“Food systems” has become a very popular term in the fields of agriculture, nutrition, and health, but what does it mean to have a food systems perspective? How do food systems address the triple burden of malnutrition, and what can countries learn from one another to strengthen their own food systems?
Dr. Ruerd Ruben, of Wageningen University in The Netherlands, and Dr. Namukolo Covic, of the International Food Policy Research Institute, are both involved with the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health’s Flagship Research Program on Food Systems for Healthier Diets. In this two-part podcast, hear a recent conversation they had on what it means to take a global perspective on food systems, and how this approach is changing the way we look at hunger and malnutrition.
An excerpted script of the second installment appears below.
Q: Dr. Ruben and Dr. Covic, how do countries implement a food systems approach, and what are the challenges of doing that? How do they identify precisely where interventions are needed?
Namukolo Covic: You really have to look at linkages across the entire food system. Whatever the country does should not become a major tradeoff in another area. For that to happen, you really have to have deliberate linkages being developed through the policy instruments that are put in place, but also through the way in which markets function, in relation to providing better quality foods, and better quality diets in the end.
Ruerd Ruben: I think, in agricultural development, much emphasis has been placed on producing more food and, in a certain way, better food – better quality, better nutritional value, but changes also happen if you start thinking about the way food is distributed, and how consumption is organized. For instance, if you want to enhance the demand for healthier foods in urban or peri-urban environments, it is very important to look at the places where people buy food – if they go to the market, or the supermarket – in some places it might even be more effective to communicate through media or mobile phone messages to provide [consumers] with key information about other nutritional opportunities. It might even be necessary in some places where women are not entitled to do their own shopping, to organize home delivery of healthy foods – bringing it closer to the consumer. We call that “nudging” nowadays. It is not the supply of food that is the most limiting factor, but demand, in terms of both information and affordability, where you can really make big changes in terms of the organization of the food environment – the way in which food reaches consumers, and then starting with better articulation of demand with the different supply options, instead of the other way around.
NC: One of the challenges that I have seen on the African continent is that countries have focused so much on reducing hunger – primarily by producing more staples – and that has taken a lot of focus of investments that governments have put into the agricultural sector. Essentially, we haven’t done as much towards improving the supply of fruits and vegetables and animal source foods. Those foods have been increasing in prices to a much greater extent than, for example, staple foods. So while we are saying we require better, more balanced and diverse diets, the policies in place for promoting agriculture have not really shown the same kind of focus. What Reurd is saying in terms of households having access to different types of foods – those foods have to be affordable. The agricultural systems must actually support the kinds of development that need to take place to provide that supply.
RR: You’re absolutely right: a healthy diet at this moment is a relatively costly diet in many situations. Vegetables, fish, pulses, animal-based foods, they are usually more expensive compared to the traditional cereals or the starchy staples. That has a lot to do with the fact that most public and private investments were geared towards producing more food. Now, if we shift to better food, we cannot do it the same way, so we do need substantial investments, for instance, in food chains for dairy products, in good storage and transport facilities for vulnerable products like eggs or fruits and vegetables, and there is little possibility that will be organized only by public investment systems. We have to link up directly with traders and retailers in both open markets and the more modern supermarkets to get relationships between retail and producers that enable them to invest in cost-reducing activities and more efficiencies. [We also need more sustainably organized] supply chains because modern supply chains are also more energy intensive in a certain way. Those are challenges where we have to plug in far more creative investment parties and try to increase the volume of those products in such a way that the prices can go down.
NC: I think an additional problem there, Ruerd, is also the fact that transport networks are usually not very well developed, so that creates an additional barrier to the development of markets. That’s another area where efforts are actually needed. You don’t often think of transport versus foods and quality of diets, but that is critical.
RR: Yes, that is certainly important.
Q: Are these challenges countries are facing across the board? Are they localized, or universal in nature?
