and, ultimately, food systems and food regimes (d). a, Coloured arrows and boxes show how technical, cultural, policy and market innovations (boxes) and forces (arrows) influence the growth and uptake of those innovations. Box size indicates the hypothetical scale or influence of the innovation; we do not believe this is empirically determinable from currently available data. Note that we consider that these forces and innovations may occur simultaneously and interact in various orders, which complicates quantification. When examples (for example, ‘feed and antibiotic innovation’) are given, they refer to chicken. Vertical grey arrows show how these innovations influence and are influenced by commodity consumption, diets and (potentially) the food regime. b, Availability of the three studied commodities over time (per capita) for the United States. Note that the scales are not the same for each commodity. The uptake of niche innovations influences the availability of these commodities at a national scale (vertical grey arrows). c, The plates schematically show how an ‘average’ diet changes over time. Note that the contents, relative abundance and total amount of food on the plate may all change. This diet is influenced by the set of food available (below). d, The food regime consists of both the larger policy, technical, cultural and market institutions and structures for producing, distributing and consuming food16. This regime is influenced by the changing innovations, availability and demand, as well as by feedback from the larger sociotechnical and environmental landscape (top, arrows). Changes from this ‘landscape’ (for example, global financial crises, military conflict, ongoing climate change) influence the food regime and may also provide (or hinder) opportunities for innovation. Above, a curve shows the wider sociotechnological or external landscape. This Article focuses on the links between niche innovation and commodity adoption, which we cast as prerequisites for dietary change and, ultimately, food-system and food-regime change. Figure inspired by refs. 14,42.

Fig. 2: The rise of production and availability in tilapia.
figure2

ac, The amount of national availability per capita, domestic production amounts and the primary drivers of the change in consumption are shown for Thailand (a), Egypt (b) and the United States (c). Purple bars indicate market influences, blue are cultural, green are technological and yellow are policy. Black bars around a box indicate the driver decreased consumption uptake. Grey stars indicate discrete events, which are labelled to the right. Left-pointing arrows indicate a driver started before the time frame shown. Colour gradients indicate a driver that increased/decreased temporarily. Note that the vertical axes are not identical. GIFT, genetically improved farmed tilapia; GMT, genetically male tilapia; IEIDEAS, Improving Employment and Income through Development of Egypt’s Aquaculture Sector; SRT, sex-reversed tilapia.

Fig. 3: The rise of production and availability in milk.
figure3

ac, The amount of national availability per capita, domestic production amounts and the primary drivers of the change in consumption are shown for Spain (a), India (b) and China (c). Purple bars indicate market influences, blue are cultural, green are technological and yellow are policy. Black bars around a box indicate the driver decreased consumption uptake. Grey stars indicate discrete events, which are labelled to the right. Left-pointing arrows indicate a driver started before the time frame shown. Colour gradients indicate a driver that increased/decreased temporarily. Note that the vertical axes are not identical.

Fig. 4: The rise of production and availability in chicken.
figure4

ac, The amount of national availability per capita, domestic production amounts and the primary drivers of the change in consumption are shown for Japan (a), Brazil (b) and the United States (c). Purple bars indicate market influences, blue are cultural, green are technological and yellow are policy. Black bars around a box indicate the driver decreased consumption uptake. Grey stars indicate discrete events, which are labelled to the right. Left-pointing arrows indicate a driver started before the time frame shown. Colour gradients indicate a driver that increased/decreased temporarily. Note that the vertical axes are not identical.

Science and technology

Technological innovations were important to the availability, accessibility and affordability of these three commodities. Technological developments increased production efficiency and the volume of product, thereby reducing costs and making products more competitive. Innovations also increased consumer access by improving distribution, storage and preparation convenience. Major technological advances typically preceded sharp consumption increases by a decade or more (Figs. 24).

