• 9 June 2016

Going against the grain: food policy for the future

Photo: Rice on sale in a market in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Prof. Pingali argues against what he calls ‘staple grain fundamentalism’. Photo by Keane Ng, Mama Tamatis.

Rice on sale in a market in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Prof. Pingali argues against what he calls ‘staple grain fundamentalism’. Photo by Kean Ng, Mama Tamatis.

Blog by Julian Cottee, Researcher, ECI Food Group.

On the evening of 1 June, as part of the ECI’s 25th Anniversary Big Ideas seminar series, Prof. Prabhu Pingali from the Tata-Cornell Agriculture and Nutrition initiative talked about the big changes in policy that are needed to keep up with the evolving global food security challenge. Thanks to the great gains in cereal crop productivity made since the 1960s and 1970s, the threat of hunger is receding in many parts of the world. While under-nutrition is certainly still a real problem, it is now joined by two additional issues – nutrient deficiency and over-nutrition – that together represent a formidable triple burden for health.

While the food crisis of 2008 showed that access to affordable staple commodities is still a critical issue, agricultural and food policies aimed solely at this sector are now inadequate. Avoiding a future health time-bomb will require enhanced micronutrient diversity from a more abundant supply of fruit and vegetables, as well as affordable and high quality protein sources. Despite growing recognition of the importance of this need to move beyond pure calories, agricultural policy and funding is still stuck in the era of the Green Revolution. Subsidies, infrastructure investments and other programmes remain predominantly oriented towards cereal productivity.

Professor Pingali argues that what is needed is a policy transformation towards a ‘crop-neutral’ stance, correcting the current bias towards staples and allowing farmers to respond to the increasing consumer demand for dietary diversity that seems to accompany economic development. Public sector investment in infrastructure such as reliable power supplies, road transport and cold storage are also required. With the playing field thus levelled, he says, producers including smallholder farmers will be able to choose to diversify away from grains and into the fruits, vegetables and pulses that are much needed to ensure future dietary health.

He also believes that in this transformation to a food system based on quality and diversity – rather than just productivity - the private sector will need to play a far greater role than previously. In a project that I have been working on with a group of MBA students at the Said Business School, I have seen just what challenges this may entail. The project, based in Sierra Leone, aims to identify business-oriented supply chain interventions that support smallholder horticulturalists to increase their income and expand their production.

The Northern Province where the project is based is well-suited to growing vegetables (including tomatoes) and many smallholder farmers are skilled in their art. Yet with no reliable power, storage of vegetables is weather- and time-sensitive; without access to transport the villagers are reliant on middlemen; roads are poorly paved, meaning damage to crops is common; there is limited access to credit for investment; communication between supply and demand side actors is shaky, and levels of trust are low. Based on examining these barriers to the success of well-functioning markets - from the perspective of both buyers and producers - the project aims to create social enterprise businesses that help to overcome the challenges.

As Professor Pingali makes clear, the world is undergoing a series of massive – and linked – transformations: not just the structural transformation of economic growth but also radical shifts in food systems, food and nutrition security and agri-environment relationships. Innovation is a necessity. Moving towards a food system that promotes a thriving horticultural sector globally could create beneficial feedbacks tackling not just the emerging triple burden of dietary health challenges, but also creating new and resilient rural enterprises.

"The world is undergoing a series of massive – and linked – transformations: not just the structural transformation of economic growth but also radical shifts in food systems, food and nutrition security and agri-environment relationships. Innovation is a necessity."

Photo: Tomatoes being grown by Koinadugu Women Vegetable Farmers' Cooperative, photo by Keane Ng, Mama Tamatis

Tomatoes being grown by Koinadugu Women Vegetable Farmers' Cooperative, in the Northern Province of Sierra Leone. Photo: Kean Ng, Mama Tamatis.

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