Dr Stephen Thornhill, Lecturer and Research Fellow in the International Development Team at University College Cork.
As a former Director and Senior Economist of Agri-food Market Information Services in the UK and an International Development Consultant and Lecturer nowadays, I was very glad to see this important topic raised by the CFS.
I would argue that the availability of timely and reliable data on agri-food systems, particularly in relation to nutrition and sustainability, is lacking in all countries to various degrees. This deficit could be addressed to a large extent by the establishment of national Food System Information Services (FSIS), akin to the various national Market Information Services (MIS) operating in many countries. However, FSIS would address the wider data needs of the whole food system in each country, with a focus on improving social and environmental sustainability information. These could be incorporated into existing MIS where appropriate, although for many countries it would require establishing new organisations.
The sustainability of our global food system has garnered increasing attention over the past few decades, and not least its contribution to global heating and to human health. However, only limited action has been taken to address this issue so far due to our seeming inability to make sufficient policy change and to address the lobbying influence of many corporate agri-food businesses interested in maintaining the status quo. Sustainability certification systems are an important area where the private sector has combined with other stakeholders to try to improve the sustainability of the food system (eg RSPO). But the many different voluntary systems that have emerged have failed to make sufficient impact, as they each cover different aspects of sustainability (with very few covering food and nutrition security), making it very difficult for the consumer to assess their credibility. These voluntary sustainability certifications have also come under criticism for governance failures, particularly in the case of palm oil undermining their credibility (also food companies using their own sustainability certification systems). There is now a need for better governance of such systems, including a potential role for UN agencies.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the vulnerability of our society and the role of our unsustainable global food system in that. It behoves us to make the necessary societal changes to ensure that our food system no longer promotes pandemics, accentuates global heating and causes dietary-related disease. That requires transformational changes through novel ideas and increased investment in improving data collection and analysis.
Food System Information Services could be established from both public and private funding, and potentially from sustainability-related levies or taxes (environment and social/health). These expert bodies could help to generate better quality information, using the most up-to-date information technology, to better inform policy. They would generate economic, social and environmental data, addressing the needs of the Sustainable Development Goals and helping to transform food systems toward a more sustainable future.
The advantage of FSIS over government statistical agencies would be a more in-depth understanding of the entire food system through better linkages with the private sector and government statistical services and policymaking. A key role would be improving data collection, the analysis of statistical data and communication of implications and changes needed, to policymakers, the private sector and wider society. FSIS would need to be independent but would assist both government and the private sector from farm to fork. They would provide regular reports on progress made by the food system against the SDG indicators, as well as a wide range of market and policy intelligence. FSIS Advisory Committees could be established with government, private sector and civil society representatives meeting on a quarter-year or even monthly basis to guide progress.
One example of their role could be to promote new food security indicators and tools that improve the focus on nutrition outcomes. Previous HLPE reports have called for improved food and nutrition security measurement, yet the focus remains on anthropometric indicators that are also influenced by many non-food factors, by perception-based measures that provide little information on diets and by dietary diversity-based indicators that provide little information on volumes consumed and meal portion coping strategies. There has been relatively little change over the years in this regard.
It is clear we need much better information on what, and how much, food people actually eat. The increasing access and use of mobile phones in food insecure populations (such as in social protection cash transfer schemes), may afford opportunities to better capture food consumption. Experts can already use such technologies to calculate whether households have any significant nutrient gaps in their reported diets, so as to prescribe changes in food purchasing and production (eg where Vitamin A nutrient gaps are apparent, extension staff could identify potential crops such as orange-fleshed sweet potato, to address that gap). Indeed, it would be possible to develop apps that provide information back in real time to those self-reporting their food consumption.
An expert independent FSIS can provide unbiased information to farmer groups and other organisations in the value chain, as well as to civil society and government. A professional team of agri-food economists, environmental experts, food security and nutritionists, as well as statisticians, would form the basis of FSIS teams to promote better information collection, analysis and communication. Staff would be trained within the FSIS, recruiting from linked third level courses. More international funding should be oriented to scholarships for students from less developed countries. For example, in the MSc in Food Security and Management (including modules in Food Systems and Food Policy) that we teach in University College Cork we have had over 150 applications each year from developing country-based students, yet we only have two scholarships available from Irish Aid, meaning we have turn away many applicants each year.
