Making Food Systems Nutrition‐sensitive: an Economic Policy Perspective

Published date01 March 2014
Date01 March 2014
World Food Policy
That food systems aect human nu-
trition should be obvious to all of
us. Without food, we perish. But the
nutrition eect of a food system depends
on its characteristics and the environment
within which it operates and the impact on
nutrition may be inuence d by po licy in-
terventions. Whether an outcome of policy
interventions or not, changes in a food sys-
tem may improve nutrition, e.g., eliminat-
ing iron deciencies, or the nutritional sta-
tus may deteriorate, e.g., causing excessive
intake of dietary energy resulting in obesity
and associated diabetes. Good nutrition is
very important for individuals and societies
and one might imagine that food systems
would be guided by health and nutrition
goals. at is not usually the case. Food sys-
tems are guided by the behavior of agents
in the system pursuing economic goals and
when they conict with health and nutri-
tion goals, the former usually dominates.
is is not a value judgment that one set of
goals is “better” than another but simply an
observation that market-based economies
operate on the basis of supply and demand
and not on needs and compassion.
e question addressed in this article
is which public policy interventions might
make economic goals compatible with nu-
trition goals, that is, reducing or remov-
ing the above-mentioned conict. In other
words, what could governments do to make
food systems more nutrition-sensitive? On
the surface, the answer may appear straight
forward: produce the food people need and
e triple burden of malnutrition, i.e. lack of access to sucient dietary en-
ergy, micronutrient deciencies and overweight and obesity, causes wide-
spread human misery, low labor productivity and large economic losses to
individuals and societies. While most eorts to improve nutrition have fo-
cused on direct interventions, the results have been disappointing. Oppor-
tunities for nutrition improvements through changes in the food system are
large and largely ignored. Merely producing more food does not assure bet-
ter nutrition. Most malnutrition, particularly overweight and obesity but
also much of the existing energy and nutrient deciencies, occurs amidst
plenty of food at the national or global levels. us, assuming that the food
system’s only role in improving nutrition is to produce more food is a falla-
cy. Food policy should pursue improved nutrition along with other food sys-
tem goals, and trade-os among the various goals should be addressed. e
pathways between food systems and nutrition, including those operating
through food availability, incomes, food prices, gender-specic time alloca-
tion, should be identied and household behavior should be fully understood.
Keywords: malnutrition, food system-nutrition pathways, policy interventions
Per Pinstrup-Andersen1
Making Food Systems Nutrition-sensitive: an Economic
Policy Perspective
1 H. E. Babcock Professor of Food, Nutrition and Public Policy, Professor of Applied Economics, Cornell
University, Ithaca, New York and Adjunct Professor, University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark.
Making Food Systems Nutrition-sensitive: an Economic Policy Perspective
make sure they eat it. In reality, it is extreme-
ly complicated. Even centrally planned
command economies that tried or at least
pretended to try, have failed. In order to
identify the possible policy interventions,
it is essential to understand the pathways
through which food systems may aect nu-
trition and to pin point the main factors in
each pathway that cause economic and nu-
trition goals to dier. ese factors may be
external to the food system or they may be
integrated into the system. Policy inter ven-
tions may aim to change the socioeconom-
ic environment within which food systems
operate or they may focus on changing sys-
tem-specic physical and behavioral fac-
One might expect that overall eco-
nomic welfare would be maximized in a
market economy’s food system if every
system agent, including farmers, traders,
and consumers, would maximize his/her
economic welfare. But even in such a sit-
uation, the net positive nutrition eect is
unlikely to be maximized in the absence
of government intervention. e physical
and socioeconomic environments may not
be conducive to the production, trade, and
consumption of the foods needed to assure
good nutrition and the behavior of farmers,
processors, consumers, and other food sys-
tem agents may seek goals other than good
Increasing and more volatile food
prices since 2007 and widespread concerns
about future food supplies and unsustain-
able management of natural resources have
drawn the attention of policymakers to-
wards the world food situation. Although
most recent policy responses have been of
a short-run nature, e.g., fertilizer subsidies,
a consensus is developing—at least rhetor-
ically—among national polic ymakers and
international organizations that invest-
ments in long-term agricultural develop-
ment, such as agricultural research, must
be increased. us, members of the G8 and
G20 have committed large increases in in-
ternational economic support for such in-
vestments and some developing countries
such as Ethiopia and Ghana are planning
large new investments. While most of these
recent initiatives focus on expanded food
supplies, it is now generally understood that
just making more food available will not
assure better food security, nutrition and
health at the household and individual lev-
els (Herforth, Jones, and Pinstrup-Anders-
en 2012; Pinstrup-Andersen 2012a; Hawkes
and Ruel 2006). e International Obesity
Task Force suggests a three-pronged strat-
egy: include nutritional criteria in agri-
cultural policies, undertake health impact
assessment of such policies, and provide
support for agricultural programs aimed
at meeting World Health Organization
(WHO)’s dietary guidelines (Hawkes 2007).
It matter s fo r he alth and nutr ition how the
increasing food supply is brought about, of
what it consists and what happens to it in
the food system.
is is not a new argument (Pin-
strup-Andersen, de Londono, and Hoover
1976; Pinstrup-Andersen 1981; WHO
2004), but its application in the design and
implementation of food system policies
has been very limited. at is still the case.
e rhetoric has gained prominence but
very little action has followed. e recent-
ly established Scaling-up Nutrition (SUN)
Framework calls for action to address mal-
nutrition through agriculture and other
sectors. Several recent documents by the
Department for International Development
(DFID), the European Commission, United
States Agency for International Develop-
ment’s Feed the Future Guide and World
Vision focus on how to strengthen the nu-
trition eects of agricultural development
projects and policies (Herforth 2012; SUN

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