By Manuela Puricelli
The Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition is an independent group of experts and leaders who hold or have held high office and who show strong personal commitment to improving nutrition. The Panel aims to provide guidance to decision makers, particularly governments, to inform and promote agricultural and food policies and investment for improved nutrition in low- and middle-income countries.
Diets are rapidly changing. While the improved diversity of foods available in some contexts has contributed to a reduction of undernutrition, the increased availability and affordability of ultra-processed foods has led to a spike in unhealthy dietary choices, with severe consequences on health, and mounting healthcare costs. Increases in non-communicable diseases associated with the rise of overweight and obesity, linked to poor-quality diets, is particularly concerning.
Consumer choice is influenced by a variety of factors –purchasing power, knowledge, availability, price, tradition and culture. Other factors can also inhibit healthy food choices, such as poor market accessibility, time poverty, and lack of safe storage and cooking facilities.
Governments are beginning to pay attention to these challenges, for example by introducing initiatives aimed at improving consumer knowledge, and shaping demand through taxation.
But in order to make a marked improvement in diets, the Global Panel believes that the development community must do more, for example by encouraging stronger collaborations between the public and private sectors to realign national food systems with the goal of attaining healthy diets, and promoting a common understanding of how each side can contribute to that agenda.
Although it’s challenging to persuade the food industry to align with policy objectives, its impact on the food environment is huge. Agri-food businesses shape healthier diets through food processing, product development, product reformulation, advertising, and by supporting commercial food fortification – to name a few.
To enable firms to shift the balance of their activities to encourage consumers to make choices that support healthier diets, the Global Panel suggests that governments need to provide clearer policy objectives, along with a mix of policy regulations and incentives.
But is it really possible for governments to improve nutrition while boosting business opportunities? We think so. Take the example of fortified yogurt in Bangladesh. The Grameen Danone Foods Ltd is a joint venture between Groupe Danone and Grameen to manufacture and distribute two yogurt products fortified with 30% of the recommended daily amount of zinc, iodine, iron and vitamin A. The enterprise operates as part of a broad initiative aiming at reducing micronutrient deficiencies in rural areas. This represents a great collaborative effort to tackle local nutrition issues, although the next challenge would be to turn the project into a sustainable business model.
Public-private partnerships can also be helpful to entrepreneurs who want to invest in food processing technologies to strengthen local food systems, for instance by improving supply chain management, and making nutritious food more available and affordable. It is the case for An Giang Fisheries Association, which produces organic catfish in Vietnam thanks to a partnership between the German Technical Cooperation Agency, the NGO Naturland and the private German fish-importing company Binca Fisch GmbH. This has allowed the company to improve production and processing quality to EU export standard, leading to market expansion and reduced rejections at international borders. The project also allowed knowledge-transfer to local producers, with further benefits to the community.
In other instances, convenience and low prices have spiked the demand of ultra-processed & fast foods, which in turn has reduced the consumption of traditional food, particular in urban settings.
But what if traditional food is made more appealing to the modern lives of urban dwellers?
The Trinidad and Tobago Agri-business Association (TTABA) has tried exactly that. The company was established in 2006 with the support of government funds to accelerate economic and social development in the agri-business sector. The business promotes traditional Caribbean food consumption, while adapting to the needs of urban consumers: TTABA processes tropical roots and other fruit and vegetables into frozen, cubed, packaged and branded products that would speed up cooking times, encouraging consumers to choose indigenous food.
While single initiatives can hardly make a dent in fixing the food system, evidence shows that a collective effort between governments and private sector leaders can translate into significant nutrition gains. The Global Panel invites the international community to unite in focusing on resolving malnutrition in all its forms. Aligning the interests of multiple partners is challenging, but joint action is the only way forward.