Innovations in production practices (breeding, feeds, animal care) contributed to the sustained increases in the availability of all three commodities. Breeding advances, including hybridization, optimized maturation, size and production efficiency, were typically achieved through collaborations between academics, industry and government actors (for example, Nile tilapia breeding by WorldFish, University of Auburn and Department of Fisheries Thailand (Supplementary Information refs. 27,28); and the ‘Chicken of Tomorrow’ contest and work by A&P Food Stores and the US Department of Agriculture (Supplementary Information refs. 109,111)). Such ‘niche innovations’ were subsidized by governments seeking to reduce poverty (for example, by encouraging tilapia production) and improve citizen’s health (for example, by encouraging consumption of milk and chicken) (Supplementary Information refs. 3,32–3). The more productive breeds spread across the globe and were enhanced by advances in animal nutrition and care. Changes in animal housing (for example, incubators, battery cages, drop floors and ventilation for chicken (Supplementary Information refs. 83,85,111) and recirculating tank systems for tilapia (Supplementary Information refs. 26,33–34)) further boosted production efficiency. Vertical integration between commercial feed, veterinary supply, and nutrition and husbandry science firms also benefited from academic, private-sector and government agency cooperation (for example, Supplementary Information refs. 25,63–65,84). The push towards intensive farming can be tied to private firms, state-run companies and commodity cooperatives whose investments in technologies and infrastructure drove regional-level developments (Supplementary Information refs. 28,32–34,88,165). State-financed extension services were sometimes mobilized to disseminate best practices locally (for example, Supplementary Information refs. 83,91).

Further niche innovations increased consumer access to emerging products. Enhanced household access and acceptance of new products is perhaps best illustrated by ultra-high temperature processing (UHT) for milk; UHT gave communities in China and India the opportunity to consume milk without home refrigeration (Supplementary Information refs. 9,77). Industrial processing plants utilizing ‘cut-up lines’ transformed poultry and fish processing from whole animals into easy-to-prepare cuts (Supplementary Information refs. 60,91); these convenience cuts and prepackaged versions appealed to household cooks.

State policy

Governments bolstered these three commodity sectors. The influence of policy in transitions is often underemphasized, but the set of ‘objectives, programmes, regulations, laws and funding priorities’ set by governments and their agencies can either reinforce existing sociotechnical regimes or allow for disruption17. Publically funded research and development (addressed in the previous section) is also a critical part of state policy support. We grouped additional policy influences into the creation of an enabling regulatory environment, direct government assistance and endorsement.

Regulations, or lack thereof, set the stage for the production, trade and sale of these commodities. For example, the ability to administer antibiotics to livestock in the United States led to the rapid growth-rate of chickens and maximized the use of indoor housing by reducing infection and disease (Supplementary Information refs. 109–111). However, the regulatory environment can restrict an industry. Aquaculture development in Egypt and the United States was hindered by land-use and water-quality regulation—the stringency of US regulations contributed to a lack of domestic production while the lack of quality regulation limited the appeal of Egyptian aquaculture exports (Supplementary Information refs. 25,26,32). Weak quality-control mechanisms influence public trust in products and could (at least temporarily) reduce consumption (Supplementary Information refs. 104) (for example, the Brazilian ‘weak flesh’ chicken scandal, where decomposed and contaminated meat was purportedly allowed to bypass quality control).

Government agriculture subsidies helped foster dramatic production increases for these products (see Figs. 3 and 4). For tilapia, government hatchery programmes were key drivers of production (Supplementary Information refs. 28,31). Investments in larger infrastructure projects lowered barriers to efficient production and trade (see the Brazil and China examples). Government support also influenced culture—for example, through the endorsement of the products for public health reasons either explicitly (by calling for patriotic consumption of chicken, for example, in Japan during World War 2) or through inclusion in public programmes. School lunch programmes were popular as a way to influence the diets of young citizens: in Japan, Brazil, the United States, China and Spain, daily lunch or milk programmes not only provided children with a source of protein and calcium but also established a foundation for consumption patterns across a child’s lifespan (Supplementary Information refs. 3,9,11,60,72,83). National dietary guidelines also played a role: the United States, Brazil, Japan, India and China launched health campaigns promoting meat and milk (Supplementary Information refs. 3,9,11,49,72,116–120). Industries (for example, the American Tilapia Association in the United States) frequently used these recommendations to promote their products.

Markets

The quantity and composition of food consumed is greatly influenced by household budgets. Except for extraordinary items, price decreases lead to consumption increases. Thus, as commodity prices change relative to each other we expect associated dietary change. The incorporation of new foods within diets commonly starts with income-related diet diversification where consumption of both traditional and non-traditional commodities increases, followed by adoption of different diets (often Western) and the consequent decline in consumption of traditional items18. Traditional dietary staples, not animal-source foods, tend to decline over time with increased income (see Supplementary Materials Section 3).

