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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN Forum)

Seeing the Dietary Forest, and then its Sub-System Trees in Context

My somewhat curious title emphasises the holistic tenor of this discussion which is intended to suggest some answers to the questions concerned with the conceptual framework in use, how it may be improved, obstacles to its being made operational, and how to promote its wide-spread adaptation. However, I may have to change this order to ensure the logical cohesion of this submission.

In my attempt to understand the notion of ‘value chain’, in connection with food, I put the following questions to several people of ages ranging from 8 to 80:

1. Has a transport system or a storage system any value if there is nothing worth transporting or storing?

In answer, I heard giggles, sarcastic laughter, uncomplimentary remarks on my intelligence, and got not a few angry looks.

I think this justifies the belief that transport and storage systems have a value qua a service, if and only if they can be used to transport and store something that is already valuable to us. In other words, their service value derives from the value of what they help us to store and transport and not vice versa. Next, I asked some others in same age groups a new question.

2. Would you like to go to that fine new shop X over there and buy beautifully packaged street dust?

Unfortunately, the answers I received this time were even more uncomplimentary not only to my intelligence, but they seem to question even my sanity. But, they seem to justify my belief that selling in any form derives its value qua a service, if and only if what is sold is believed to have a value to us. Thus, the service value of selling derives from the value of what is sold, and not vice versa. In spite of my previous experience, I dared to pose a third question to some other people in same age groups.

3. Would you grow food, raise domestic animals and fish, or make preserves and dairy products, can foods, turn out industrial food, if we did not need any food at all?

I am afraid I nearly got arrested this time, and I shall pass over the looks and words I got in response to my question. Suffice it to say that I am glad I got home in one piece.

Once again, these responses underline the same thing, i.e., agricultural pursuits, fishing, food preservation, and production of industrial food, acquire a value as a service only because we need food, hence, food is valuable to us. Thus, production and various types of food processing acquire their service value from the value food has for us, and not vice versa.

We all know the value of food derives from the value we place on our lives, because nobody can live without food. This may appear too simple for those who wish to make it seem complex, but I can only refer them to wise William of Ockham to see why simplicity is preferable to unjustifiable complexity.

So, it would be reasonable to suggest that a food supply to most end-users (except to those who produce more or less all their own food) represents a chain of systems beginning from a yielder system (farms, raising household animals, fisheries, and to a minor extent some forests), and then extends via a transport, storage, preserving and selling systems. The original food selling systems were concerned with offering the end-user raw food or ready-to-eat food in exchange for money. The latter represents the various catering systems of today.

When an end-user procures raw food by its purchase, often it passes through a preparation system before it is eaten. An industrial modification of this system is used to manufacture industrial food. Moreover, preserving systems are industrialised to a great extent in affluent countries to produce canned foods, various preserves, dairy products, etc.

I have not included here what I have called the Ecoservices supplementary system, which is concerned with providing yielder systems the ecosystems services they lack in sufficient quality and/or quantity. These include irrigation, fertilisers, high-yield crops and animal species, etc. Nor have I outlined the subtle variants of other industrialised systems. What is crucial here is to understand that their service value derives from the intrinsic value of food for our continued existence.

Therefore, it would be reasonable to regard a food system as a chain of sub-systems, whose value as a service to us is dependent on the value of food as the means of satisfying one of our fundamental needs, viz., and nutrition. It follows from this that value of a food system as a whole arises from its role as a tool that enables us to satisfy that need.

After this preamble, we can now look at the question, “does the framework as presented in the discussion paper help you identify barriers and opportunities for nutrition-sensitive value chain development?”

As I have outlined, the value of the system chain that makes up a food system derives from the intrinsic value of the food it is able to supply, and the assistance its components provide us in procuring food. Apart from the yielder system, others can only have a service value only to the extent to which they facilitate the availability of wholesome and affordable food in a sustainable manner.

Naturally, these conditions also apply to yielder systems, but they have an immense value by being the source of food itself. Therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that the justifiable value of a food system as a whole derives from how adequately it enables the people to satisfy their need of nutrition by making available to them affordable and wholesome food in a sustainable manner.

Thus, I think it would serve our purpose better if we can begin to think and talk about a nutrition value chain that constitutes a food system, rather than a bland value chain which is merely concerned with the service values of each component. This latter has no bearing on nutrition per se; it is concerned with commercial gain.

