The food system is an essential part our lives in many respects. It is a very complex, integrated network that comprises not only supply chains of big companies, but also the institutions, the businesses and the people involved in the production, consumption, and distribution of the food we need to live healthy and productive lives. It also provides an income source for billions of people, many of whom are poor, and it is one of the largest users of the world’s natural resources. The food system is essential to not only maintain healthy lives, but also for global health security.
Today, there is no doubt that our global food system is facing enormous challenges. While we continue to grow enough food for everyone in the planet, we know that almost every country in the world is suffering from some forms of malnutrition.
There are still over 795 million people in the world who go to bed hungry every day, according to the FAO, and about 159 million stunted children. Poor nutrition causes 45% of deaths in children under five – 3.1 million children each year.
At the same time, there is a growing epidemic of overweight and obesity affecting 1.9 billion people globally, who are more likely to develop non-communicable diseases. The latest Global Nutrition Report 2015 shows us that no country is on track to reduce adult overweight and obesity.
Progress in reducing malnutrition remains too slow and too uneven: we are nowhere near reaching the nutrition targets set by the World Health Assembly, whether those related to anaemia, wasting or those on increased breastfeeding rates.
Climate change and conflicts both exacerbate these challenges by pushing up food prices, worsening food security, hindering the production and movement of food or making staple crops less nutritious. Moreover, population growth and rising urbanization put pressure on urban food systems, which are failing to keep up with the rapid growth of cities.
These multidimensional challenges require us to strengthen the existing food system and change the way it is currently configured. We need to start thinking about a new paradigm for the food system that has at its core the provision of sustainable nutritious diets accessible to everyone.
There are many pathways to building this paradigm, but I would like to focus on one, which I think is one of the most critical: making markets work better for the poor, so that they can have access to an affordable nutritious diet.
In particular, there are four different market models that we have been implementing with our partners. These models leverage markets to improve productivity, safety and nutrition outcomes. They also facilitate the development of business offerings that will actually provide more nutritious foods to poor people.
Catalysing small and middle-sized enterprises (SMEs) in East Africa
These enterprises provide the critical link between smallholder farmers, food markets and consumers at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP). SMEs create around 80% of the region’s employment, establishing a new middle class and fuelling demand for new goods and services. They represent big drivers of economic growth, innovation, regional development and job creation.
In an increasingly urbanized world, the urban poor and families who work in agriculture make choices based on what is available in the market. Despite working on crop-yielding farms, many agricultural families are undernourished and often hungry. According to the World Bank, BoP consumers spend $3.5 trillion on food every year and this is expected to grow.
SMEs have being growing rapidly over the last decade, but still face many challenges which constrain them from playing a stronger role in the food system: from access to technologies, credit, infrastructure and lack of demand for nutritious foods.
GAIN, with support from USAID and the Feeding the Future initiative, created the Marketplace for Nutritious Foods, a program designed to foster innovation and support promising businesses that produce heathy, safe and affordable for low income consumers.
The program, organized in three components, provides financing facilities, trainings, infrastructures and technical assistance. Supporting entrepreneurs, many of whom are women, is critical to ensure the success of their businesses and improve dietary diversity.
Initially launched in four East African countries, GAIN’s marketplace is currently supporting 37 companies and has reviewed almost 800 business plans.
“Chicken Choice” is definitely a good example of one of the SMEs we are supporting. They works along the entire poultry value chain to use all parts of the chicken and make chicken, rich in protein, available to consumers from all economic backgrounds in Kenya. Thanks to our program, the company is planning to open four new retail outlets and buy are refrigerated truck to support safer and more efficient distribution of chicken.
Fortifying staple foods and condiments with essential vitamins and micronutrients
Because of the nature of the food system, poor people often eat monotonous diets based on a few staple foods and do not have access to the nutrients that they need. Food fortification is one of the cheapest and most practical tools we have to tackle micronutrient malnutrition, or hidden hunger, the lack of vital vitamins and micronutrients needed to grow properly and stay healthy.
Through our food fortification program, with support from our donors, particularly the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID, GAIN developed a model for fortifying staple foods across entire countries, targeting staple foods like wheat flour, maize flour, cooking oil, salt and other condiments like soja and fish sauce, focusing on what people consume locally.
Today, our programs with partners reach an estimated 900 million people, half of whom are women and children, in over 40 countries.
Building multi-stakeholder partnerships, bringing together governments, civil society and business, are the key to success to implement this model. Governments need to be at the centre of the alliances and often executing a central role in policy, regulation and enforcement, while the private sector carries out the fortification. UN Agencies often play an important role in program implementation and civil society help strengthen technical assistance.
One of our first programs was implemented in South Africa. As a result of the fortification of flour with folic acid, there has been a 30% decline in Neural Tube Defects, including 41% drop in prevalence of Spina Bifida.
Investing in nutrition all along supply chains of large companies
Rural communities are among the most food and nutrition insecure populations, with women and children bearing the highest health burden. Childhood stunting rates in rural areas are higher than urban areas due to the lack of availability of nutritious foods, particularly during lean seasons.
Therefore, one of the most important approaches to tackle malnutrition is to focus on improving the health and nutrition of small holder farmers and farmer workers working in the supply chains of large companies.
In Davos last year, we launched a program with Unilever to improve the nutrition of 2.5 million farmers and their families in Unilever’s supply chain, in particular female farmers, pregnant women and young children. It will also contribute to improved nutrition through hand washing.
The first phase of the program is being implemented in India to improve the nutrition and health of more than 20,000 farming families in Unilever´s food business supply chain. Interventions include better information on nutritious diets, increased access to vegetables and livestock and planting nutrient rich trees and plants in between planting cycles.
Leveraging market players around Research and Development in Nutrition
Research and Development (R&D) is one of the most important drivers of the food system and most of R&D capacity is in the private sector.
In order to harness this knowledge, capacity and resources, GAIN created the Business Platform for Nutritious Research (BPNR), which is a pre-competitive, multistakeholder for Nutrition Research (BPNR). The purpose of this platform is to define, fund and disseminate new research to improve nutrition in low and middle income countries.
Business partners include MARS, PepsiCo, DSM, BASF and Ajinomoto to name a few. Within the BPNR, companies work together to support public research on areas to improve evidence base for nutrition, or on new technologies.
So far, three research streams have been identified for immediate support: bioavailability, biomarkers and health diagnostics; behaviour change communication; and food safety.
These four models are at different stages of evolution: some are just starting, and some others are reaching millions of people every day. But they all show that there is a clear pathway to addressing malnutrition and changing the food system by better using market forces and particularly the private sector.
It is encouraging to see that International frameworks like the 2030 agenda and the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are reinforcing these conditions and calling on all relevant stakeholders to break out the silo mentality and develop new innovative partnership approaches.
The world now has a clear vision of what needs to be done to end malnutrition by 2030. The new SDGs expand the vision, placing nutrition at the heart of the new food system we must create for a world population growing towards 9 billion. Aid is only a small part of the solution; harnessing it to leverage other investments will be a key to success, as will new forms of multisector partnerships.
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