In the run-up to the United National Food System Summit (UNFSS), a large number of ideas (called “game-changing” solutions) are being proposed about how to speed up food system transformation processes in low- and middle-income countries.
Food system transformation will be a complex process that must involve changes in many different areas (including consumption, production, trade and governance), at multiple levels (local, sub-regional, national and international) and for a wide variety of stakeholders (producers, traders, processors, retailers, consumers and policy makers). Such proposals often face multiple trade-offs between healthier nutrition, sustainability and inclusiveness goals that can only be overcome through coordinated decisions and actions.
In order to truly change the game, however, we need to identify some key leverage mechanisms that have the capacity to fundamentally change food system dynamics. Setting priorities for guiding food system transformation policies involves strategic choices in five different areas:
Fresh and processed foods are increasingly available in many rural and urban areas, yet many are choosing the less expensive processed options over the healthy ones, making it more apparent that limited affordability is a large obstacle hindering the shift toward healthier consumption patterns. This is related to high prices of critical diet components compared to low incomes of poor populations, but also a result of the limited bargaining power of adolescents and women around their critical livelihood choices.
Reinforcing demand for healthier diets requires substantial investment in social safety nets (cash transfers) and public procurement programs (school meals, emergency aid) to ensure disadvantaged populations are targeted for access to affordable healthy food. In addition, fundamental changes in social norms and practices are necessary to put purchasing and decision-making power into the hands of women.
Rapidly rising levels of urbanization demands smooth food marketing systems between rural and urban areas. Most food trade is done by informal traders and through open markets that contribute remarkably to efficient distribution of food from producers to consumers and can sometimes respond more adequately to food safety criteria than formal supermarkets.
Instead of overly regulating informal trade, it is usually far more effective to develop transparent relationships with so-called midstream agents (traders, processors, retailers) who are critical in providing alternative employment and opportunities for female entrepreneurship. New information and communication technologies (e.g. food apps, home delivery, blockchain) can be very helpful to enhance these market linkages.
While sizable efforts have been devoted in the past to the production and supply of a few calorie-rich basic staple foods, attention is shifting toward opportunities for farmer engagement in the production of a diverse range of nutrient-dense foods for growing (peri-) urban populations. This calls for large investments in extension networks, rural finance and insurance, and marketing systems that enable innovations toward more diversified, intensive and sustainable farming systems
A wide range of possible food system innovations have been proposed, but attention should be focused on opportunities to increase off-season supplies of fresh foods and strategies to enhance resilience and promote circular regeneration of material resources.
Food system transformations that bridge the divide between consumption and production need a broad constituency and coherent actions from public and private stakeholders that guarantee farmer and consumer responsiveness to market and non-market incentives.
Significant public investments will be needed to improve the market infrastructure, while legal guarantees on land rights enable private investments in farm-level intensification and supply chain integration. Rules and regulations influence the landscape of food outlets, but more specific taxes (e.g. fat tax, sugar levies) are required to guide healthier food choices.
Food systems don’t have a ‘political home’ and a great number of agencies (including agriculture, health, finance and social affairs) influence the access, availability, safety and affordability of food. Activities by single actors are certainly important, but cannot guarantee the acceleration of efforts at scale that will be required to reach SDG2 and other development goals.
To remedy this, we need strong convening power that outlines coordinated actions to unite forces at local, regional and national levels around a National Food Systems Agenda (NFSA). Installing a Ministry of Food – like in Bangladesh – could be an important step toward better-coordinated food system transformation policies.
Focusing on these five leverage points will help define priorities for societal support and political action toward healthier, more sustainable and inclusive food systems. Actually taking these steps requires – above all – leadership, courage and engagement in broad-based public-private partnerships.
Ruerd Ruben is (emeritus) Professor Impact Assessment of Food Systems at Wageningen University & Research (WUR) in The Netherlands, and lead author of IFAD’s Rural Development Report 2021 Food System Transformations for Rural Prosperity. He is also a member of A4NH's Planning and Management Committee.
Inge D. Brouwer is Associate Professor at the Division of Human Nutrition and Health at WUR in The Netherlands. She also leads A4NH's Food Systems for Healthier Diets research flagship.
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