Trade, foreign direct investment and sector reorganization shaped the local availability and price of tilapia, chicken and milk (see Figs. 24). The availability of imports encouraged consumption of products that were expensive when produced locally (for example, US tilapia) or when the supply is insufficient to meet demand (for example, milk in China in recent years). An influx of inputs can spur industry—for example, in Japan the initial catalyst for increased poultry consumption was its reliance on imported grain from the United States brought by the Agricultural Trade Development and Assistance Act of 1954 (Supplementary Information refs. 14, 83).

The market share of tilapia and chicken grew due to their stable and affordable price compared to higher-priced counterparts such as wild-caught fish or beef (Supplementary Information refs. 35, 106). Milk consumption patterns among urban, higher-income brackets shifted towards higher-priced dairy products, where lower-middle-class and rural households were predicted to continue to consume milk as incomes rose (Supplementary Information refs. 9,54).

Foreign direct investment proliferated as brands globalized and shaped the global food regime (for example, KFC and 7-Eleven helped popularize chicken in Japan (Supplementary Information refs. 14,83,96)). By contrast, the growth of tilapia in Thailand and Egypt occurred largely without imported brands. The increasing international presence of multichain food retailers within India and China introduced new products to a growing middle-class (Supplementary Information refs. 10,72,74) while the rise of supermarkets (which enabled better distribution of these products) were important particularly for chicken and milk adoption (see Figs. 3 and 4). Animal-sourced products are a major draw for wealthy consumers (Supplementary Information refs. 5,14,83).

The reorganization of supply chains by national and international conglomerates restructured local markets. In Thailand and Japan, vertical integration of tilapia and chicken supply chains (Supplementary Information refs. 28,83) fostered control over production and distribution practices and generated increased public trust in the product. Similarly, the government-imposed ‘Milk Centrals’ programme in Spain created a centralized monopoly that dramatically increased trust in and affordability of dairy products (Supplementary Information ref. 60).

Culture

If markets capture the amount and price of commodities, culture captures the willingness of consumers to purchase and consume those commodities. The intersection of the supply-side market forces and the demand-side cultural forces is termed the ‘food choice environment’19 and ultimately determines consumption. As we saw under state action, government endorsement in the form of marketing or dietary guidelines can be a powerful influence over that environment. Other cultural processes emanate from local communities, especially long-held culinary traditions and beliefs. Existing cultural perceptions shape demand: the red hybrid tilapia was developed in response to consistent negative perceptions in the Americas and Southeast Asia of the colour (naturally grey/blue/green) and texture of its flesh (Supplementary Information refs. 26,27,55). Traditional consumption can also provide a foundation for future growth, as illustrated by milk consumption in India and tilapia consumption in Thailand and Egypt. However, past preferences are not a necessary precursor; Japan consumes high levels of chicken despite terrestrial meat not being a component of traditional diets (Supplementary Information ref. 4); milk is widely consumed in China despite local lactose intolerance (Supplementary Information refs. 9,54,72).

Commercial marketing campaigns increased familiarity and interest in new products. In some cases (tilapia in Thailand and milk in India), the product was dumped onto the market at a low price to jump-start consumer interest (Supplementary Information refs. 3,28,57,74). Commodity-level marketing often sought to associate the food with health and strength. For example, in China the slogan ‘one cup of milk can strengthen a nation’ promoted consumption (Supplementary Information ref. 3) and the association of chicken with military might was advertised in World War 2-era Japan (Supplementary Information refs. 14,83). Similarly, ‘it takes a tough man to cook a tender chicken’ and chick-n-que (versus barbeque) promotions in the United States linked chicken consumption to masculinity (Supplementary Information refs. 81,112). Companies would aggressively market their products, often following increases in production capabilities resulting from technological and policy intervention (for example, Fig. 4).

Attempts to shift cultural perception of these emerging foods often occurred against a backdrop of ongoing socioeconomic changes, including urbanization and a higher percentage of women entering the workforce. These factors have been credited with the rise of convenience foods and increased purchasing power of the household (Supplementary Information ref. 7). All three commodities can be found as a convenience food option.

