The best reads of 2019 from GAIN staff

Geneva, 17 December 2019 - 

At GAIN we strive for sustained impact. Our aim is to improve the consumption of nutritious and safe food for all, especially the most vulnerable. We work hard to make sure our programming, policy and knowledge work form a virtuous circle that generates that impact.  

Hence, we take knowledge seriously: as producers, but also as consumers. Here is our end-of-year list for the articles, books, blogs, videos and reports that have influenced our thinking this year. I love the fact that the contributions are from all parts of the organisation and draw on a wide range of sources. We hope you uncover something interesting among this treasure trove!

Stack of books on shelves

Here is our end of year list for the articles, books, blogs, videos and reports that have influenced our thinking this year. © Unsplash

Pakistan National Action Plan on SDGs: "Sustainable Consumption and Production"

Developed by Ministry of Climate Change, Government of Pakistan in collaboration with UN Environment Programme and EU-SWITCH Asia.

The Action Plan on "Sustainable Food Systems" (page 20-25) has four major objectives:

  1. Create a modern, efficient and diversified agriculture by adopting sustainable agriculture practices, technologies for sustainable production system and to meet food security,
  2. Reduce food waste and crop loss,
  3. Increase and ensure protection and preservation of prime agricultural land and combat desertification and drought and
  4. Adoption of climate resilient techniques and measures for ensuring food security and sustainable agriculture.

The plan dedicates major implementation responsibility to the Ministry of National Food Security and Research, Ministry of Climate Change, the Provincial Agriculture Departments and NGOs. Despite the rise in malnutrition in Pakistan and the increased government commitment to tackling it, the focus of the plan remains on improving food security and reducing hunger. The nutrition angle and its link with health outcome is somewhat missing and market engagement and food-based solutions are not strongly emphasised. It reminded me how important it is for us all to engage with these consultations outside of the conventional nutrition sphere and to build on the government’s existing initiatives.

Animal source foods: Sustainability problem or malnutrition and sustainability solution? Perspective matters, in Global Food Security,

Adegbola T. Adesogan et al., 2019. 

This article highlights the importance of animal source foods (ASF) for "improving nutrition, reducing poverty, improving gender equity, improving livelihoods, increasing food security, and improving health." The authors argue that the sustainable diets literature, including the EAT-Lancet Commission, overstates the negative impacts of ASF on human and environmental health.
My take-away: ASF are essential for vulnerable populations, like young children, and the environmental impact of livestock production depends on context and the method of production. The global food system should produce a moderate amount of ASF, but ensure use of sustainable livestock production methods, appropriate to the local context.

Eating Nafta: Trade, Food Policies and the Destruction of Mexico

Alyshia Galvez
This book is an engaging anthropological documentation of the impact that trade policies can have on the local food system of developing countries. It is an excellent description of the complex relationship between food, trade, the environment and health seen through the lens of the Mexican – American relationship (also a complicated one!).
It offers important lessons for countries that are behind Mexico in their economic and epidemiological transition. I took note of many essential learnings and mistakes to avoid in countries where we work, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. I also think it is a stark reminder of the prevalent mistake of working in silos and/or bringing in a dominant paradigm and believing it without ever questioning its limits - in this case, neoliberalism.

On a personal level it brought me back to my roots and the immense heritage of Mexican cuisine which has been jeopardised as an unintended consequence of globalisation.

Two Dimensions of Growth: Biology and Economics by Harold Alderman

Martin J. Forman Memorial Lecture

The author discusses how investing in young children’s nutrition yields economic benefits. He insists on the importance of understanding the underlying mechanisms on how nutrition affects economic growth and the relevance of cost-effective analysis. These aspects are important for investments in nutrition. In addition, nutrition is more than just height.

The author bases his entire arguments on evidence. The pathways between childhood nutrition and growth are built through a large body of work on the relationship between biology and economics of child development. This makes his recommendations powerful and convincing. The investments in nutrition should be driven by evidence.

Your Questions about Food and Climate Change, Answered. How to shop, cook and eat in a warming world.

