Investments aligned with this Strategic Goal aim to improve human health outcomes through sustainable agriculture.
The sections below include an overview of the approach for achieving desired goals, supporting evidence, core metrics that help measure performance toward goals, and a curated list of resources to support collecting, reporting on, and using data for decision-making.
The impact of unsustainable agriculture extends beyond the environment. While the market value of the global food system is an estimated USD 10 trillion, the hidden, often externalized costs are USD 12 trillion (1). Of these massive costs, more than half—USD 6.6 trillion—are related to health (1). Many negative health outcomes result from agricultural practices and food systems, including undernutrition, overnutrition, cancer, fertility, and digestive diseases, among many others (2, 3, 4, 5, 6). While direct food production practices often drive such negative consequences for human health, changes in climate can also negatively affect health outcomes, as increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide can reduce the nutrition of crops (7, 8).
Investments aiming to improve human health through sustainable agriculture can:
Outcomes of these investments could include:
Though agriculture, food, and diet all contribute to health outcomes, food and agricultural systems have many interrelated levers affecting whether end products confer positive health impacts. Many interventions that can improve health outcomes start in the soil, with an increasing number of demonstrated pathways from improved stewardship of agricultural soil to positive health impacts (9). Healthy soil with a flourishing microbiome helps to impart nutrition to food, as demonstrated in row crops, animals, and vegetables (10, 11, 12). While healthy soil stands at the core of agriculture, soil is embedded in a complex system of production in which diet, seed, and animal genetics, as well as inputs such as pesticides and antibiotics, are all factors that can impact human health (13, 14, 15, 16).
An example of an intervention that improves health outcomes through soil improvement is raising grass-fed beef or dairy cattle using methods such as managed grazing or adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) management. In these methods, cattle mimic interactions with natural landscapes: short durations of intensive use followed by long periods of rest and recovery. The interplay among deep-rooted perennial vegetation, symbiotic fungal networks, manure deposited by the animals, and grazing enhances the ability of a rich network of macro- and micro-organisms to efficiently move minerals and nutrients from the soil to plants to animals (17). The resulting more diverse, phytochemically richer diets lead to functionally different food products with significantly different chemical makeup from both grain-fed meat and plant-based meat alternatives (18, 19, 20, 21, 22). These differences can in fact affect inflammation in humans, with impact on long-term health through diseases like heart disease and cancer (11).
*The GIIN’s Understanding Impact Performance: Agriculture provides analysis of the impact performance of agriculture impact investments and showcase the real-world results associated with them.
As of 2017, health care systems have a USD 7.8 trillion global economic burden, or about 10% of GDP (23). The most common food-related health issues are the twinned challenges of obesity and malnutrition, which largely results from our food system shifting focus to quantity over quality (24). An abundance of lower-quality, highly processed food grown and raised in ways that do not fully support human health contributes to the 41 million people killed each year by noncommunicable diseases, nearly 13 million of whom are in low- and middle-income countries (25). The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, also originated in connection to food-system infrastructure, with the pandemic causing an immense toll in terms of both individual human lives and economies (26, 27, 28).
Though most calculations of costs and benefits in the food system are framed in terms of today’s population, this problem also has longer-term, cross-generational dimensions. New research has shown how pesticides had limited effects on exposed individuals but deleterious effects that emerged several generations later (29). Investments in sustainable agriculture can not only positively impact the environment but also improve the health and well-being of farmers and ranchers, participants in the agricultural value chain, and eaters alike.
While investments aligned with this Strategic Goal could positively affect health outcomes quite broadly, the following are some specific target stakeholders.
Industrial agriculture worldwide has harmed human health worldwide. Rural areas where industrial agriculture dominates agricultural production systems are a particular target of impact investments aligned with this goal. For example, in the United States, concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, have become the predominant method of raising livestock in rural regions such as those in the Midwest and South. People in these regions report many negative changes, including higher incidence of health and environmental concerns (38, 59).
Regions where soils are already experiencing high rates of degradation are also ideal targets for investments aligned with this Strategic Goal. Degraded soils due to poor soil management and contamination have been linked to food insecurity, disease, malnutrition, and ingestion issues (39). Soil acidification is also a serious global threat to soils and human health. The most acidic soils are in South America in regions that have experienced deforestation and industrial agriculture. While loss of soil nutrients is occurring in many regions, soil loss is particularly acute in sub-Saharan Africa. As of 2015, the United Nations found that all but three African countries extract more nutrients from the soil each year than are returned, depletion which leads foods to be less nutrient-dense and creates ongoing concerns regarding health and food security (40).
