How to ensure access to healthy diets for all: a clarion call for One CGIAR

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Guest blog by Lawrence Haddad, Executive Director, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN)

At the dawn of the new One CGIAR era, what is the clarion call to the CGIAR networks and partners? In my opinion, CGIAR needs to pick big, inspiring, and important questions to answer. Can there be a bigger question for humanity than how to ensure access to a healthy diet for all? Currently, three billion people do not have such access (SOFI 2020). One billion of them live in Africa, accounting for 74% of the continent’s population. This situation threatens to get worse before it gets better: study after study shows that the prices of nutritious foods are increasing relative to the prices of staples.

In an article in Food Policy, I outline the key research issues that CGIAR should lead on over the next decade. Here I summarize three priority domains where there is too little research and where CGIAR is well equipped to fill the gap:

1. Policy environment: If, as I hope will be the case, making healthy diets more available and affordable is one of the key outcomes of success for CGIAR, what does that mean for public policy? CGIAR has some amazing policy researchers but I question whether the right incentives are in place for them to attack the big questions. CGIAR needs appropriate management practices and funding to make this happen.

Two examples: First, how is international agricultural R&D allocated within CGIAR? This is a sizable annual amount and sets norms for national R&D systems. Why is so little dedicated to foods that are rich in micronutrients and high-quality protein, such as fruits, vegetables, pulses, nuts, eggs, dairy, fish and poultry? These foods are important components of a healthy diet and yet R&D allocations remain heavily weighted to staples. This may be the best allocation for attaining a healthy diet, but let’s not assume it is—instead, let’s model different allocations in different regions and use access to nutritious foods as a key outcome metric.

Another example is the public procurement of food. Governments are huge buyers of food for social protection programmes, schools, hospitals and prisons. While governments exhort their consumers to eat healthy diets via food-based dietary guidelines, they ignore their own advice when purchasing food for the most vulnerable in their societies—the cheapest calories are usually procured. Few food programmes include pulses, for example, and few cash programs incentivise the consumption of nutritious food. Why is that? And what would be the effect if they did change this and how much would it cost? We need answers to these questions.

2. The private sector: When I was taught about rural transformation in the 1980s, it went something like this: on-farm productivity increases would allow farmers to purchase more non-farm rural products, in turn allowing greater purchase of food from farmers, thus setting up a virtuous, tight feedback loop that would free up labour for other sectors, many in the urban space. In the 2020s this loop is more like a flabby fan belt with space for lots of non-virtuous players rubbing shoulders with those who do care about nutrition and health. Supply chains are long in terms of space and time, allowing for more nutrition in, but also more nutrition out. Simply put, there is a lot of potential for nutritious food loss, food adulteration and spoilage, hiked-up transactions costs and rent-seeking behaviour.

What is in the middle of this overstretched loop between farmers and consumers? Small and medium enterprises (SMEs), most of them food businesses. And yet we know very little about this space. Farms and consumers are well researched by CGIAR, but SMEs (processors, traders, transporters, retailers, marketers, financiers) much less so. Many decisions SMEs make in response to the incentives they face have an enormous collective effect on the availability, accessibility and desirability of nutritious foods, and we need to know how to incentivise finance and business development extension towards SMEs that produce nutritious foods for domestic markets.

3. Synergies and trade-offs: Just as the pursuit of cheap calories has negative externalities for jobs, the environment and nutrition, so too will the pursuit of greater access to healthy diets. What will happen to water and energy use if we produce a lot more vegetables, nuts and beans? Can increased productivity in egg production be attained without harm to the environment and the animals? Can herd productivity in low income settings be increased so as to reduce the price of animal source foods that are vital for infant development while reducing herd sizes to maintain or lower greenhouse gas emissions from these sources? Can business models be developed to produce and sell fruits at a price that people living on $2 a day can afford? Most of the evidence and research on these trade-offs and synergies is from high-income countries; we need more from low- and middle-income countries.

To answer this clarion call and address the three domains above, CGIAR needs a systems approach, looking across demand, supply, and the enabling environment within the food system. Such an approach also needs to look at how the food system interfaces with health, social and eco-systems.

Listening to Claudia Sadoff’s presentation on CGIAR’s new 2030 Research and Innovation Strategy during The Future of Research for Development, a side-event at the World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue, I was glad to see that food systems are very much in the picture, being supported by land and water systems, with genetic resources as the fundamental underpinning platform.

It is great to see CGIAR reinventing itself. This reinvention is necessary for a One CGIAR to maintain its gold standard research status in a fast-changing world. CGIAR should be, and I have no doubt it will be, the leading research entity guiding us towards food system transformation.

For that, CGIAR needs research and implementation partners—it cannot and should not do this work alone. We at GAIN, like many other development partners, stand ready to work with One CGIAR under this new paradigm.


Header photo: Orange-fleshed sweet potato (OFSP) with enriched levels of Vitamin A, help ward off one of the world’s most common and most dangerous nutritional deficiencies, particularly for children under the age of five. Read more about how OFSP is helping farmers in Malawi achieve greater food and nutrition security. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR.

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