Julia Moskin, Brad Plumer, Rebecca Lieberman and Eden Weingart

This is a New York Times piece about our food choices and their impacts on climate change, broken down in an interactive and easy-to-read guide. I particularly like it because even though I’ve been studying this topic for a couple of years now, there are many things that I didn’t know myself - like how dairy products, particularly cheese, have a bigger carbon footprint than chicken or pork even. 

Hopefully this will be informative to GAIN staff in both their personal diet choices and perhaps in their programme work too!

Assuring safe food systems: policy options for a healthier food supply. Policy brief no. 5 | April 2016

Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition

The report reviews food safety issues that are critical to poor and vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries and concludes that integrated set of policy actions, regulations, surveillance and training of individual and organisations throughout the food chain is required to assure the safety of the food system.

The report clearly shows the links between food safety and nutrition which is central to GAIN’s mission to address malnutrition. For many low- and middle-income countries, the priorities for export food safety appear to be considerably stronger than protecting the poor and vulnerable at home. This must change as safe food systems are critical to ensuring good nutrition. 

The Poetical Institute's Peculiar Powers of Vegetables and Fruits

Sharada Keats and JiaJia Hamner
This beautiful book extols the magical properties of vegetables and fruits that you never knew they had, Pea Soup Invisibility and Broccoli Bravery?! A collection of amusing poems by our own Sharada, accompanied by beautiful illustrations, this book provides inspiration to young and old to try a new nutritious food.
You can’t help but smile while reading this book, and it definitely made me think it was too long since I had had okra or papaya! The pictures are wonderful and the poems are fun for children but with a wink to the adults reading. Very uplifting and informative!

Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems. 

The Lancet Commissions| Volume 393, Issue 10170, P447-492, February 02, 2019

Love it or hate it, you cannot ignore it, and this is the triumph of this report. A wake-up call. Those who want to improve nutrition cannot do so at the planet’s expense and cannot assume they will not do so. Those who want to keep us within planetary boundaries of natural capital cannot do so at the expense of human health and livelihoods and cannot assume they will not do so.

There are many gaps and omissions and many missed opportunities in communication of nuanced issues but, make no mistake, this is a landmark report and one that has shaken everything up - to good effect. 

Growing Better: Ten Critical Transitions to Transform Food and Land Use

The Food and Land Use Coalition (FOLU); Per Pharo et al.
This report advances the economic case for profound transformation of our food and land use systems.

It emphasises the huge benefits relative to costs and introduces a framework of ten "critical transitions", one of which is to promote healthier diets: those higher in fruits, vegetables, whole grains; more diverse in protein supply (including less meat consumption in rich countries); and lower in sugar, salt, and unhealthier options.  

I like its ambition – it’s grappling with a huge agenda and building on really interesting work, including the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, and Health.

Adolescent health: boys matter too

The Lancet. December 05, 2015

I am very passionate about the role adolescents can play in steering us all towards healthier diets. So my focus in 2019 was to learn more directly from adolescents, but also from various publications, documents and articles. 

My main concern remains on understanding the perspectives of adolescent boys in food choice in Bangladesh because when they leave school, they contribute significantly to family income and gain more influence within the family. Compared to adolescent girls we know less about what boys eat, when they eat it, what motivates them and the barriers they face to wanting and obtaining a healthier diet.

This article helped me because it validated and expanded my own views on how adolescent boys affect not only their own decisions about what to eat but also the decisions of others in their family and community.  

FAO State of Food and Agriculture
The report gathers all available evidence on food loss and waste. It looks at how we understand it and how we measure it; why it matters; what the business case for reducing it is, and what policy measures need to be put in place to control it.
I liked it because it is comprehensive, and convincing without trying to push the arguments further than the evidence can stand. Evidence is collated from around the world, and very well summarised in great figures and graphics.

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much 

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir 

The book describes how scarcity of time or money imposes a "mental bandwidth tax" which leads us to make bad choices. A time deprived manager or a money poor "tunnel" tends to lead to a focus on meeting urgent needs but takes attention away from more important but less urgent needs. 
There is a vivid example in the book on nutrition labels. Too many nutrition labels inundate people with too much information which makes it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions. Streamlining information can reduce the "mental bandwidth requirement" and can guide the scarce time and money of poor consumers towards more informed decisions. 

