The New Expert Panel Report on Nutrition and Food Systems: What is Different?

By Lawrence Haddad, GAIN‘s Executive Director

The UN Committee on Food Security’s (CFS) High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) report on “Nutrition and Food Systems” was released at the 44th CFS this week.  The team was led brilliantly by Prof. Jess Fanzo. I was one of the team members.

There have been a number of reports on food systems in the past year – including the Global Panel Report and the IPES report – and next year we have the EATLancet Commission report on sustainable and healthy food systems. This report is specially important as the CFS is the apex body in the international UN system looking at nutrition and food policy.

So what is different about the HLPE report? Here is my take:

First, its main audience is CFS members: governments, UN agencies and other development partners, civil society groups and companies.  This means it has to be couched in the more measured, careful language of diplomacy rather than advocacy.

Second, the report was produced through a very inclusive process. The report team was balanced by geography, disciplinary background and organisation type.  This meant forging compromises that all team members could live with, with the expectation that this will increase the chances of a wider buy in from stakeholders.

Third, it is, subversively, a bit radical. Statements such as “The risks of making well intentioned but inappropriate policy choices are much smaller than the risks of using a lack of evidence as an argument for inaction” are fairly heretical for many nutrition investors guided by Lancet 2008 and 2013. For the more market based interventions within the food system the hard evidence is usually not present and one has to trust educated best guesses and calculated risks as a guide to action. This is an implicit challenge to a trend towards ever more specific searches for evidence to prove interventions are justified.

Fourth, the report gives equal focus to three features of food systems: food supply, food environments and consumer orientation.  Some of the other reports mentioned have not been as balanced and especially do not spend enough time on the creation of the demand for healthy food.

Fifth, the report is very action orientated. For example, there are 26 pages of text on priorities for action in food supply chains, food environments, and in orienting consumer behaviour.  The “investment priority wheels” for the three types of food systems are also useful guides to sequencing action.

Sixth, the report bravely takes on the barriers and enablers for action: bravely because these are all quite context specific and deal with power asymmetries. This kind of political economy analysis needs to be developed further in future HLPE (and other) reports.

Seventh, climate issues are woven throughout the report, not confined to one section or chapter. Other environmental footprint issues could be strengthened in future reports, but to be fair the evidence on the wider environmental footprint of different foods in different countries is sorely lacking.

Finally, the private sector is taken seriously. It is not merely characterised as a malevolent actor.  One of the HLPE team members was even from the private sector –a first, I believe for the HLPE, but brave and necessary.  Given, as the report notes, the public sector is the duty bearer for ensuring food systems enhance food security and nutrition for all, and the private sector is main investor in food systems, it makes sense for the two sides to understand each other better.

I did, however, have quibbles with some of the private sector language (come on, did you expect me to have no quibbles with anything?).  For example, the report states “The private sector is primarily seen as part of the problem, but it can and should also be part of the solution.” Some stakeholders do in fact see the private sector this way, as primarily part of the problem, but many do not.  And the private sector is already part of the solution – it is just that it is also part of the problem (as, incidentally are governments – some of whom have good, some less good policies). Also, the report does little to dispel the notion that the private sector is a multinational monolith.  For example, Small and Medium Income Enterprises (SME) are only mentioned once.

Jessica Fanzo, the Report Team Leader, and Eileen Kennedy, the HLPE member who was our spiritual guide and inspiration, deserve a great deal of credit as do the HLPE secretariat.  They got us through the hard times when it all seemed too overwhelming and when we could not sometimes reach consensus.

All in all, it is a report I’m proud to be associated with. The content, presentation and generation process were all thoughtful, deliberative and inclusive.

So, read it, critique it, share it, but most of all, use it and act on it!


Download the HLPE “Nutrition and Food Systems” Report here

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Published 11 October 2017