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Making the food system work for food and nutrition security

By Klaus Kraemer
Director, Sight & Life

 Our global food system is not sustainable; we need a dynamic, responsive food system to meet future challenges. A food system that prioritizes nutrition, recognizes the key roles of the public and private sectors, educates consumers, promotes nutrient diverse agriculture and incorporates food fortification to fill inevitable nutrition gaps in diet. A food system where nutrition security is the ultimate goal.

Current global policies favor the production of staple crops at the expense of more nutrient-dense food. National policies that have subsidized cheap staple commodities do not provide the right kind of food at the right time for the right people, and this has created the “triple burden” of malnutrition. Malnutrition is a multifaceted problem that requires action and interaction across sectors and disciplines on a scale we have never before contemplated. To address the multiple dimensions of malnutrition, the 2013 Lancet series on Maternal and Child Nutrition highlights the need for both nutrition-specific and nutrition-sensitive interventions.

Without doubt, we have to address both food security (quantity) and nutrition security (quality) across the life-course. The agriculture-food value chain is just one component of a more extensive system. Food and nutrition security have been separated for many years without a major reduction in the global burden of malnutrition. A systems-thinking approach will be key to achieving food and nutrition security and increasing resilience, for each element of the food system is interdependent, and each is equally important.

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We need an implementation science approach that assesses the local context, leverages and effectively uses local assets and infrastructure, and draws on multidisciplinary functions to design, plan, implement, monitor and evaluate models that deliver the appropriate nutrition solutions to the right people in the right place at the right time.

A systems approach may appear a complex undertaking and difficult to operationalize, but this approach has been successfully applied in biology and medicine, and it holds great promise in the light of current innovations in real-time “big data” analyses and mobile technologies.

We should not shy away from the many dimensions of a nutritious food system which is inextricably linked to other sectors such as health, water, sanitation, education, and social protection. Rather, we should see this challenge as an opportunity to innovate, with novel models and technologies not yet anchored in our systems thinking and new iterations of modeling algorithms, in order to address malnutrition in a holistic and sustainable manner so that we address its complexity as a whole.

An in-depth understanding of the food system in its totality should inform policy-making and programming and it should incentivize the food industry / private sector to innovate, produce and distribute nutritious food. All actors – from smallholder farmers to local, regional and transnational food producers and retailers – have an important role to play in a modernized food system. To build this we need to create a fine balance between markets and their regulation, which has the ultimate goal of making the food system more nutritious, affordable, dynamic, responsive and sustainable. Key to framing this balance will be the creation of demand for affordable, nutritious food, including fortified / biofortified food. It is unacceptable that many markets in developing countries are dominated by foods that either provide empty calories or are not locally produced. A certain nutrient profile for different foodstuffs should be met, with fortification playing an important role, and small- and medium-sized local enterprises should be developed and mentored.

We thus need public-private partnerships that go beyond the traditional technology or knowledge transfer to ones where private-sector partners lead together with public-sector entities to achieve backward and forward integration in product development, distribution, and marketing of food. We need to create transformative partnerships that are embedded in a context where culturally appropriate food products are developed that meet nutritional needs of consumers across the life-course.

If the nutrition community is to take the lead in creating a sustainable food environment, we have to face the challenge and start designing the future. 

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 Klaus Kraemer, Ph.D., Director, Sight & Life

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