The UN, through its various agencies, could play a key role in promoting the establishment of national FSIS. FAO, together with key agencies such as WHO and UNEP, could play a key coordination role in helping countries to establish effective FSIS through promoting best practice examples and providing other resources and advisory services. The UN could also help to fund scholarships for developing country students wishing to specialise in food and nutrition security and food systems analysis.
These are my initial thoughts concerning good practice and experience. I have answered the questions more specifically below.
1. What data do countries need for more effective decision-making for food security and nutrition and to inform policies for the transformation of food systems?
We need better data on what people actually eat for food security and nutrition, using improved technology and novel approaches that focus on nutrient outcomes. By so doing we can better evaluate whether households and individuals are meeting or exceeding both their macro and micronutrient needs, and we can then guide better decision-making on food production and purchasing.
And we need better data on a range of sustainability issues for the transformation of food systems. Many of the indicators required are already apparent in the SDGs, but an expert FSIS would better help to track progress and identify new indicators and methods that would improve the transformation to more sustainable food systems. I would argue that we also need better economic data, such as more detailed supply and demand and price information on a wider range of basic foodstuffs, particularly fruits and vegetables, as this will then link back to improving the information needed for environmental and social indicators. This may require more surveys on production and use in some countries, but technology can help to minimise the burden on the private sector.
2. What are the gaps and barriers in national and international data production and use with respect to FSN? What type of data will be most useful in measuring food security dimensions such as “agency” and “sustainability”?
The addition of two new pillars to the definition of food and nutrition security, should help to address the key issues of leaving no one behind by ensuring everyone has access to the food they need and want to consume, as well as helping to preserve biodiversity, reduce emissions and meeting other key environmental issues. Agro-ecological indicators would help to complement existing data collection, such as yields and input use, and help to improve both environmental and economic sustainability through a focus on biodiversity, soil health and organic farming methods. Agency indicators could be developed from existing poverty statistics combined with social protection systems and nutrient gap information, to highlight those individuals unable to meet their food needs. An important point to note here is that FSIS would help to interpret, analyse and communicate data and other information, guiding intervention and policy, as opposed to mainly generating the statistics.
3. What are the current national and international processes for the collection, processing, analysis, and use of reliable and accurate agricultural and food security and nutrition statistics? What are the main gaps, challenges and inequalities in existing processes?
Existing data collection is mainly focussed on national government statistical agencies using surveys and operational records such as trade data, with varying degrees of coverage and accuracy. That data is often communicated as statistical output with relatively little interpretation and analysis. As noted above, a significant gap in terms of food and nutrition security data, is the lack of indicators relating to the quantities of different foods consumed in order to ascertain the adequacy of nutrient intake at both household and individual level. Once we have nutrient gap outcomes we can better guide policymaking and other interventions to address the problem.
4. What are the policies that countries need to strengthen their capacity to collect, process, analyze and use quality qualitative and quantitative data to achieve the 2030 Agenda goals? What policy areas should countries prioritize to strengthen their data and information systems (education, technology, finance, participation, etc.)?
Country governments need to invest in establishing information services or systems to address the data required to achieve the 2030 goals. It should be noted that such services should not only help to generate the data, but also to guide policy and implementation and monitoring and evaluation. The establishment of Food Systems Information Services, as explained above, would help to address the data needs for the food-related SDGs. Other information services and systems could be established for other aspects of the SDGs. It is essential that FSIS are independent and involve the private sector, government agencies and civil society, particularly in any advisory committees.
5. What are the financing needs and the financial mechanisms and tools that should be established to allow all countries to collect, analyse and use FSN data?
Financial needs will largely depend on the extent and quality of information systems already in place, as it may be possible to establish FSIS into some existing operations. Least-developed countries may need financial assistance in establishing such services.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made it clear that when financial resources are needed they can be found. The cost of not achieving the SDGs and not transforming to a sustainable food system over the coming decades would far outweigh any investment being made now in establishing key organisations, such as FSIS, that will help to ensure we achieve our SDG goals and a sustainable future for all.
6. What are the most promising new developments with respect to innovation and information and communication technology, including artificial intelligence, in data collection, analysis and sharing that could be applied to food security and nutrition?
