New Efforts to Diagnose – and Improve – Policy Coherence for Food Systems

Geneva, 21 August 2023 - 

Some countries encourage increased consumption of nutrient-rich foods to reduce the burden of diet-related diseases such as diabetes as one of their health goals - but they also subsidise foods that can contribute to those diseases, such as sugar, edible oil, or refined grains. 

Some countries aim to ensure their populations consume safe food - but apply stringent food safety standards only to food destined for export in a way that can result in unsafe food that fails to meet these standards being diverted to local markets - increasing the population’s risk of foodborne disease.

Some countries aim to reduce biodiversity loss by placing restrictions on extending farming onto forested land - but do not restrict the importation of foods that have been produced in countries with limited restrictions on deforestation.

These are all examples of food systems policy incoherence: when one set of a government’s food-related goals, policies, or actions are in contradiction of another set - like a row boat where half the rowers are pulling in the opposite direction as the others. The result is inefficiency and lower likelihood of achieving policy goals: the boat doesn’t arrive at its destination, or does so more slowly or with more effort than expected. There are also missed opportunities for leveraging synergies across policy areas where they exist. 

Men on a boat in Mozambique

Some countries aim to ensure their populations consume safe food. © GAIN

The causes of policy incoherence are numerous – from fragmentation in national policy-making processes to failure to fully account for the hidden costs and benefits of policy interventions. But as governments around the world are increasingly recognising that many food systems challenges and opportunities are interconnected, with this comes growing acknowledgement of a need for more coherent policies: policies designed to improve one food systems outcome must not inadvertently undermine others, but instead reinforce them. 

Policy coherence tends to be observed when policies help connect actions and decisions across the food system, from farm to plate. For example, a policy to promote increased consumption of leafy vegetables could be reinforced by research and extension policies that prioritise sustainable practices in production of these crops, by policies that incentivise private-sector investment in cold storage facilities to reduce vegetable loss and waste, and including such vegetables in procurement and/or social protection policies to contribute to a viable market for them. Increased policy coherence can increase the likelihood of achieving several food systems outcomes at once – in this case, better health for consumers, increased incomes for vegetable producers, and a more diversified, resilient food system for all.

Perfect coherence among all food-related policies for all outcomes is unlikely to be achieved - and it may not even be desirable, given that there are costs to coordination and alignment and that minor levels of incoherence may have limited effects. But by at least identifying and managing the most important synergies and trade-offs, governments can achieve ‘good enough coherence’ and get all oars pulling in the same direction towards their most important goals. 

Though the importance of policy coherence for development more generally has been recognised for over a decade, the application of the concept within food systems has been limited. And critically, there have to date been no easy-to-use, empirical ways to assess the extent to which policy coherence exists in a given country’s food policies. 

New work by GAIN, in partnership with AKADEMIYA2063, aims to change this. Building on existing tools and approaches, such as those of the OECD and UNEP, we aim to develop a Food Systems Policy Coherence diagnostic tool: a practical way to assess coherence and give actionable recommendations for how food systems policy could be improved to increase coherence. This work, part of the Nourishing Food Pathways (NFP) programme, will benefit from the input of several expert advisors from research and international organisations, and is aimed to be completed (including pilot application to several African and Asian countries) by 2025. 
While having a tool to diagnose opportunities for improvement is only a first step, it is a critical one. It is no coincidence that the UN Secretary General prioritises the need for concerted action to ‘incorporate food systems strategies into all national policies for sustainable development’.  

We hope that this work will provide a key input into countries’ food policy processes going forward: a lighthouse to guide our coordinated rowing towards the shared goal of food systems transformation.