Discussion

Many recent calls for a transition to a healthier and more sustainable food system focus on a diverse, largely plant-based diet to achieve environmental and human health goals3,4,19,20. We examined the historical record to see if dietary elements had changed at the scale (in multiple nations) and speed (over decades, rather than centuries) suggested by calls for contemporary diet and food-system reform. Our approach allowed us to propose interlinkages between commodity systems transformation, food-system and food-regime transitions at the national and global scale. It bears conceptual similarities to other diagnostic approaches that seek to understand and guide context-specific change in complex systems (for example, environmental conservation21 and healthcare provisioning22)

Multiple drivers were consistently implicated. Often, technological advances increased production and drove down prices, while government endorsement and/or government and company marketing campaigns shaped the food-choice environment. We found single drivers such as a new technology or government policy do not unilaterally transform commodity uptake. The trajectory of growth, temporal ordering of drivers and the context in which drivers operated differed widely. We found, for example, situations where the cultural affinity for a food was found to accelerate uptake (for example, tilapia in Thailand and Egypt), while lack of affinity did not hinder uptake in other cases (for example, terrestrial meat in Japan, milk in China). This suggests that formulaic attempts to replicate past sequences of marketing, technology and state investment will not necessarily result in the desired transitions.

The case studies suggest that the rapid uptake of new foods at large scales is possible within an industrial food regime and dependent on the following factors: continuous technological innovation, often supported by collaborations between governments, academia and industry; intensive agriculture and manufacture, under the control of global food corporations and hyperefficient supermarket chains; and state standards and dietary guidelines to encourage shifts in consumption. The upside to such a regime is the rapid delivery of affordable, nutrient-rich staple foods to mass markets. The commodities examined here—chicken, milk and tilapia—have helped add both macro- and micronutrients to the diets of lower-income consumers23. High- and middle-income countries see high consumption of meat, poultry, fish and dairy as conferring health benefits, but the benefits and costs are largely distributed according to inequalities of wealth24. Where populations lack access to these foods, high incidence and prevalence of micronutrient malnutrition persists24,25, leading to calls not to abandon animal source foods altogether but rather to redistribute access26.

The downsides of the industrial food regime include precariousness of small producers, who are displaced by large agribusiness farms that are able to invest in new technologies, and detrimental environmental externalities27. Moreover, it is unclear whether the key industrial food-regime actors have incentives aligned with the aforementioned environmental and human health goals. The industrial regime is under challenge from a mix of peasant, environmental and public health movements and UN agencies that want to see a transition to more biologically and nutrition-sensitive agricultural systems, with greater input from smallholders, especially in resource-poor environments28,29,30.

We recognize several factors that limit our approach. First, most analyses we reference provide evidence that a driver contributed to uptake, but do not quantify the magnitude of the effect. In many cases, such quantification is impossible due to the absence of a counterfactual (for example, a similar country which did not adopt a new technology or policy)—country context and history are often too different to allow such comparisons. Additionally, the investigated drivers may either reinforce, synergistically multiply or undercut the effects of others—it is not possible to quantify or rank the relative importance of each driver. Although identifying a hierarchy of drivers could be informative, ignoring the rich mix of available qualitative and quantitative data would deprive us of an opportunity to learn about how complex systems operate and what lessons they may hold for future transformations. Rather than seeking single-driver, scalable solutions, such as meat taxes, trade-tariff reforms, agricultural intensification or consumer education, and transfer them from one nation to another based on their impact in one context, our proposed approach is to identify and analyse the processes that have shaped large-scale changes within a national food system in the past. We believe this approach can inform policy processes in nations aspiring to transform their food systems. It does so by grounding solutions in local, historical and political contexts31, by building on the capacities of national systems for innovation32, by evaluating the role of changing markets and influential market actors in sustainability transitions33, and by responding to the needs and preferences of national consumers34,35.

Our analysis lays the groundwork for further study of how diets shift as a fundamental component of wider food system transitions. Key areas of future work may include methodological advances and targeted data collection to assess the relative importance of drivers, investigation of commodities that failed to gain market traction and studies of these drivers at smaller spatial scales and varying temporal scales. All the following deserve attention: the effects of emerging institutional innovations such as right-to-food initiatives that involve schools; household income supplements and food rations; assistance to rural producers and urban agricultural zones36; the inclusion of environmental considerations into dietary guidelines37; and the rise of food-sovereignty and food-justice movements in low-income and transitional economies. Sociotechnical transition frameworks can be applied to understanding how today’s niche innovations in technology, markets, policies or consumer preferences may combine to transform food systems towards sustainability and health.