Organizations can consider contribution at two levels—enterprise and investor. At the enterprise level, contribution is “the extent to which the enterprise contributed to an outcome by considering what would have otherwise happened in absence of their activities (i.e., a counterfactual scenario).” To learn more about methods for assessing counterfactuals, see the Impact Management Project.
Investors can contribute toward addressing the larger issues related to human health and sustainable agriculture in the following ways.
All 7.8 billion people on Earth (as of 2021) benefit from investments in sustainable agricultural systems. Some groups nevertheless benefit from outcomes more directly and immediately. Workers and agricultural laborers receive the most direct benefits from improved working conditions. Nearly a third of the world’s population (28.5%) is employed in the agricultural sector —and all of the top 12 countries with the highest percentages of their populations employed in agriculture are in Africa (41, 42).
Regarding malnutrition, furthermore, more than 10% of the world’s population is undernourished, with 26% experiencing moderate or severe food insecurity. While the percentage of children with stunted development due to malnutrition has decreased over the last two decades, it remains at 22% globally, while adult obesity has risen to more than 13% (41).
Target stakeholders will experience change primarily through higher quality and longer duration of life as a result of improved nutrition and diet-related health. Good nutrition improves quality of life by promoting health, preventing dietary deficiencies, and averting malnutrition that may be caused by or associated with other diseases (43). Morbidity and premature mortality rates also decrease with better nutrition and decreased exposure to food, land, water, and air that has been contaminated by industrial agriculture inputs and practices (44, 45).
In addition to its essential health-promoting functions, food also provides sensory and psychological benefits. Preparing meals can imbue a day with a sense of security and structure, while eating with others promotes healthy social interaction. The pleasure of eating good food—food that fuels one’s body while also triggering sensory delights—is an important contribution to one’s daily happiness and well-being.
Multiple points within food and agricultural systems affect whether the end products confer positive or negative health impacts and whether investing in sustainable agriculture can shift the balance of these impacts to a net positive value. With that complexity in mind, the following are impact risk factors for investments in line with this Strategic Goal.
These risks may lead to unintentional support of our current food system, which prioritizes quantity, disregards food nutritional value and far workers’ health, and perpetuates vulnerabilities to economic, health, regulatory, and environmental shocks. These risks may lead to financial losses for both investors and investees. In addition, poor management of an investment or inequitable social outcomes may tarnish an investor’s reputation and credibility.
COMACO is a Zambia-based social enterprise that supports nearly 200,000 small-scale farmers over 70,000 square kilometers to provide both food and carbon and conservation outcomes. COMACO brought in $3.5 million from one investor, AHL Venture Partners (60). Over almost 20 years, COMACO’s programs and market-building strategies have led to a more biodiverse landscape and a population with increased food security. Anchored in the production and sales of nutrient dense food, COMACO has sequestered carbon and kept wildlife populations thriving. Intensive agroforestry systems have increased yields and decreased dependence on external inputs. COMACO have pioneered a biofortified breakfast cereal made with local varieties, which they have provided to schools across Zambia to increase nutritional security. COMACO has been financed by grants and loans (56); in 2017, they sold nearly USD 500,000 worth of carbon credits to the World Bank (57). COMACO also conducts ongoing research into increasing food’s nutrient density. Their success is demonstrated by their displacement of foreign-controlled resource- and chemical-intensive cropland adjacent to that acreage controlled and managed by farmers in the COMACO value chain. Land that was once managed with intensive chemical inputs, the products of which were destined for export markets, is now managed locally, using regenerative techniques to produce nutrient-dense food.
Manna Tree Partners, an investment firm focused on improving human health through nutrition, invested USD 15 million in Verde Farms to expand their product lines. Verde Farms is a grass-fed beef company that sources cattle from Uruguay, the U.S., Australia, and New Zealand (49, 50). In their primary market, the United States, grass-fed beef sales grew by 18.5% between 2017 and 2019 (51). With this additional capital, they plan to expand to markets outside the United States while increasing their U.S. market share. Interest in grass-fed beef has been increasing for its environmental and health-related benefits. Studies have shown that grass-fed beef has an improved ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids and increased amounts of secondary compounds, among other health-providing benefits (52) (11). The brand also maintains USDA-organic certification, which for livestock ensures that no antibiotics were used in the production process.
Brightseed, has a mission of exploring the connections between humans and plants by analyzing plants’ chemical compounds to enable a healthier future. Powered by artificial intelligence, Brightseed has developed an innovative technology, Forager, which it uses to track and map millions of active plant compounds. Rather than focusing on creating new synthetic drugs, Forager identifies naturally existing compounds within plants as a source of potential preventative medicines (53). By applying this computational analysis to study plant compounds, Brightseed can predict strong candidate compounds for later targeting and development into therapeutics in clinical trials (54). As an outcome of their research, they have identified specific nutrients found in plants that can be used to therapeutically maintain liver and metabolic health (54). The resulting therapies could combat chronic metabolic diseases that plague U.S. populations. To date, Brightseed’s technology has analyzed nearly 700,000 compounds (55). The company aims to analyze 10 million compounds before 2025. Brightseed has brought in $27 million from 7 investors to date (61).
