The World Food Prize Foundation

The Borlaug Blog

How to guide food systems to achieve nutrition objectives

By Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen
2001 World Food Prize Laureate
Dr. Per Pinstrup-Andersen

Much is known about how to change food systems for the benefit of human nutrition. Many pathways through which improved nutrition could flow from agriculture and other parts of food systems to peoples’ diets have been suggested and a large number of recommendations for action by policy-makers, households and others have been made. Yet, it is estimated that about 800 million people suffer from hunger, including insufficient calorie intake and nutrients. That number has barely changed in the last 25 years. An additional billion or more suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. Again, we see very little change over time.  At the same time, more than a billion people suffer from being overweight or obese, a number that is increasing rapidly. The world population is clearly confronted with a massive nutrition problem, a problem causing widespread and rapidly increasing health problems, large economic losses and severe human misery. 

But why is the existing knowledge about what needs to be done not resulting in rapid improvements in peoples’ nutrition? Are the suggested pathways and recommendations not appropriate for guiding the action required by policy-makers and other decision-makers in the food systems? Or do these decision-makers not prioritize nutrition improvements over other goals they may pursue? My assertion is that we in the food and nutrition community have been very naïve with respect to the decision-making processes within which the recommendations are being considered. When a policy-maker does not take the action we recommend, we say “lack of political will”, irrational behavior or worse. 

I suggest it is high time to replace “lack of political will” with a better understanding of the decision-making processes in governments, households, among traders and food processing firms or other agents within food systems, including agricultural researchers and research managers and funders. Instead of concluding that these decision-makers who do not prioritize improved human nutrition over other goals are irrational, we need to identify ways to make actions to improve nutrition compatible with other goals pursued by them. 

We should recognize that food systems are driven by economic factors and self-interests.  Whether we like it or not, the “value” in food value chains is economic value, not nutritional value.  Converting nutritious agricultural commodities into processed foods high in sugar, sweeteners and fat while low in micronutrients and fiber adds economic value in the supply chain but causes increased micronutrient deficiencies, obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases. We need to look for win-wins in which economic and nutrition goals can be pursued simultaneously.  And for that we need to understand the relevant decision-making processes. 

But what exactly are we looking for? Policy-makers are bombarded with statements that the world will be unable to feed future generations, that hunger is widespread and that more “food” should be produced, where “food” is usually measured in bulk or calories. The so-called “food crisis” in 2007-08 contributed to this argument. Since then, cereal production has increased at a rate faster than demand, cereal stocks have increased and cereal prices on the world market have dropped. There is a large underutilized productive capacity in world agriculture, and continued public and private support of agricultural sciences, including the use of modern scientific methods, will open up new way to expand food production sustainably. Successful use of genetic engineering to reduce crop losses due to insects and diseases and new discoveries about how to enhance photosynthetic efficiency are illustrations. Reductions of current large, post-harvest food losses and waste could also make much more food available to consumers. But as illustrated by the impending hunger catastrophe in parts of Africa and large global food surpluses, it matters where and by whom the food is produced. Even in this highly globalized world, food does not flow easily from surplus to deficit areas.

Thus, while climate change and armed conflict are causing production and price volatility, there is no reason to believe that the world will “run out of food”, as argued by some, or that world market food prices will increase significantly. Continued single-minded emphasis on expanding the production of calorie-rich, micronutrient-poor foods will lead to more obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases, while micronutrient deficiencies prevail. Instead of focusing everything on producing more calories through (for example, several countries have supported higher prices for cereals), governments should emphasize a more balanced portfolio of foods with a higher content of micronutrients to help people get access to a diversified, healthy diet.   That, of course, does not mean that we should ignore the periodic local food shortages, such as those currently caused by armed conflict in various African countries.  But we should recognize that these shortages are for calories and nutrients, not just calories.

A large share of the world’s agricultural research community also seems to subscribe to the calorie maximization approach rather than healthy diets. This may be a result of past successes by the Green Revolution to reduce hunger. One of the most important contributions agricultural research has made over the years is the reduction of unit-costs of production.  More food has been produced at the same or lower costs than previously. The cost savings have benefitted farmers with higher incomes and consumers with lower food prices. Millions of people escaped poverty and hunger. The almost single-minded focus on reducing unit-costs of foods with high calorie content and low micronutrient content has been successful in lowering the prices of these foods while prices of foods with high micronutrient content, such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, fish, meats and dairy products, have increased. It is now time to take a close look at the research priorities and focus less on overfilling the stomach and more on assuring access to a diversified healthy diet for all.

Until the unit-costs of micronutrient-rich foods fall, a healthy diversified diet will be out of reach for a large share of the world’s population. Continuing to focus on more calories is a prescription for increased obesity and micronutrient deficiency as illustrated by the large prevalence of obese, iron-deficient women in parts of Asia and Africa. While pursuing reduced unit-costs and prices for micronutrient-rich foods, more attention should be paid to biofortification, i.e. breeding micronutrients into staple foods. As recognized by last year’s selection of the Food Prize Laureates, biofortification is a very promising contributor to a healthy diet. Post-harvest fortification is another option to pursue until everybody can afford (and desire) a healthy diversified diet. 

In conclusion, I believe it is time to improve our understanding of the behavior of the agents in the food systems and to look for ways to integrate nutrition and health goals with existing economic and political goals. Only then will we see a widespread adoption of our nutrition-improving recommendations.

11/13/2017 12:57 PM |Add a comment
* denotes a required field.
Add Comment
Name: *
Comments: *
© 2024 The World Food Prize Foundation. All Rights Reserved.