It remains unclear whether these transitions can be achieved within the existing industrialized and globalized food regime, or whether the policy preconditions for a sustainability transition will require or promote a deeper systemic transition to a more diverse, multipolar and equitable regime38. Based on an interdisciplinary approach, we provide a conceptual framework and historical perspective that enables an understanding of how dietary elements have rapidly changed within different national contexts in the past—and how they might change in the future.

Methods

Given the controversy over the environmental unsustainability of animal source foods, we chose to focus our attention on their growing presence in the global diet. Global diets are also unhealthy; high red meat, sugar, and highly processed food intakes have also been implicated in chronic disease20,39. Although human and environmental health motivate this study, we also sought examples wherein a commodity’s increase in availability is of similar magnitude to those called for in the ‘planetary diets’ literature3,4,19. We were agnostic as to whether studied commodities were additives or substitutes in a diet.

We took a multidisciplinary approach to capture the following elements: (1) which commodities have undergone rapid increases in availability over time; (2) the transitional factors influencing this increase within different countries; (3) trends across eight diverse nations; and (4) the linkages between national consumption/production trends and food-regime drivers. Although the bulk of existing research applies one set of disciplinary approaches40, we draw on analytical frames and associated data from many disciplines (for example, science and technology studies, political and agricultural economics, economic history, anthropology, agronomy, nutrition) to capture the complexity of food systems and their transitions.

We began with publicly available, national-level time-series (FAO-STAT for crops and livestock, FAO-FishStat for aquaculture) to identify three classes of commodities—poultry (livestock), dairy (livestock products) and freshwater fish (fish)—whose availability (as a proxy for consumption) had undergone rapid change, as defined by increases in kg capita−1 yr−1 during the modern (post-World War 2) era, with the rapid rise in fish production and consumption of fish being driven by the growth of aquaculture41. We then selected commodities based on the highest rate of change within the following categories ‘livestock’, ‘livestock products’ and ‘fish’ (Supplementary Table 1). Within freshwater fish, farmed tilapia was chosen; while it follows the diverse group of carps, barbels and cyprinids as the most farmed freshwater fish-group, there is more historical literature available.

Next, for each commodity we selected case study countries based on the rate of change in the country both overall (kg yr−1) and per capita (kg capita−1 yr−1) (Supplementary Table 2). From these candidates, we narrowed down the countries based on the availability of relevant materials to follow the qualitative-analytical approach illustrated in Fig. 1.

A ‘snowball’ approach to finding papers was used in conjunction with targeted search terms on Google Scholar to find reports of potential drivers of these rapid changes in the availability of each of the three food commodities (see Supplementary Table 3 and Supplementary Information for details). The Supplementary Materials also contain detailed narrative descriptions of each case study.

Data availability

Quantitative data for this Article are available publicly through the FAO. The qualitative data are described in the Supplementary Information.

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Acknowledgements

This work was funded by a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to WWF and was supported through a partnership with the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis. We thank all members of their partnership for their feedback on early drafts of this work. E.A. was also supported by a visiting professorship at ANCORS, University of Wollongong, Australia, the Nippon Foundation Ocean Nexus Program and the CGIAR research programme on fish agrifood systems (FISH). L.V.R. was funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement number 853222 FORESTDIET).

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All authors contributed to the conceptual development and writing of this manuscript. H.K.H. led the background literature review along with T.A., M.A., C.S. and E.M. E.M. and H.K.H. produced the figures. E.H.A., B.S.H. and E.M. led the writing of the manuscript. E.H.A., J.D. and B.S.H. led the conceptual framing.

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Correspondence to Edward H. Allison.

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Peer review information Nature Food thanks Lindsay Jaacks and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary methods, notes, and references. This section contains review methodology, narrative case study results, and analysis of substitution and additions to country diets.

Supplementary Table

Table containing an alternative format of the information from Figs. 2–4 summarizing the case study results by driver.

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Moberg, E., Allison, E.H., Harl, H.K. et al. Combined innovations in public policy, the private sector and culture can drive sustainability transitions in food systems. Nat Food 2, 282–290 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43016-021-00261-5

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