Food policy and nutrition economics in the SDG era


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.

Prof Sheryl Hendriks

March 18, 2018

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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 RETHINK@NAS 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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