We often hear about the fact that ‘just producing food is not enough’ if we want to confront the problems of global malnutrition – it also depends on what kind of food we grow and eat. That is the mission of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. They’re a panel of experts – ranging from the directors of the FAO and UNICEF to high-level politicians and business leaders, e.g. the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – who just met for the second time in Brussels to decide how best to fit nutrition goals into the global food security dialogue.
Their mission statement? “We want to ensure that people have access to nutritious foods at every stage of life, and we believe that agriculture and food systems should contribute to make this happen.“
What I found interesting on their website and which didn’t come to play as much in the talk they gave is this quote by Co-Chair John Kufuor, former President of Ghana:
“Nutrition is not just a problem for the poor, it is a global problem. It affects everyone, in the form of undernutrition or obesity.”
Yet, the discussion mainly centered around nutrition goals for the developing world – preventing malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and stunting. These are some of the inputs given (some quite surprising ones!) by the panellists present (Emmy Simmons, Jane Karuku and Jeff Waage from the Secretariat):
- Biofortification could be seen as one important way forward. According to the WHO, biofortification is “the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through conventional plant breeding and/or use of biotechnology. Biofortification differs from conventional fortification in that biofortification aims to increase nutrient levels in crops during plant growth rather than through manual means during processing of the crops. Biofortification may therefore present a way to reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement and/or limited. Examples of biofortification projects include iron-biofortification of rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes; zinc-biofortification of wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize; provitamin A carotenoid-biofortification of sweet potato, maize and cassava; and amino acid and protein-biofortification of sourghum and cassava.” Think Golden Rice for example – you breed (or genetically modify) the plant to be more ‘nutrient-dense’ when grown, thus requiring no further processing. Technically a smart idea! The experts also highlighted the importance of agricultural research centers to carry out these tasks, since often this is not really an activity that would yield enough profits for private industry to be interested in; especially if you do not patent the end products (which, I would argue, is a no-no when your target is low-income subsistence farmers).
- The group argued that it was time to re-think the negative image we have of middlemen (think of the phrase ‘cut out the middleman) because they can play important roles in storing, processing, and retailing food. Private-sector players can respond to urbanization and the emerging economies’ demands for high-value goods, are able to manage supply in ways that reduce loss, and make distribution more efficient through wholesale marketing. In a lot of parts of the world, much food still gets lost on the way to market because the distribution infrastructure is still too poor – so why not engage the help of middlemen in doing so, at least if it is done in a transparent and fair fashion?
That, however, is the devil in the detail – a lot of times, farmers are confronted with monopsonies (single-actor buyers) that abuse their powers to push down prices or to dictate the quality or types of products that are being produced. I also didn’t quite understand the strong link between nutrition and the middleman argument, except if you consider the nutritional value of crops drop because they get stored improperly or that urban populations don’t get access to diverse products except through the help of middlemen.
- One further argument was that these companies may produce novelty products that appeal to urbanizing consumers, and that the processing industry for example also creates jobs. In another connection, I’d heard much about big multinationals looking at emerging markets as a great business opportunity, especially concerning ‘functional foods’ – think snack foods fortified with proteins or other nutrients that are sold cheaply and distributed widely. This HBR article talks about an example (and why it didn’t work economically). I am skeptical though – considering that we are talking both about undernutrition and obesity, I wonder whether widely distributing snack foods and novelty foods (which is often fast food) is the answer.
- However, the Panel also talked about a range of other items, including the challenge of the public sector to both incentivize and regulate the private sector; the importance of public education, especially regarding consumer awareness and education about nutrition; and the need to ensure enough competition for fair pricing, price information, and better negotiation opportunities for farmers entering the market.
Overall, it seems a challenging tasks to think about global food systems of the future, with nutrition in mind, and weighing the interests and concerns of both the business community and the public sector, but I like that they took on the challenge. The Panel is supposed to exist until the Brazil Olympics of 2016 – let’s see what they come up with until then!