What does food system transformation mean?

Geneva, 1 November 2019 - 

I go to many meetings where the term "food system transformation" is bandied about. Sometimes the term goes unquestioned - for some people it has entered into the rarefied atmosphere of development jargon. But increasingly (thank goodness) the question is being asked: what does food system transformation mean? So what is the answer? This is my take.

First we need to get policymakers and CEOs and civil society to pay attention to what food systems are currently doing to health systems (bankrupting them), greenhouse gas emissions (generating 30% of them), natural resource use (putting pressure on their sustainability) and livelihoods (not generating enough for the coming youth bulge). 

Getting influencers to acknowledge that there is a problem is not easy. Food systems are delivering more food (an accomplishment), but lots of it is not very high quality. Food systems are delivering jobs, but too many are low paid. Food systems are delivering tax revenue but not enough (and governments spend USD600bn every year subsidising staple crops). So to add nutrition, climate and environment together in food system work may seem like a bridge too far, but actually it is a bridge to a sustainable future: we don’t have any choice if we want to improve planetary and human health. An increasing number of people, especially young people, get this argument. A lot of good advocacy and awareness raising work needs to be done here by civil society, scientists, the UN and the media.  

Second there is the discovery phase. What does my food system look like, where is it performing well, where is it not, and what do I have to change? Decision makers are flying blind here. They don’t know enough about what people are eating, why they are eating it and which priority food system actions to take. We need data and tools to do this. GAIN is working with Gallup Foundation, Harvard and Johns Hopkins Universities to develop these data and tools. In this discovery phase, government, businesses and others need to come together to design pilot interventions that change the incentives. Usually several of these will have to be in place at the same time to have a system changing effect.  

Mixed vegetables

Currently vegetables are too expensive for too many of the world’s malnourished people. What convergence of actions would have to happen to make vegetables cheaper? © Unsplash

Take vegetables. The winner of the 2019 World Food Prize was Simon Groot, founder of East West Seeds, for the company’s work in supporting small farmers to get access to high quality vegetable seeds. Currently vegetables are too expensive for too many of the world’s malnourished people. What convergence of actions would have to happen to make vegetables cheaper? Several things at the same time: publicly supported agricultural research and development would have to focus on raising the productivity of vegetables so that farmers can increase their profits; storage and transport facilities would have to be improved to prevent 50% losses in getting vegetables to market; SMEs that market vegetables would need to get readier access to affordable financing;  the healthy processing of vegetables would have to be incentivised to maintain their nutritional value via, say, labelling on processed products; retailers should be encouraged to offer price discounts for vegetables and finally - or, better still, initially - there needs to be a highly effective public sector campaign linking vegetable consumption to things people really care about. 

Third, the challenge is to scale. This can be done using government programmes, access to finance, civil society movements and better functioning markets for nutritious foods. For example, governments buy a lot of food from the private sector - e.g. for schools, health clinics and hospitals, the justice system - it sends a powerful nationwide demand signal if the government starts buying more nutritious foods. We need improved finance to SMEs from which most low-income families buy their food - most cannot get access to finance to expand their production and marketing of nutritious foods, they are too big for microfinance and too small for commercial finance. Civil society movements can deliver change, such as youth movements in Bangladesh that are demanding more nutritious foods and rewarding companies that respond. Markets can more efficiently match demand and supply if  information gaps and asymmetries are reduced, say between the food safety claims of producers and their actual safety.  

It is easy to say food systems need to be transformed, but hard to say "why?", "transformed to what?", and "how to do it?". If decision-makers are not asking these questions , they should be held accountable. The decision makers that are asking these questions need answers to the questions. Most of all, malnourished people deserve sustainable affordable nutritious diets. That is what transformed food systems can deliver.