This conception of a nutrition value chain offers us several advantages, not the least of which is enabling us to get our value priorities agree with the real world, i.e., valuing food and help to have it at hand because they are essential to our lives. So, the real value of a food system is indicated by how adequately it enables its users to meet their need of nutrition in a sustainable way. This depends on its capacity to sustainably supply them wholesome, varied and affordable food.

Judging by FAO’s figures, a considerable number of food systems in several parts of the world do not seem to have an adequate value with respect to the notion of value presented here. Please note that it offers a ‘seamless’ explanation of phenomena associated with diet in value terms as outlined below:

I. Value loss due to lack of sustainability due to insecurity, natural disasters, lack of man-power, etc.: Results: starvation to malnutrition. Indicators: Low availability, diversity, wholesomeness and excessively high food prices.
II. Value loss due to lack of diversity (yielder system): Results: Obesity and/or deficiency diseases and stunted development: Indicators: prevalence of a cheap same diet and/or industrial food, and high cost of a wholesome, varied diet.

After this brief example, we can easily see the value consequences of the availability of cheap unwholesome food as obesity and malnutrition, and it is indicated by a plentiful supply of cheap industrial food. The crucial point here is that it allows us to easily explain that availability and affordability in themselves do not impart a value to a food system unless it involves wholesome food. Our present model can easily account for this while the traditional VC fails to capture such important nuances.

I shall not labour this point by showing how easily the present model can account for any other combination of sustainability, dietary diversity, wholesomeness, affordability and availability in terms of the real value of a food chain. Leaving that to the interested reader, I shall move on to the next question, “what challenges and opportunities arise when developing VC to be more nutrition-sensitive?”

I have already answered the second part of the above question; and to recap, it posits in a food system chain a justifiable value as a tool essential for us to satisfy our need of nutrition. Further, it enables us to identify its drop in value in terms of its inadequacy in its sustainability, diversity or wholesomeness of its output, affordability or availability of its products. This enables us to accurately locate its inadequacies with a view to remedying them.

Challenges we face in bringing about a conceptual change are legion. Our greatest adversary is how we have been taught to enhance human nutrition. While one group of doctors and professional nutritionists worked on how to treat and prevent deficiency diseases and various manifestations of malnutrition, they were little concerned with ascertaining whether the diets they rightly recommended were actually available easily, or affordable to those who needed them most.

Meanwhile, those who devoted themselves to increasing the food production were chiefly concerned with how to increase it quantitatively as quickly as possible. In developing countries, this led to an initial increase in the production of staple cereals, which was financially or environmentally not sustainable. Perhaps, the greatest obstacle to our progress was the priority given to industrial development at the expense of food production.

This unfortunate development inculcated in authorities and public mind that what mattered was economic growth that is measurable in monetary terms. Natural consequence of this misconception was the attempt to measure the success of food production, health care, etc., in financial terms, hence, ‘value chains’. Of course, it follows from that the intermediate systems that bridge the gap between the food producer and the end-user that are run for profit would receive an undue priority in excess of the service value they may possess.

Moreover, their industrialisation has given them financial power, hence influence in a variety of key places. Added to this the inertia traditional approaches exerts on our minds makes it difficult for us to break out of a fragmented and an unjustifiable way of looking at an issue that is vital for every living thing, viz., how to satisfy our need of nutrition.

On the other hand, if we insist on achieving SDG-2 through the traditional reductive methods, it is easy to foresee the consequences. As for “what would you consider as the main barriers to and enabling factors for scaling up through replication, adaptation, and expansion of these models of interventions?” the answer is even easier.

Keeping firmly in mind that vast majority of us procure food by purchasing it, emphasis the traditional models place on a putative value (and not a fair service value) of each sub-system making up a food system, can hardly contribute to the affordability of food. This may be seen as a justifiable obstacle to implementing a model that does not seem to be able to serve its purpose.

At the same time, this traditional notion of ‘value chains’ justifies transport, storage, processing and selling of food that will enhance their ‘value’ to those who operate them. With the able help of advertising, the ‘value’ of those sub-systems to their operators can be greatly enhanced by increasing the ‘sales volume’ of cheap food items. They can be made cheap by decreasing their diversity, wholesomeness and freshness, which in turn entails the use of fewer cultivars and animal breeds, i.e., reduction of bio-diversity in agriculture. Its implications for our environment, nutrition, public health, and sustainability are too obvious to mention.

