In the past, discussions about food security have typically focused on the quantity of food that people eat rather than the quality. However, micronutrient deficiencies are becoming increasingly recognized as a serious threat to the health and economic development of low-income populations. As a result, nutrition is garnering more and more attention in the development community.
Food value chains can play an important role in increasing the availability, affordability, and acceptance of more nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables, biofortified crops, and lesser known or utilized pulses and grains. Because value chains take food “from farm to fork,” they offer multiple points of entry for programs to improve people’s diets.
In a new research brief entitled “Identifying Opportunities for Nutrition-Sensitive Value Chain Interventions,” IFPRI researchers Alan de Brauw, Aulo Gelli, and Summer Allen explain that essentially, potential value chain interventions act by increasing either the demand for or the supply of nutritious food. This can be achieved in a number of ways including the direct transfer of food through programs like school lunches or food subsidies allowing higher quality foods to reach populations who otherwise might not be able to afford them. Similarly, promotional campaigns can teach consumers about the value of more nutritious foods. By improving awareness of the benefits of improved nutrition, and by providing access to those benefits, these types of programs are likely to increase demand for more nutritious food products. As micronutrient deficiency is particularly detrimental for infants and young children, it will be crucial to increase mothers’ knowledge of, access to, and demand for healthy foods.
On the supply side, interventions should focus on increasingly profitability from the production and marketing of nutritious foods. This can be done by helping farmers gain access to the proper markets, better inputs (e.g., improved seeds or irrigation possibilities) or by lowering the cost of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizer, needed to expand crop production.
Finally, interventions can also work to improve consumer trust in the overall food system by targeting points along the value chain where food safety and quality issues might arise. Such programs typically focus on the processing and storage stages, and can take the form of improved food labeling or third-party quality testing. If consumers believe that more nutritious food products are truly safe and of higher quality, demand will increase for these products and they will be able to bring larger profits.
Which of these many types of value chain interventions is most effective? The authors note that the answer to that question is context-specific. Any successful intervention will depend heavily on the population’s current diet, as well as on the potential for dietary changes in that specific area. Adding a more nutritious food to people’s diets means that the new food will either complement what they already eat or will replace another food; thus, any study needs to examine changes in people’s overall diets, rather than analyzing a single food product or micronutrient. And while targeting programs at women could increase demand since mothers will want to provide healthier food for their families, issues of gender discrimination could get in the way if women do not have access to resources (either agricultural or financial) or if they lack the power to make household decisions. For value chain interventions to truly be nutrition-sensitive, they will still need to take into account the range of such non-dietary factors.