Food systems in developing countries are undergoing a rapid transformation, shaped by global and regional events. But country actions will be critical in shaping future food system outcomes.
Some countries are taking a systemic approach to assessing and acting on food system transformation – considering consumption and food environments, food supply and sustainability, health, and socioeconomic outcomes.
On November 14, A4NH and IFPRI held a policy seminar to introduce this approach, with representatives from Nigeria and Vietnam discussing the challenges, opportunities, and trade-offs they encounter in enabling food system actors in their countries. A panel then shared insights into how food systems can develop in a healthy, sustainable, and equitable way. A summary of the event with links to presentations can be found below the video.
A Challenge and an Opportunity for Low- and Middle-Income Countries
Food systems have been and are key in the development of many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), especially for jobs and employment. They are changing rapidly, however – and worries about them are growing, too. For while opportunities exist, so do the persistent threats posed by the multiple burdens of malnutrition: undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and, increasingly, overweight and obesity.
Inge Brouwer delivers opening presentation at A4NH/IFPRI policy seminar on food systems. Photo: IFPRI
With this opening, Inge Brouwer, Associate Professor of Food and Nutrition Security at Wageningen University & Research and leader of A4NH’s flagship research program Food Systems for Healthier Diets, set the stage for the seminar.
Brouwer highlighted A4NH’s emphasis on considering diets in a country-specific context, as they must consider many different elements. She noted the importance of starting with a focus on the diet, from a consumer perspective, to ensure dietary transitions balance healthy components with efforts to reduce intake of unhealthy foods. Recognizing the concerns many countries face regarding pressure on water, land, and in climate adaptation, transitions, she remarked, should be balanced with outcomes on sustainability.
Brouwer’s presentation laid the groundwork for presentations by representatives from two of A4NH’s focus countries: Vietnam and Nigeria.
Vietnam: Policy Actions Around Food System Transformation
Phuong Nguyen speaks at the seminar. Photo: IFPRI
Phuong Nguyen, a Research Fellow in IFPRI’s Poverty, Health, and Nutrition Division, opened by citing several key areas of change as Vietnam’s food system transforms. The country has long been known for fresh food, but is now making strides in processing and cold storage. She added that what is being grown is changing, too: production has long focused on rice, but is now much more diverse, and includes crops for export, such as coffee, as well as large amounts of pork.
As these changes take place, new issues arise. Food loss and waste has become a problem, especially for vegetables and seafood because of cold storage problems. Demand for post-harvest technology is increasing, particularly in the south, where a great deal of exports come from, but areas such as the mountainous north have been slower to develop in this area.
Processing is still in its infancy, however, Nguyen noted, as the Vietnamese people still care very much about food being fresh and locally grown. While supermarkets, convenience stores, and eating out are growing in urban areas, the change overall has been slow. On the other hand, concerns have increased around food safety, particularly for vegetables, pork, and seafood. Pesticides, overuse of antimicrobials, and issues around hygiene have all become areas of concern for consumers.
While the government is working to manage transformations in the food system, with a national Nutrition Action Plan, food safety laws, and other steps to address areas of development and concern, there are still issues to grapple with, including improving infrastructure; putting into place plans to address climate change and related disasters, which are occurring more regularly and more severely; and ensuring the transition is supported across the country, with no one left behind.
Nigeria: Opportunities and Challenges for the Private Sector as the Food System Transforms
Adebowale Akande addresses the audience. Photo: IFPRI
In a country as large as Nigeria, different regions are sure to face different issues, which affects how the government can create policy. In the process of doing so, opportunities for the public and private sector to work together appear, as do challenges and risks.
In detailing this situation, Adebowale Akande, Senior Scientist with the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), an A4NH Managing Partner, highlighted the need to build connections in Nigeria’s food system, to bridge disconnects between approaches taken by producers and consumers, between cities and rural areas, and federal and state levels.