We now have the ability to better estimate food production and emerging crop conditions from satellite technology, the use of drones and other technology to improve irrigation, pest and nutrient issues and emerging new technology to better measure food-related GHG emissions and ways of addressing them. As we phase out fossil fuel use and related synthetic fertiliser and other applications, its clear that we have the technology to produce better organic fertilisers from AD plants and compost utilising food and slurry waste, as well as capturing methane for energy use. The transition to a circular bio-economy is well within our grasp with the technology allowing for organic fertilisers to be tailored to specific soil needs, as we start to rebuild soil health.
In relation to food and nutrition security, mobile app technology is improving rapidly, which together with the increasing use of mobile phones in developing countries, is likely to enable much quicker and more accurate collection of food consumption data in the near future. Food consumption reporting apps combined with picture-interpretation technology can help us to both collect better data but also report back information in real-time, including the identification of any significant nutrient gaps and what foods could help to address the gap.
7. How can agricultural census, rural and household surveys, earth observation and other big data be used to improve food security and nutrition policies and outcomes? How integrated and coordinated are these to provide needed reliable and timely data for food security and nutrition policies and interventions?
There is a clear lack of integration between agriculture-related survey information and nutrition-related information currently that needs to be addressed. Much of this is due to the type of food and nutrition security indicators that are used, as few of these (eg anthropometric, perception-based and to some extent diversity-related measures) allow for direct linkages back to agriculture. More detailed food consumption data, identifying the quantity of actual foods consumed by individuals and households, would allow for nutrient deficit or surplus outcomes to be calculated and then linked back to food purchasing and production decisions. This would then enable agriculture and health extension staff to jointly make better guidance for farming households in food insecure areas in terms of meeting their nutrition needs.
8. What are some of the risks inherent in data-driven technologies for FSN? How can these risks be mitigated? What are some of the issues related to data privacy, access and control that should be carefully considered?
There are of course data privacy issues that need to be addressed in improved technologies for capturing better food and nutrition security information, not least for mobile phone technology. People need to be aware that the data they provide will be treated confidentially but may be used to inform better food systems in the future in aggregated form. It is important that people are encouraged to participate by providing information back that can help them to improve their nutritional status (eg mobile phone food consumption apps that report back any significant nutrient gaps and guidance on foods that would help to close such gaps).
9. What are the actual capacities of countries in monitoring the achievement of the SDGs, what are the capacity development needs, especially with respect to data for SDG2? What capacity development is necessary to ensure collection, analysis, monitoring and reporting of data on food security and nutrition at national and regional levels? How to ensure data harmonization at all levels?
My impression is that there has been under-investment in most countries in establishing services and systems to monitor the SDGs effectively. But it shouldn’t only be a case of monitoring, of course. Such services should be helping to guide decision-making in the public and private sectors to achieve the SDGs.
FAO and other UN agencies could help to build capacity in least-developed countries and others with limited experience of MIS and other information systems and services. Universities should be nudged toward establishing modules and courses that encourage a greater focus on the SDGs, including mandatory SDG modules in all relevant courses in first year. Scholarships should be provided to allow students wishing to specialise in sustainable food systems and food and nutrition security at postgraduate level. Data harmonisation should also be coordinated at UN level, helped by the fact that we already have a consistent set of base indicators in the SDGs.
10. What are the gaps with respect to data collection and analysis tools for FSN vis-à-vis existing initiatives and programmes?
See comments in 3 above.
11. How can the international community together with governments ensure data and information systems governance for FSN? Which mechanism or organization should ensure good governance of data and information systems? How to regulate and mitigate potential conflicts between public and private ownership of data?
UN agencies can play a key role in governance of data and information systems for FSN, working with individual governments to establish policy. Ultimately, it will of course be national governments that decide on how best to address the SDG data needs and the information systems required. The establishment of independent and unbiased FSIS funded by both government and the private sector, with a steering committee involving representatives from both sectors, as well as civil society, could be one model promoted by the UN. The involvement of the private sector in such organisations would help to create a sense of ownership and also make them lean more favourably to participating in surveys (some of which may need to be mandatory), particularly if they are also benefitting from the analysis generated by the FSIS. The fact that all parties would be working toward a solution for a more sustainable future should also be sufficient encouragement for the participation of all parties.