Solving food insecurity will be no picnic, researchers say

South Africa has a tradition of evidence-based decision making, grounded in the findings of national surveys. But many of them remain a largely untapped resource for understanding the contextual experience of food insecurity.

The pursuit of a 'useful understanding' of how food insecurity is experienced and how it can be addressed, is hampered by the large number of interpretations of how best to evaluate and measure it. This is according to a new study published in PLOS ONE on 22 August 2017. The study – a web-based systematic review – was funded by the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security, which is co-hosted by the universities of the Western Cape and Pretoria.

Reviewing a massive body of 169 sub-national food insecurity research studies conducted in South Africa between 1994 and 2014, Dr Alison Misselhorn and Professor Sheryl Hendriks have found that most studies used one or more of 27 different measures of food insecurity.

'This has made it difficult to measure and provide an accurate analysis of the levels of food insecurity in the country,' explains Dr Misselhorn, an independent researcher associated with the Institute of Food, Nutrition, and Well-Being (IFNuW) at the University of Pretoria (UP)

The review also confirmed that unaffordable diets remain the root cause of food insecurity. This was evident in the increasing consumption of cheaper, more available and preferred 'globalised' foods with high-energy content and low nutritional value, which lead to being overweight, obesity and stunted child growth. 'Even in deep rural areas of South Africa, these foods are increasingly available and are often more affordable and more available than nutrient-rich foods,' Prof Hendriks explains.
This has implications for the rise in chronic diseases and ever-increasing rates of obesity in the country and, importantly, among the poor and marginalised.
The study also confirmed that women in South Africa play a central role in the pursuit of food and nutrition security for their families. Moreover, household food availability from agricultural production is often driven by women. 'Yet women are severely hampered by poor decision-making power, exclusionary socio-economic institutions, and a lack of access to – and control over – both farm and non-farm assets,' says Dr Misselhorn.

Improved policy and research interface critical for redress

Despite various policies and programmes put in place by government to alleviate the problem, including social grants, about 68% of participants in the review studies reported experiencing difficulties in securing a dependable supply of food. The studies also show that poverty remains food insecurity's most common denominator, cited as a driver in 51% of the studies.
Food insecurity is driven by multiple factors and has multiple dimensions, and accordingly, is studied from multiple perspectives and disciplines. 'This could be one factor influencing the concerning reluctance of authors to lay out specific policy or programming recommendations from their work, with nearly half (47%) of the studies making no specific recommendations at all,' says Dr Misselhorn.
'Although South Africa has a tradition of evidence-based decision making, grounded in the findings of national surveys, the rich insights from sub-national surveys (many of them master's and PhD work) remain a largely untapped resource for understanding the contextual experience of food insecurity,' adds Professor Hendriks.
Policy makers should be engaging with researchers to learn from these studies, while researchers need to share this wealth of sub-national study findings with government to strengthen food security planning, monitoring, and evaluation at all levels.

Dr Alison Misselhorn & Professor Sheryl Hendriks

August 4, 2017

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  • Professor Sheryl Hendriks

    Professor Sheryl Hendriks completed her undergraduate studies, honours, master’s and PhD at the former University of Natal, where she also taught until joining the University of Pretoria (UP) in 2010.

    Moving to UP expanded and enhanced her research, not only because of the geographic proximity to government but because it allowed her to network with colleagues at UP, in Africa and internationally. Prof Hendriks says that the University’s reputation as well as UP management’s support of transdisciplinary research have been invaluable in advancing her research profile, impact and reach.

    Research in food security policymaking is essential to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and advance development. Understanding the causes, outcomes and impact of policy decisions related to a range of sectors (agriculture, health, trade, welfare etc.) helps to identify potential policy choices, combinations and directions. Ultimately, these decisions determine the levels of poverty, inequality and food insecurity experienced by households.

    Prof Hendriks leads a large research group that explores the emerging field of improving food systems to ensure fairer, healthier diets and sustainability. The group includes postgraduates and colleagues from UP’s Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences (NAS), and connects with colleagues in networks across Africa and beyond. Under the [email protected] initiative ¬– which allows for University-driven community projects that support transformation in all its forms – this group will expand across faculties.

    This work was carried out in Prof Hendriks’s role as a member of the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) Scientific Group and contributed a significant analysis to guide the group’s 2021 deliberations and plan of work. It will also expand to supporting the country implementation of actions to support the true value of food. The work was inspired by Prof Lawrence Haddad (leader of the UNFSS Action Track on ending hunger) and Prof Joachim von Braun (chair of the UNFSS Scientific Group).

    Prof Hendriks says that since 2006, her academic mentor has been Dr Ousmane Badiane, who introduced her to the dynamics of African development and has provided her with countless opportunities to work directly in applying research in practical support to African governments as they seek to achieve food security. “Through my engagement in various think-tanks and policy engagements, I find meaning in life – contributing to decisions that can improve the lives of ordinary people,” she says. “This is a dream come true for me.”

    Young people interested in following her field of research need to be passionate about helping others and acutely aware of the bigger picture in development, Prof Hendriks advises. Food security analysis can be attempted only at postgraduate level, she adds, when students have a solid grounding in a relevant field and have developed skills to cope with complex thinking.

    When not pursuing research endeavours, Prof Hendriks maintains a rose and herb garden, sews, scrapbooks and walks her dogs.

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