Akande noted the challenges that arise when one is grappling with so many segments. For example, Nigeria not only has rural, peri-urban, and urban areas that require different approaches, but also megacities. With policies at the federal level, and then at the state levels, what’s happening in one part of the system can easily be undone by things happening – or not happening – in other parts, a situation that also holds true even at the same level, but at different points in the value chain.
Added to this are a host of other issues: infrastructure problems, waste, and land degradation. A growing middle class demanding nutritious food. Increases in demand for convenient food across income bands, particularly as more women enter the workforce. How does one balance rural development and deforestation, Akande asked? How do you manage imports, and where they are coming from, when people are demanding more foreign foods?
Fortunately, opportunity is the other side of the challenge coin, and in Nigeria, there is a great deal of room for innovation, development, and engagement, and many are keen to step into that opening.
With these presentations as context, a panel of experts representing a wide range of stakeholder perspectives shared insights into how countries can take action to ensure their food systems transformations result in providing healthy, sustainable diets.
“By starting with diets, we are starting with the goal of nourishing the population, not just feeding the population,” said Emmy Simmons, Former Assistant Administrator at the United States Agency for International Development and member of A4NH’s Independent Steering Committee. She highlighted numerous risks that must be taken into account when considering how to make food systems more resilient, including attention to poverty and the problems low-income groups have in getting adequate diets; climate change, a complicated risk in that not only do we not yet fully understand it, but it will also vary a great deal by geography, and where disasters will strike; and the very serious issue of violent conflict, resulting in displacement, disruption, and destruction.
A panel discussion followed the presentations. Photo: IFPRI
When faced with all of this, what are the drivers of change? Stuart Gillespie, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI and leader of A4NH’s flagship program on Supporting Policies, Programs, and Enabling Action through Research (SPEAR), remarked “Transformation means change, radical change, and it requires us to understand a bit about change.” It is understanding more about these changes, and what changes are needed to achieve sustainable, healthy diets and address malnutrition in all its forms, that led Gillespie and colleagues to undertake work that became first the country case study series “Stories of Change in Nutrition,” followed by “Stories of Challenge,” addressing the growing crisis of overweight and obesity. In order to address overweight and obesity, as well as the other forms of malnutrition, he highlighted the need to focus on equity, including how it impacts the policy agenda setting, the health and food environment, drivers of success, tradeoffs, and more.
“We needed to balance the evidence … on the ‘what’ questions … with a focus on the ‘how’ questions – how to make it happen.” Gillespie added.
“People talk about food system transformation, and they talk about food system transition, and I think there’s a big difference between the two,” commented Martien Van Nieuwkoop, Global Director of Agriculture and Food at the World Bank. “Transformation implies radical change, and to go there, countries need to realize the hidden cost of the food system, and the scope and seriousness of it.” He detailed the many hidden costs that go into the food system, ranging from stunting and undernutrition to greenhouse gas emissions, to loss and waste, adding that his office’s calculations totaled approximately US$6 trillion per year. He asked attendees to consider what might be the quick wins, which might not be the things driving transformative change, but might be necessary to move forward to achieving a healthy, sustainable diet that is affordable worldwide. He also raised the issue of what role the private sector can play, and what responsibility they have to do so.
Following a question and answer session moderated by Ruerd Ruben, Research Coordinator of Food Security, Value Chains, and Impact Analysis at Wageningen University & Research and an A4NH Managing Partner Representative, A4NH Director John McDermott offered closing remarks.
John McDermott closes the policy seminar. Photo: IFPRI
“Food system change is happening,” he said. “Some of it may be radical, but it’s not very organized. Countries are struggling to pull together inclusion, sustainability, and health – and they’re hard to put together.”
“We are going to make mistakes, but we need to accelerate the learning,” McDermott concluded. “Using systematic approaches, and getting analytical about it, but also bringing the actors together, this coordination is very important. This is something that everyone is vitally interested in.”
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