The Trillion-Dollar Opportunity In Supporting Female Entrepreneurs

Shalini Unnikrishnan and Roy Hanna, published by Harvard Business Review. 
This article explores why it is important to provide equal access to business opportunities for men and women. Doing so would add 3-6% to global GDP, amounting in cash terms to USD 2.5-5 trillion. The article also shows that women in business, in addition to technical assistance and financial support, need access to networks for their businesses to survive.
I like this article because it brings out the critical importance of some of GAIN’s work that promote platforms (e.g. SUN Business Network, Marketplace) that have a high participation of women and usually create networking sessions, in addition to access to technical assistance and financial access.

As GAIN embarks on its gender strategy, this article indicates that we have processes that are complete in terms of diversity, inclusivity and participation, that we need to talk more about as we implement the strategy. 

The effect of eggs on early child growth in rural Malawi: the Mazira Project randomized controlled trial

Stewart, CP, et al. 2019 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 110: 1026–1033

This paper reports on a trial studying the impact of giving an egg a day to young children in rural Malawi. There was no effect on children’s linear growth. The authors suggest this is due to a starting diet rich in animal-source foods and low initial prevalence of stunting.

I like this paper because it highlights the importance of context: a similar trial in Ecuador found a significant improvement in growth, setting off considerable excitement. But, in nutrition, one size rarely fits all. Also, it underscores the role of null results in advancing research - even if they’re not as exciting.

Rethinking Food and Agriculture 2020-2030. The Second Domestication of Plants and Animals, the Disruption of the Cow, and the Collapse of Industrial Livestock Farming.

A RethinkX Sector Disruption Report September 2019. Catherine Tubb and Tony Seba.

The report argues that the current industrialised, animal-agriculture system will be replaced with a Food-as-Software model, where foods are engineered by scientists at a molecular level and uploaded to databases that can be accessed by food designers anywhere in the world. This will result in a far more distributed, localised, stable, and resilient food-production system.

If the technology really proves to have the impact projected (US focused), how could this benefit the access to affordable safe and nutritious foods in the countries we work in? Of course, many questions arise that need an answer and this may limit the potential benefits: acceptability, ethics/religion, IP rights, locally available knowledge, redesign of value chain.  

Something to keep an eye on. 

Supply chain trust: The catalyst for collaborative innovation.

Stanley E. Fawcett, Stephen L. Jones, and Amydee M. Fawcett. 2012
Business Horizons: The Journal of the Kelley School of Business, Indiana University
This paper argues that building trust between businesses is a prerequisite for collaborative innovation and supply chain optimisation. Yet there is a lack of understanding within businesses of the nature of trust and how to build it. To address this, the authors have developed a trust maturity framework and they use it to discuss the competitive power of trust.
I think that building trust between food businesses is an underappreciated and significant, albeit hard to measure, outcome of our supply chain business alliances/networks. I liked this article because, while it focuses on large Western companies, I still think it makes a strong case for why trust is a key ingredient for partnerships between small and medium size enterprises and for improving supply chains for nutritious food. 

229 Very Low-Cost Cities Around the World: Data Sources

Ray Woodcock 
The paper describes the author’s attempts to work out the financial impact of becoming an expatriate, which is highly relevant to our recent work on developing a model for salary scales that is comparable across countries. This involves trying to work out the relative costs of living in different cities. The main take-away is that there is a surprising lack of reliable data out there, although the author reached a conclusion of sorts. But the helpful part is the journey that he went on and the analysis of the information that is available.
I like this paper because it really helped in identifying the 7 "PPP" type indices that we were able to consider at GAIN, and it helped confirm that there is no "magic bullet" answer to our questions. I also liked his distinction between the budget-conscious ordinary expat (sometimes referred to as the "Oxpat"), and the wealthy expat or the corporate expat (the "Cexpat"). This helped my thinking regarding which indices are more relevant for GAIN.