To fight malnutrition, we need to understand agri-food value chains

Published on 7 February 2018

The number of chronically undernourished people in the world is estimated to have increased from 777 million in 2015 to 815 million in 2016 (pdf), thus bucking recent trends towards better global food security and nutrition, according to the latest Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report. Additionally, many countries are dealing with a “triple burden” of malnutrition with energy and micronutrient deficiencies, coexisting with rising rates of overweight and obesity. No doubt, this presents and incredibly complex economic and social challenge.

We are experiencing a move towards highly processed, high calorie foods high in oils, fats, sugar and salt, coupled with decreased physical activity, leading to nutritional losses for the families. Nearly half of South Asian children are stunted, and we know that income growth alone cannot solve the problem of malnutrition and may in fact create obesity. Hence, a question to be asked is how do markets for food, that link agriculture to undernourished populations, deliver nutrition? How can they be more effective? The IDS Bulletin, launched today, looks at the important role of agri-value chains in delivering nutritious foods from agriculture to vulnerable populations in South Asia.

How can markets reduce malnutrition?

With this backdrop, ensuring that safe, nutrient-rich foods are accessible to everyone is fundamental if we are to reduce malnutrition. Often, the role of the private sector in nutrition brings to our minds big multinationals. However, we all depend on markets to get our daily nutrients, and so do poor and undernourished people all around the world, in particular from Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and the informal sector.

Research shows that that low-income consumers rely on markets to buy their food seasonally or year round. For example, the share of purchased food from markets and shops in total food consumption currently constitutes around 70–80 per cent of the food consumed in countries like Indonesia or Vietnam. Agri-food value chains are integral to these markets, with large number of actors interacting with different perspectives and levels of power. This is why, understanding markets for nutrition is an important area to tackle malnutrition, as well as researching private sector capabilities and incentives, and how to best engage with them.

What are the pathways to deliver nutritious food?

This special edition of the IDS Bulletin addresses this research gap by analysing what are the existing (or potential) agri-food value chain pathways to deliver nutritious foods from agriculture to vulnerable populations in South Asia, as well as what is the role that both public and private actors have, in making these value chains more effective towards achieving sustained increased consumption of nutrient-rich foods by the undernourished.

The research is part of Leveraging Agriculture for Nutrition in South Asia (LANSA), a DFID supported research programme consortium. The research identified multiple possible interventions or pathways to improve value chains in such a way that they deliver good quality nutritious food to undernourished people. It focuses on the linkages required to deliver food once the raw produce has left the farm (post-farm gate or the distribution-consumption intersection). These food value chains may be short and simple or long and complex, and often involve public and private sector enterprises, small and large firms, and social protection programmes as well as commercial value chains.

The Bulletin explores multiple agri-food value chain pathways, including mandatory fortification, public distribution, social enterprises, and private business models, among others; to assess different scenarios for better sustained delivery of nutrient–rich foods. All the pathways explored follow a common conceptual framework, which starts the value chain assessment from the desired impact (to improve nutrition) and moves backwards in the value chain analysis.

In order for any intervention to achieve the desired impact, the product promoted must meet three outcomes – they must:

  • be safe to eat
  • contain the nutrients
  • be eaten on the adequate quantities.

Essentially, it assesses the value chain first from a demand perspective (ensuring the product is accessible, affordable, accepted and nutritious) and then backwards from a supply perspective, analysing how the value chain is organised and how the different actors along the chain interact (profitability, risk management, value captured).

The challenge is complex, and so are the ways to address it. This is not a challenge that is exclusive to South Asia, or even low- and middle income (LMICs) countries, an obesity epidemic is very much on the horizon in the US and UK. There is a role here for everyone to play from the private sector, to government. Understanding and working with key actors in the agri-food value chain is a vital way to get nutritious food to people, and to buck this horrendous malnutrition trend.