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This mapped evidence shows what outcomes and impacts this strategy can have, based on academic and field research.
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Each resource is assigned a rating of rigor according to the NESTA Standards of Evidence.
Indicates whether the organization implements a health resilience and improvement strategy t improve health outcomes and increase the resilience of target stakeholder populations.
Organizations should footnote the details of the strategy, how it is being implemented, and how health resilience and improvement is incorporated into operations, planning, and company policy.
This metric is intended to capture whether an organization has a health resilience and improvement strategy in place for their work. Organizations are encouraged to capture in footnotes qualitative / narrative data from companies regarding how their business activities may be impacting health outcomes and steps that can be taken to improve health outcomes and increase the resilience of target stakeholder populations.
To understand whether the organization has a strategy in place to understand, address, and improve the health and resilience of the people it is aiming to reach.
Indicates which sustainable agriculture best practices the organization implements to maintain and enhance soil health of agricultural lands. Select all that apply:
Organizations should footnote details about their selections. See usage guidance for further information.
Organizations should collect these data directly from the investee company.
Examples of details to footnote include a description of soil health practice (e.g. low tillage systems, cover cropping, addition of soil amendments, crop residue usage), frequency of practice, processes or methods included in the practice, documentation of soil health characteristics, and documentation of nutrient management plan.
This metric aligns with Leading Harvest, Performance Measure 2.1 on Soil Health
To understand whether best practices are being employed in sustainable agriculture projects to increase soil health.
Amount of pesticides used during the reporting period on land area directly controlled by the organization.
Organizations should footnote the classification of the pesticides by hazard level as listed under the World Health Organization (WHO) Acute Toxicity Hazard Categories.
Organizations should collect these data directly from the investee company.
Pesticide use refers to insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, disinfectants, and any substance intended for preventing, destroying, attracting, repelling, or controlling any pest, including unwanted species of plants or animals during the production, storage, transport, distribution, and processing of food, agricultural commodities, or animal feeds that may be administered to animals for the control of parasites.
Organizations can refer to the glossary for additional information on the World Health Organization (WHO)‘s Recommended Classification of Pesticides by Hazard.
To understand pesticide use by the organization, which is helpful in understanding potential impact on land managed by the organization.
Type of crop(s) produced by the organization during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions used.
Organizations can report this metric at the level of an organization (selecting all relevant answer options) or for a specific product or service (selecting only the relevant crop type for the product or service for which the organization is reporting).
The list of options in the Reference List follows guidance from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Food Supply and Commodity Crops.
To understand the diversity of crops produced by the organization, which is useful in understanding one component of food security for the local community.
Type of livestock product(s) produced by the organization during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions used.
Organizations can report on this metric at an organization level (selecting all relevant answer options) or at the specific product/service level (selecting only one livestock/fish type for the product/service the organization is reporting against).
The list of options in the Reference List tab is based on the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations Food Supply and Commodity Livestock and Fish (http://faostat3.fao.org/download/FB/CL/E).
To understand the diversity of livestock and fish raised by the organization, which is useful in understanding one component of food security for the local community.
Ratio of children within the area served by the organization who experienced stunting as of the end of the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions used, including source(s) of data.
This metric is intended to capture the prevalence of stunting among children in the region. Stunting is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a height less than two standard deviations from the median of the WHO’s Child Growth Standards, and often results from malnutrition and other factors correlated with poverty.
Sources for these data at the regional or national level include the World Health Organization (WHO; https://www.who.int/nutrition/databases/en/) and USAID’s Demographic and Health Surveys Program Database (https://dhsprogram.com/Data/).
To understand the effects of malnutrition on contributing to childhood stunting at the community level, which can be helpful for investors aiming to assess whether certain food systems contribute to adverse effects among children.
Area of land directly controlled by the organization and treated with pesticides. Report directly controlled land area treated during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote details on the areas of land directly controlled based on the hazard level of pesticides used. See calculation considerations for further guidance.
Organizations can refer to the glossary for additional information on the World Health Organization (WHO)‘s Recommended Classification of Pesticides by Hazard. Organizations that use WHO Class Ia (extremely hazardous) and Ib (highly hazardous) pesticides on directly controlled land should footnote additional details on the relevant land (for example, land area and crops present) and pesticide use.