So, at one extreme it may be able to make a varied and a wholesome food supply sustainably available, but its affordability would remain elusive. At the other, it may make a cheap food supply available, but the means it requires to ensure its ‘value’ to its operators and its affordability to end-users, rules out the diversity, wholesomeness and freshness from the food it offers, promotes reduction of bio-diversity from agriculture and environmental damage, not to mention its effects on human nutrition and health.

Of course, one may say, surely a compromise is possible. Yes indeed! That is what is happening right now! Some of us can still procure a wholesome and a varied diet, but it is not either available or affordable to most others. Meanwhile, availability of cheap industrial food is spreading apace into developing countries and taking its toll there. So, are we to support that compromise?

My response to the question, “what would be needed to render the framework more operational?”, will of necessity deviate from what is expected, because I sincerely believe that the traditional approaches to significantly enhance global nutrition are only capable of yielding some local success in areas where the problem is either very serious, or commercialisation of our daily activities is not advanced. But, as every development policy seem to advocate industrialisation and free trade as the panacea to all social ills, the traditional approaches to food security and nutrition will soon follow suit, and the dietary ills of affluent countries will become a global issue.

Therefore, I very much hope that an individual and environment centred holistic approach as suggested here, will soon become wide-spread. After all, it is an individual man, woman or child that starves, gets malnourished and stunted, or goes hungry most of the time. Unless our environment thrives, none of us can survive long without loosing forever many of the things that make life worth living.

So, I will briefly outline some of the things necessary to make a holistic approach to resolve our problem optimally operational. Let me begin with the policies needed for the purpose. Some might object quite rightly, what has that to do with the projects we have successfully carried out in various rural areas with no government help?

True, this makes policies sound like some useless luxuries, and there is some truth in it. However, if we remember that a central or a local government can put a lot of obstacles in the way of any project, we can better understand the importance of their policy not to do so. A local government may cover a large region, or it may turn out to be a village council.

Thus, policy is not the monopoly of a central government, or indeed that of a large authority. A village council may decide on a local policy, but its success depends on the higher authorities not interfering with it, or more preferably, supporting it by providing some of the resources necessary for its successful implementation. Here, it is clear that a central government policy to provide such support would be highly desirable.

We have been talking about policies concerned with the same area, viz., and food production. Depending on the number of levels of authority a policy has above it, its operational success depends on the policies on the same area pursued by those higher levels not obstructing it, or optimally, supporting it. But, a policy is surrounded by a large set of policies concerned with various areas, which makes the harmony among them is essential for their success. For a more complete description of this, please see,

Implementation of a policy generally involves two logically distinct steps. First, it is necessary to device a suitable strategy for the purpose. Even in a small country, one may have to use more than a single strategy to achieve a common objective. For instance, a small coastal land with a large infertile coastal plain and comparatively little arable land might decide on the following strategies to increase its food production:

I. Expansion and improvement of marine fisheries.
II. Establish coastal aquaculture.
III. Promotion and support of agriculture with fair and environmentally sustainable means that will be clearly described.

It will be seen that III above will consists of several sub-strategies with respect to people, places and the resources needed. In general, strategies are decided by people who need to possess an adequate degree of strategic competence whose exercise depends on their having access to reliable general data on itemised national food needs, agricultural potential of various areas, weather patterns, geography, available resources, etc.

Now we come to the operational level. It is here that things happen in the real world, or food is actually produced. Let us assume a full strategy on coastal aquaculture is in place. If so, it might allocate resources for projects say, to grow prawns in shelters in coastal waters. Now, the success of this operation depends on:

I. Adequacy of the allocated resources to achieve the target objective. A strategy often used to extend those resources is to allow several ‘stakeholders’ to participate in an operation. However, utmost care and circumspection should be exercised in choosing them in order to ensure fair play and the availability of food to the people.
II. Adequacy of the technical competence of the people involved and their number.
III. Choice of the appropriate species.
IV. Adequacy of the relevant infra-structure.
V. A co-operative mode of buying and selling the produce, for it is labour-intensive, thus making it possible for more people to afford other items of food they need.

The list above is by no means exhaustive, and it is only intended to indicate the line of analysis and synthesis one has to pursue to achieve a part of our goal while keeping our overall objective always in view; making sustainably available to the greatest possible number of people diverse and wholesome food at an affordable price, and this requires that we must also do all we can to enable them earn enough to afford the food we try to make available to them.

With best wishes,

Lal Manavado.