Tuesday, 14 August 2012

After the hunger summit: Where does the private sector fit into the new agenda on undernutrition?

By Ewan Robinson

David Cameron’s plan to use the hunger summit at the close of the Olympics to direct attention to global child undernutrition seems to have worked. Mainstream media coverage featured snapshots of Cameron standing besides sport legends Mo Farah and Pele.

Campaign groups and analysts have begun to debate whether the summit amounts to a step towards the UK leading an international push on nutrition or simply ‘mouthwashing’ (Duncan Green’s re-coining of ‘greenwashing’).

So what came out of the hunger summit? According to DFID (also see Lawrence Haddad’s analysis), the UK has pledged support in three areas:

  • Agriculture, including creating and distributing biofortified crops enriched with micronutrients;
  • Working with the private sector (including corporations Unilever, Syngenta and GSK) to make nutritious food available and affordable to poor people;
  • Tracking undernutrition, and governments’ commitment to tackling it.

How do agriculture, private sector development and nutrition link up?
Many of the critiques of the hunger summit have focused on the involvement of the private sector, with particular anger about multinationals’ role in wildly fluctuating food prices and land grabs in Africa. These issues warrant serious attention. At the same time, these are not the only causes at the root of global undernutrition. Micronutrient deficiencies have been around much longer than food price speculation. And although we should be concerned about issues affecting farmers’ incomes, income alone isn’t enough.1 Even in places where households’ incomes have risen, this hasn’t necessarily led to better nutrition. Clearly there's much more we need to consider in order to assess the role of businesses in (under)nutrition.

Tackling undernutrition will require action on multiple fronts. We need direct interventions to help the neediest people, but also market-based approaches to make sure nutritious foods are produced, and all people have access to them. Aid or government action alone will not be enough.

Can value chains deliver nutritious food to people that need it?
Agencies and NGOs have been enthusiastically discussing how to make agriculture promote better nutrition 2. Much of this discussion has focused on encouraging small farmers to produce food for their own consumption. For many small farmers, being better able to grow more nutritious foods for household consumption would be a major benefit. But if we want to promote nutrition for the majority of the world’s poor, we need to consider that, from urban slum dwellers to dryland farmers, a majority of poor people do not grow all the food they eat - they buy it.

To understand how people get access to nutritious food (or don’t), we need to look at how food gets to consumers.

This is where a value chain approach is helpful. Looking at value chains draws our attention to the stages that connect crops on farms to the food that people eat, including how food is transported, processed, distributed and marketed to consumers.

As a starting point, here are four big questions we should ask about whether value chains are delivering nutritious food to the people that need it:
  • Is food available? Can it be purchased in places and markets that those who need it can access?
  • Is food affordable? Can poor and at-risk households afford nutritious food, if it is available?
  • How nutritious is food? When looking at nutrition, it’s not just the quantity and price of food that matters, but the nutrients that it contains. Are nutrients maintained or enhanced as food moves through value chains? Can consumers tell whether food is nutritious or not?
  • Is food acceptable? Is food available in forms that people find attractive or acceptable to buy, cook and eat? Do they understand its benefits and are they willing to pay for them? 
  • (These questions are adapted from a paper by Corinna Hawkes and Marie Ruel 3).

The challenges and opportunities of value chains for nutrition 
These are big challenges for businesses of all types, from the multinationals highlighted in the hunger summit to food processors and local shops in developing countries. So, what incentives and challenges do businesses face in building (and profiting from) value chains for nutrition?

1 See for example, evidence from a nationally representative survey in India.

2 For a synthesis of recent guidelines on linking agriculture and nutrition, see Herforth, A. (2012) Guiding Principles for Linking Agriculture and Nutrition: Synthesis from 10 development institutions, Rome: FAO

3 Hawkes, C. and Ruel, M. T. (2011) ‘Value Chains for Nutrition’, paper prepared the IFPRI 2020 international conference Leveraging Agriculture for Improving Nutrition and Health, 10-12 February