Lessons from a life in food policy

How can we best fulfill the promise of food policy to eradicate hunger and ensure food and nutrition security for all while we also protect our environment and planet? In this column, the outgoing director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) outlines some lessons from his experiences.

Since I entered the field of food policy in the late 1970s, the global agri-food policy landscape has changed in many ways. From the 1970s to the 1990s, research and policy focused on boosting the production of staple grains to meet the demands of rising populations. Devastating food shortages in China, India, and Ethiopia, among other places, were behind this imperative.

In 2000, the development community shifted to the broader focus of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which aimed to attack a host of development problems at once, including halving poverty and hunger by 2015. My research at IFPRI was very much centered around how governments could prioritize investments to achieve the MDGs on poverty and hunger-reduction.

In the 2000s and 2010s, we have grappled with food price spikes, extreme weather, and other challenges to the architecture of the global food system. As the 2015 end date of the MDGs approached, much of the policy discourse centered on formulating the Sustainable Development Goals. At the same time, the development community-directed new attention to gender equality, nutrition, urbanization, and climate change, all of which are closely linked to food security.

Many of us recognized the need for an integrated approach among these issues. And since 2017, anti-globalization sentiments have risen, with wide-ranging implications for trade, investments, migration, climate change, global governance, and more. This is the changing context within which IFPRI and its partners around the world must chart a path forward.

Start with the local context

In this complex environment, one lesson has become quite clear: effective food policy must be specific to the political, economic, geographical, social, and cultural environment where it takes place. Much of the power to advance people’s food and nutrition security comes from national and local policies, and to make a difference, IFPRI must be on the ground, where countries are confronting challenges and seeking solutions every day.

Improve access to well-functioning markets

Building on the local context, well-functioning markets for agricultural inputs and agricultural products at local, regional, national, and global levels and access to these markets are essential for economic growth and development, and for achieving food and nutrition security in an increasingly globalized world. Yet efforts by developing countries have often been hampered by ineffective policies, weak institutions, and inadequate infrastructure.

Instability in food prices is also an important source of risk for developing countries, as volatile food prices are closely linked with the stability dimension of food security. This was particularly apparent during the 2007/08 food price crisis. In response to the crisis, IFPRI’s ‘excessive food price variability early warning system’ was created to provide timely information about volatility levels, which is key for policy-makers to develop country-level contingency plans.

Work in partnership

The complexity and interdependence of the world’s agri-food systems mean that working alone is no longer an option. We have heard a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of breaking out of our silos, a task that both poses new difficulties and promises new rewards.

At IFPRI, I can see the fruits of our increasingly wide and deep partnerships with external organizations and individuals. In the past, we had often found ourselves in a competitive relationship with organizations like the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme. Now we see ourselves as collaborators with these institutions.

It has also been a great pleasure to have worked with different types of institutions, such as private companies, civil society groups, and developing-country partners. These partnerships help to raise the quality of our work, increase capacity in developing countries, and yield greater impacts.

Food alone is not enough

We have learned another vital lesson since the days when agricultural research and food policy were focused on producing as much rice, wheat, and maize as possible. Nutrition research has shown that healthy child development depends not just on getting enough calories, but also on high-quality diets that contain essential vitamins and minerals, a healthy environment, and good care from caregivers.

This recognition – which reflects my own experiences as a child growing up malnourished in China – has fundamentally changed IFPRI’s work. Clearly, nutrition also affects people’s health and wellbeing during the whole lifecycle. IFPRI has helped open the discourse on how to advance an integrated approach to agriculture, nutrition, and health. We have mainstreamed nutrition into all of IFPRI’s research programs, including trade, production, marketing, and the environment. And our work has pushed donors to support a great deal of work on nutrition.

Use a food systems lens

As we better understand our complex and interconnected world, we have also learned that our work must increasingly be guided by considering not individual sectors and components, but entire food systems. We will need to go beyond traditional ways of thinking about the food system, and invest more in new areas of research, like making food industries more inclusive, efficient, and conducive to promoting healthy diets, and sustainable production and distribution.

A food systems lens sometimes presents trade-offs, but we want to minimize these and promote win-win solutions. Our goal must be not merely a productive agricultural system, but rather a healthy and sustainable agri-food system that can meet the needs of an urbanizing world threatened by conflict and climate change.

Growth opportunities and future priorities

I have seen first-hand how the transformative power of food policy reform can save lives and improve wellbeing for millions. This is how I know that IFPRI and its partners worldwide can draw on the lessons of the past and a spirit of innovation for the future to achieve a world where hunger and malnutrition are only a memory.

 

Author:

Shenggen Fan is Chair Professor at China Agricultural University.

 

A longer version of this article was originally published in the Journal Global Food Security, Volume 22, September 2019, Pages 33-36.