Re: Social protection to protect and promote nutrition

Andrew MacMillan Formerly FAO, Italy


I am fully convinced of the essential role that social protection must play in reducing hunger and improving nutrition amongst people whose food consumption options are curtailed by their inability to buy adequate food. The evidence seems to point quite convincingly to the particular advantages of targeted family-focussed cash transfers, with predictable monthly amounts being transferred, where possible, through adult women household members. Such transfers will provide greater eating choices to participating families, and their nutritional impact may be increased through links with nutrition education and possibly supplementation programmes for pregnant and nursing mothers and their youngest children. The biggest challenge is to reach the very poorest families as well as individuals – those living “outside the system” -  and to bring them on board. To minimize risks of institutional capacity constraints, such programmes should be nationwide in scope with a single register of participants and kept very simple, with a minimum of attached conditionalities. Wherever feasible transfers should be made electronically through cash withdrawal cards or telephone money transfer systems so as to minimise risks of rent-seeking behaviour in the administration of transfers.

Having said this (in perhaps rather too dogmatic terms !), I would suggest that we need to start to look at such social protection programmes as part of a broader process of food pricing system reform, at least in developed and middle-income countries. Part of the impact would be nutritional (less over-eating, and resulting overweight/obesity outcomes), but the aim should be to also to capture other important potential social, financial and environmental benefits.

In the most general terms, we are seeing a price squeeze all along the food chain (except at the level of major retailers who, through their immense purchasing power are able to protect their margins) which has a lot of bad effects. It contributes to a general impoverishment in rural areas, with low incomes for small-scale farmers and an absence of incentives for them to invest in raising production; appalling conditions of work for farm labourers and people working in food assembly, processing and distribution; and a pervasive under-provision  of rural infrastructure and services. One consequence is rural-urban migration on a massive scale. Relatively low food prices for consumers encourage food wastage and over-consumption and, most importantly, mean that we are failing to pay for the environmental costs of our food production and distribution (natural resources degradation and greenhouse gas emissions), effectively passing the bill for this onto future generations.

People who buy fair trade food have recognized the multiple social, environmental and behavioural benefits of paying more for their food and demonstrate that quite small retail price rises, if passed back through the system responsibly, can create a whole range  set of good effects. They represent, however, a very small fraction of the world’s buyers of food who are happy to see the continuation of low price regimes, accepting the argument that prices have to be kept down to reduce the threat of food deprivation for low-income families. In fact, given that the highest concentration of poverty, hunger and other forms of malnutrition are concentrated in rural areas, a rise in food prices, reflected in higher producer prices, could have a hugely beneficial impact on the rural poor and obviate part of the need for extended social protection systems. The inflationary impact of rising food retail prices would also be relatively limited, given that , at least in developed countries, the proportion of household expenditure applied to food is quite modest.

I am simply suggesting that, if dependable social protection measures, based on regular cash transfers (with the transfer amount indexed to food price inflation) are put in place, this opens very important opportunities for an upwards movement of food prices for high and middle income consumers and a consequent correction of many of the “wrong signals” created by present policies. To the extent that a part of the price rise would come from increased taxation on food – especially “high footprint food” – the resultant income could be ploughed back into social protection for the poor and into accelerating the shift towards food production systems that are truly sustainable from  environmental, economic and social perspectives.

I very much hope that the CFS will look at the connections between social protection and nutrition in this broader context of overall food pricing policies.

Some further thought is given to food pricing issues in the second edition of “How to End Hunger in Times of Crises” by Trueba and MacMillan, available from Amazon and

Andrew MacMillan