Opportunities and Challenges in Striving Towards Sustainable Food Systems

Food systems meeting hosted by CIAT, February 2018. Photo: A4NH

Food systems are increasingly recognized as central for growing concerns about how to nourish our global population while providing sufficient income and employment, and respecting the capabilities of our planet. As discussions in development move away from considering individual value chains in isolation and towards a more holistic food systems approach, engaging with partners and those from other sectors is critical to ensure strategies are developed cohesively.

With this in mind, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), an A4NH Managing Partner, recently convened a dialogue with internal and external partners, following a several-day internal workshop to consider and define the organization’s approach to food systems. The meeting, held in Nairobi, Kenya, drew together donors, other research organizations, UN agencies and voices representing the public and private sector. The half-day session was divided into several segments presenting views from CIAT, and a panel discussion with partners on food systems thinking.

CIAT’s interest in focusing on food systems stems from the organization’s desire to “stop thinking in a linear way, and look at systems that are complex, dynamic, and moving in different ways, and to understand and discuss the tradeoffs,” commented Mark Lundy, CIAT’s Theme Leader for Sustainable Food Systems, who opened the meeting.

Presentations from CIAT researchers addressed key issues in the food systems debate, as well as possible areas for CIAT work on sustainable food systems:

  • Providing healthy choices:  throughout the world, the issues of undernutrition, overweight, obesity, and micronutrient deficiencies plague billions of people, yet the food environment directs consumers towards cheap, ultra-processed, energy-dense foods. How do we create an environment that encourages healthy choices? Emphasis was placed on starting with needs of vulnerable consumers and working backwards, in cooperation with the private sector, consumer associations, and policymakers, among others.
  • Linking food systems to other systems: where are the connections between food systems and other considerations, including climate, urban planning, and migration?  What policies already in place are having negative impacts, and how can that be corrected? For example, as countries grapple with issues like deforestation and land degradation, how do we ensure that underlying drivers coming from food systems changes and demands are addressed?
  • Market systems: formal and informal markets have different circumstances. How do you create policy that takes both into account, and respects the sensitivities that arise with each? Researchers presented these questions in the context of the Kilimani Organic Market and the Nairobi City County Food Systems Strategy.

Panel discussion at CIAT food systems meeting, February 2018. Photo: A4NH

Conversations throughout the day emphasized the need for all sectors to understand the role of others, in order to identify where collaboration might be possible, as well as where gaps might exist. Participants also homed in on the importance of understanding the needs of stakeholders, and remaining focused on the consumer. “How do you balance the issue of basic access to stay alive with staying healthy?” asked Olufunso Somorin, Regional Environmental Economist, from the African Development Bank.  “Food security is one of the ten entry points for our work on Urban-Rural Linkages. For sustainable food systems an integrated territorial approach is needed – across administrative boundaries and including all relevant stakeholders – from national to local government authorities and different sectors, development partners, civil society, academia and the private sector,” remarked Stephanie Loose from UN Habitat. Inge Brouwer, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Security at Wageningen University and Research, and Flagship Leader for A4NH’s Food Systems for Healthier Diets, noted, “We should provide insights to decision makers, and back it up with data. We must consider the tradeoffs and provide options. Research should be done with the stakeholders, not locked away.”


This post was written by Janet Hodur, Communications Specialist with A4NH.