Food policy and nutrition economics in the SDG era

Posted on March 08, 2018

For analysts and academics alike, the world of development policy changes quickly. Decision-makers are faced with increasing complexity and a growing list of elements that have to be taken into account in policy reform and design.

Despite the well-grounded and long-standing knowledge that nutrition is essential for development, and notwithstanding its centrality to many development approaches over the decades, it is not until recently that it has been taken seriously. Why? This was the question debated by Prof Sheryl Hendriks during the Agricultural Economics Association of South Africa’s Tomlinson Commemorative Lecture at the University of Pretoria in February.

Prof Hendriks is the first woman to deliver the lecture since its inception in 1986. The lecture commemorates the contribution of Professor FR Tomlinson, the founder of the Association.

Ending hunger is still central to the global development agenda and the challenge of doing so is just as daunting as ever, especially in Africa where population growth remains high, leading to an increase in the absolute number of hungry people over the last 15 years. Even when the importance of food security and nutrition in development is appreciated, policy actions do not necessarily lead to significant reductions in widespread hunger and malnutrition.

Progress has been slow, especially in Africa. Only near the close of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era and in the negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was the MGDs’ narrow focus of reducing extreme hunger and poverty (MDG 1) broadened to include food security and nutrition (SDG 2). SDG 2 seeks to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainability.

Policy-makers, analysts and practitioners have confined their long-term attention and actions to their familiar domains. This has led to three usually disparate but sometimes interconnecting areas of policy development and practice: agriculture, nutrition and sustainable development.

It is only in the SDGs that these three areas, at last, come together. Unlike the MDGs, which only applied to developing countries and in which the environment was an afterthought, the SGDs focus on the environment and are universal, meaning that all countries have to address environmental challenges and are being judged on their progress. The SDGs call for a convergence of the three pillars of economic development, social equity and environmental protection.

In some ways, the context for food policy is entirely different from what it was in the 1970s and 80s. The progress made thus far is threatened by some formidable challenges. One of these is climate change, which will have far-reaching impacts on crop, livestock and fisheries production, and will affect the prevalence of crop pests. The problem of how to stimulate and sustain economic growth that reduces poverty, generates employment and fosters equality, while at the same time improving nutrition for all, persists. Population growth and agricultural system change have significant implications for food policy in terms of production, consumption and trade.

Population growth in Africa is likely to continue putting pressure on food, land and water resources. The geography and demography of Africa are likely to change considerably by 2030. The so-called youth bulge will add to the pressure: not only will the number of mouths to feed increase, but many will migrate to urban centres in search of employment and opportunities.

Unlike the development planning of the past, the responsibility for driving such policy reform no longer lies with the development community, but with African governments themselves. Moreover, food policy governance is also different today. Whereas in the past, food policy was primarily used to indicate the wide range of policy efforts that affect food system outcomes, more recently, food policy has emphasised the need for aligning policy efforts across sectors to achieve a shared vision. Many governments now realise that multi-sectoral action is an absolute necessity for dealing with the complexities.

The convergence of food policy, nutrition and sustainable development in the SDGs may offer some hope for development planners in overcoming the challenges of complexity. If so, what does the agricultural economics profession provide to support delivery on the SDGs and development agendas in the SDG era?

The role of agricultural economists in achieving the SDGs is pivotal. They are armed with knowledge, skills and tools not common to nutrition; in particular, they offer analytical power and the ability to produce evidence for decision-making. However, unless they are able to think both inside and outside the box – and even without a box – their contribution to teamwork will be limited.

It is essential to expose agricultural economics students to a broader domain than consumption theory within the confines of supply-demand if they are to build an appreciation for nutrition, behavioural science and poverty dynamics. Updating syllabi with food systems thinking, critiques of planning approaches and the mastery of essential soft skills is crucial for training the next generation of professionals.


- Author Prof Sheryl Hendriks

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