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


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.

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Fig. 1: Adapted framework for the multilevel transitions perspective.
Fig. 2: The rise of production and availability in tilapia.
Fig. 3: The rise of production and availability in milk.
Fig. 4: The rise of production and availability in chicken.

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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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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Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

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 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).

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