What do we need to do next to make food systems more nutrition sensitive?

Sheryl L. Hendriks, Professor of Food Security and Director of the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Well-being, University of Pretoria, asks.

Over the past few years, global discussions on how to link agriculture and nutrition have moved to a more proactive approach – pondering how to make the entire food system nutrition sensitive.  We have begun to embrace the broader understanding that malnutrition does not only result in under nutrition but also ‘hidden hunger’ manifesting in widespread micronutrient deficiency,  overweight and obesity. The role of the food environment in shaping access to more nutritious foods is also trending.

The new focus is a welcome transition, recognising that we do not simply need more food to solve food insecurity and overcome malnutrition in all its forms. Rather, the food system is a vehicle for delivering more nutritious food. However, as food systems advance, they can also create unhealthy food environments that perpetuate malnutrition and poor health. Increasingly we see that this is not only an issue for the global north but increasing rates of obesity and overweight are emerging in developing countries. These numbers are set to increase with the transformation of agriculturally based economies as development, urbanisation and globalisation advance.

We need to turn around the drive to produce and make available increasing volumes of food through finding cheaper food ingredients to feed the masses and prolong shelf life to support wider distribution of foods. Rather, we need innovation at all stages of the food system to deliver more nutrition per unit at affordable prices. This will require new incentives for the corporate food security and more pressure form consumers.

Collective responsibility for ensuring that food systems are nutrition-sensitive rests with equally with the private sector and consumers. Numerous research and popular media articles blame ‘Big Food’ and supermarketisation for increasingly unhealthy food environments. But it is time consumers and  communities take their rights seriously and voice their demand for making more affordable healthy food available to enable households’ access to the foods they need to be consuming regularly for optimal nutrition and heath. Understanding what is required for healthy, balanced diets should be developed at all levels of the education system and reinforced through maternal and child health facilities and through public campaigns to empower communities to voice this demand verbally and through their purchasing behaviour. Such a focus creates many opportunities for small producers and processors to shape local food systems, supported by nutrition-conscious consumers.

We will not make much progress on improving nutrition for all and shaping future consumption behaviour for heath and prosperity until we make improving the food environment a part of everyday business at all levels across the food system. This includes what is sold outside rural schools in Africa, street foods and informal food outlets in rural towns and large cities to the institutional menus (for school feeding programmes as one example), and workplace canteens and the shelves in large supermarket chains.  Accountability is required at all levels of the food system. Researchers need to characterise what a healthy food environment consists of in order to develop accountability systems to shape future food systems for delivering better nutrition.

This will enable the development of accountability systems paralleled to corporate social responsibility, scorecards on sustainability and energy performance as part of integrated reporting systems. Such indicators will permit the identification of opportunities for improving the product mix, shelf content and indeed food composition more nutritious. Thereby, drawing attention to incentivise innovation and development across the food system for a more nutrition-sensitive approach.

Published 16 February 2017

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