RR: They are quite different in terms of locations, urban and rural, and even in let’s say, peri-urban settings you notice the development of markets and infrastructure is really different. Some Asian countries have a better developed infrastructure system than some of the land-locked sub-Saharan African countries, so there are big differences in terms of what has been done for public investments, communications, and road infrastructure. But sometimes you can really make an advance because you are able to avoid problems that many Western countries have, like physical infrastructure, because communication infrastructure development goes extremely fast. In Kenya, as an example, many people already use mobile phones for purchase transactions and transfers of money. That type of system, in many European countries, is not that well developed, but it can be used for bringing attention to particular food offers or opportunities for convenience food purchases. You can sometimes have an advantage of the backwardness of infrastructure. Certainly, however, the minimum conditions for bringing food from peri-urban areas to urban centers depends on the development level of the country and the [infrastructure] investment that could be made earlier.
NC: I totally agree. I don’t know how we can make the best use of cell phone technology on the African continent. I think because we didn’t have very good telephone networks to start with, the mobile phone technology has taken off – quite significantly and very quickly. But I think we need to find ways of taking advantage of that more effectively, in terms of managing food systems and trying to bring on board some of the developments that would be desirable.
RR: On the other hand, particularly in urban and peri-urban areas, consumers are shifting too easily to fast foods and food system that challenges overweight and obesity dimensions, and that also goes very fast. Sometimes, I’m impressed to see home delivery of pizzas and other fast food already exists in Asian and African countries. While you have an advantage in terms of technology, that’s not always balanced with the way in which information and incentives are reaching consumers. Poor consumers in urban and peri-urban areas face multiple challenges, not only in monetary resources, but also in terms of their time, and they might be inclined to make a kind of dietary transition in the wrong way. We have to be worried certainly about the ways in which information and products reach the more vulnerable consumers, and how we can steer behavior in a way that benefits them and the future generations.
NC: That brings another issue that I think we don’t often deal with: the aspirations of poor people as they gain more income, in terms of what they want to eat. A lot of foods people aspire for, unfortunately, tend to be foods that are very energy dense, but with very little nutrient density. I think the food systems approach provides an advantage in that it allows you to also pay attention to the food environment and the consumer environment in terms of affecting the choices people make. That’s an area that also needs some attention for us to move in a more positive direction in the types of nutrition transitions that are actually taking place.
RR: Yes. I would say there are some promising signs in the way people evolve in terms of their dietary preferences and nutrient choices over their lifetime – things that are not mechanical, that you can influence through behavioral change, through communication. There are very interesting outcomes nowadays of school feeding programs that also influence fathers and mothers to prepare foods in a different way [at home]. We have to start at a very early stage. There are also promising examples of value chains like tomatoes and other fresh commodities where close integration between producers and retailers made products really affordable throughout the whole year for groups of consumers. The change of food systems and the evolution is not only guided by economic and political laws. There are different ways, through pricing and communication, to enhance choices towards a direction that suits [people] in the short and the long run.
NC: That is probably one of the areas where we can learn from developed countries. The direction a country like The Netherlands seems to be moving now in terms of influencing the food environment and food choices [more positively] – that’s an area where African countries, for example will probably benefit in terms of lessons to try and redirect and not go first in a bad direction and then rethink a more positive one.
RR: But be careful – we are also struggling with some of the same problems, particularly the problems of overweight and obesity. One of our major discussions is about how to organize the internal structure of a supermarket. For instance, sweets are still sold near the cashier because that provides an incentive for kids to make last minute purchases. It’s not easy – you have to convince the private sector to make those changes. We do have an environment where those discussions take place, and perhaps we can provide a lesson, but there are still many things [to consider]. Where do [people] buy, how do you make healthy food convenient, and less-healthy food perhaps a little bit less attractive – those are changes we are also experiencing – a little bit of a laboratory approach, searching for what best suits us and what might work for other countries in the world.
NC: The lesson for me, I think, is in the fact that you have started the discussions and are looking at, is there another way of doing things. For the most part, in many developing countries, that conversation hasn’t even started.
RR: The only way to deal with a food systems approach is bringing all stakeholders around the table and make them partly responsible for their contributions to better food systems and a kind of accompanied diet transition – that can only take place if stakeholders, both public and private, and different social groups start interacting. I think that underlies any changes in food systems that may take place later on.
Thank you to Ruerd Ruben and Namukolo Covic for sharing their thoughts on food systems. Please listen to the first installment of this podcast or visit A4NH's Flagship Research Program on Food Systems for Healthier Diets to learn more about this topic.