The IRIS Catalog of Metrics differentiates between land that is directly controlled by the organization and land that is indirectly controlled (see Directly Controlled [land area] in the IRIS+ glossary). This metric is intended to capture the land area that is under the organization’s direct control that is sustainably managed.
These land use criteria are often included in management plans and legal agreements, which also incorporate sustainability principles and typically include termination provisions in the event of poor performance. To the extent that minimal ad-hoc, discretionary land use decisions must be made by the third-party manager, which fall outside of the scope of the land use criteria, the land may still be considered as directly controlled by the organization.
To understand how much of the land controlled by an organization is treated with pesticides.
Area of land indirectly controlled by the organization and under sustainable cultivation or sustainable stewardship. Report indirectly controlled land area sustainably managed during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote details about the nature of the indirect control relationship and all assumptions used.
The IRIS Catalog of Metrics differentiates between land that is directly controlled by the organization and land that is indirectly controlled. This metric is intended to capture the land area that is under the organization’s indirect control.
Indirect control refers to land that the organization supports or influences but does not directly cultivate or manage. Examples in which the organization indirectly controls land may include purchase contracts or sourcing from farmer cooperatives.
Organizations that exert control of land practices of indirectly controlled land should footnote these details (e.g., when an organization specifies that farmers adhere to specific environmental practices).
To understand how much land is indirectly controlled/influenced by an organization, which is useful in assessing the potential reach of the project’s practices and approach.
Area of land directly controlled by the organization and under cultivation. Report directly controlled land area cultivated during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote details about the nature of the direct control relationship and all assumptions used.
This metric is intended to capture the land area that is under the organization’s direct control and was cultivated during the reporting period.
Direct control refers to land for which the organization controls land use through direct operations or management, including situations in which the organization’s employees directly cultivate the land. Note that land ownership is not always equivalent to control. For example, in situations where land is leased to another entity or individual to cultivate (e.g., a third party manager), land is only directly controlled if the lease is accompanied by exhaustive land use criteria.
Such land use criteria are often included in management plans and legal agreements, which also incorporate sustainability principles and typically include termination provisions in the event of poor performance. To the extent that the third-party manager must make minimal ad-hoc, discretionary land use decisions that fall outside the scope of the land use criteria, the land may still be considered directly controlled by the organization.
This metric includes crops cultivated through low-till and no-till methods.
To understand how much land is directly controlled/influenced by an organization, which is useful in assessing the reach of the project’s practices and approach.
Amount of waste created by the organization’s operations during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions used, including the type(s) of waste produced.
This metric is intended to capture the volume of waste produced as a result of the organization’s activities during the reporting period.
To understand the total amount of waste material an organization produces during their reporting period, which is helpful in assessing potential negative effects on people and planet.
Amount of hazardous waste created by the organization’s operations during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions used.
Hazardous waste is defined as refuse that could present dangers through the contamination and pollution of the environment. It requires special disposal techniques to make it harmless or less dangerous. Specific classification of hazardous waste should be defined by local legislation.
Organizations are also encouraged to footnote the methods employed to ensure that hazardous waste is disposed of responsibly.
To understand the amount of toxic material an organization produces during their reporting period, which is helpful in assessing potential negative effects on people and planet.
Amount of hazardous waste avoided based on refurbishing/reusing/recycling as part of delivering or developing the organization’s products/services during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions used.
This metric is intended to capture hazardous waste avoided as a result of using non-hazardous recycled materials in the organization’s products as opposed to hazardous materials. Organizations should report the total amount of hazardous waste avoided for all products produced during the reporting period.
For organizations that offer recycling services, it is intended to capture hazardous waste avoided as a result of the organization’s facilitation of hazardous waste recycling. Organizations delivering services should report the total amount of hazardous waste avoided based on services delivered during the reporting period.
To understand the effort organizations have taken to avoid contributing to hazardous waste through refurbishing, reusing, and recycling products/services.
Amount of toxic materials used in the organization’s manufacturing processes during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions used.
This metric is intended to capture to level of toxicity present in the manufacturing processes of the organization.
Organizations are encouraged to align the reporting to international standards. For example, the Regulation for Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Registration of Chemicals (REACH) requires companies to provide information throughout the supply chain about the risks possessed by substances as well as how they should be handled. This information on safe use of substances is transmitted along the industrial supply chain to help contribute to reduced risks for workers, consumers, and the planet.
To understand the amount of toxic material an organization produces during their manufactoring process, which is helpful in assessing potential negative effects on people and planet.
Amount of money spent by the client on health costs during the reporting period.
Organizations should footnote all assumptions.
These data can be collected directly from clients (patients) or can be collected through the healthcare service/facility.
To understand whether food produced by the agricultural organization is contributing to lower health-related spending for customers.