Groundnuts for sale roadside. Photo: ICRISAT/Swathi Sridharan

Trade-offs along food value chains : Anticipate the unintended for better food and nutrition security

Groundnuts for sale roadside. Photo: ICRISAT/Swathi Sridharan

Groundnuts for sale roadside. Photo: ICRISAT/Swathi Sridharan

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Ambitious food value-chain initiatives pursue multiple development objectives of reducing poverty, malnutrition and environmental footprint by increasing smallholders’ productivity and incomes with the help of new technologies and market links.

Scientists from World Agroforestry (ICRAF), Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) are questioning the ability of business-led value chain approaches to solve complex social issues, such as malnutrition.

They advise adopting a ‘systems perspective’ when designing value-chain interventions to consider all trade-offs and synergies between farmers, the corporate food industry, public institutions and consumers in order to build more sustainable food systems.

A business-led agricultural transformation agenda

Investing in smallholders’ agricultural innovation remains important to boost the productivity of millions of farms in the Global South and reduce rural poverty. Major food-security initiatives like the African Development Bank’s Feed Africa claim recent successes, such as Sudan’s record wheat harvest. They envision an agricultural transformation of Sub-Saharan Africa to become the breadbasket of the world by modernizing priority food value-chains ranging from maize through cassava to horticulture and cocoa.

By analysing how these important food commodities are produced, transported, processed and marketed from field to plate, value-chain assessments and interventions address bottlenecks, such as access to inputs and finance, strengthening market links, and identifying opportunities for upgrading, particularly for smallholders. New technical solutions, such as climate-resilient seeds or digital extension services, are tested to help farmers increase productivity and incomes. Further along food value-chains, interventions have, for example, aimed to improve quality standards and traceability from the farm to consumers.

Vegetables for sale by the roadside in Burkina Faso. Photo: World Agroforestry

Vegetables for sale by the roadside in Burkina Faso. Photo: World Agroforestry

But could such interventions respond to multiple development objectives while leaving no-one behind, from improving smallholders’ livelihoods (‘pro-poor’ value-chain approaches like Afrinut, a farmers’ cooperative groundnut-processing unit in Malawi) through to eradicating malnutrition (‘nutrition-sensitive’ value-chain approaches) whilst ensuring a low environmental footprint (‘green’ value-chain approaches with low water or carbon footprints)?

‘’Tensions between the divergent goals of the many actors along the food chain are not easy to foresee and manage,’ said Kai Mausch, senior economist at ICRAF and lead author of a study Colliding paradigms and trade-offs: agri-food systems and value-chain interventions, published in the journal, Global Food Security.

Unintended consequences of food-security interventions

Maize and groundnut value-chains in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, are plagued with aflatoxin contamination, with frequent food scares and loss of export markets. Several countries, including Malawi, Kenya and Nigeria, are addressing this problem by sorting contaminated grain on farms, thanks to low-cost aflatoxin detection kitsfield biocontrol and better storage practices, which benefit many smallholders and farmers’ organisations.

However, these interventions are not always the quick wins they appear to be. Poor farmers often incur losses when discarding contaminated produce, posing a substantial income risk to their livelihoods. Unsafe produce may be given to cattle or poultry or diverted to local markets where enforcement of regulations are often weak, with the unintended impact of worsening the contamination level of milk, eggs or local food sold to the poor. Tests of commercial peanut butters sold in Zambian local markets showed that up to 80% of the peanut butters exhibited unsafe levels of aflatoxin contamination.

‘Controlling aflatoxin in the groundnut sector is complex,’ said Caroline Hambloch, ICRISAT’s value-chain expert in Malawi. ‘It is not only a technical problem. More importantly, it is critical to understand the local context and the behaviour of different value-chain actors to anticipate possible unintended consequences. You need to offer the right incentives to farmers to prevent contamination, like a premium price for aflatoxin-free supplies, whilst ensuring that consumers are aware of, and demand, safer produce and governments have the capacity to enforce regulations.’

Could we support both poor farmers and consumers at the same time?

Many urban and rural poor cannot afford a healthy, diversified diet because nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes or milk are too costly. Yet smallholders could provide such nutrient-packed foods to local markets. For instance, tens of thousands of small-scale dairy farmers in Uganda increased their milk production, sales and dairy consumption through agroforestry innovation platforms and adoption of the Calliandra fodder tree. But support for domestic production may not be the most affordable option for poor consumers.

Farming households hold an ambiguous positioning because they are both producers and consumers of food. Farmers may sell their nutritious food and use their incomes to buy less nutritious food, such as convenience and snack foods, worsening household nutrition in the long run, as has been observed with producers of nutrient-rich quinoa or finger millet. In fact, the nutrition transition is well under way in many urban and rural areas in Sub-Saharan Africa, shifting diets towards nutrient-poor staples and cheap, processed foods as observed in Zambia.

‘The value-chain approach often glosses over possible trade-offs between intertwined and sometimes antagonistic objectives,’ said Mausch. ‘It is important to look at broader effects and be open and honest about potential unwanted effects that appear outside the initial target groups. The best way to tackle such trade-offs should be debated among stakeholders in a transparent way.’

Differently flavoured 'mabuyu' (baobab) sweets for sale in a local market in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo: World Agroforestry/Ake Mamo

Differently flavoured ‘mabuyu’ (baobab) sweets for sale in a local market in Mombasa, Kenya. Photo: World Agroforestry/Ake Mamo

Trade-off and foresight analyses required for better food-security interventions

One challenge is to establish the right science–implementation–policy dialogues with a range of stakeholders to proactively debate how to deal with any trade-offs of poverty reduction, nutrition, environment or other development objectives. A societal negotiation may be necessary, asking tough questions about who pays for the complex societal goals of ending malnutrition or push for environmentally friendly food production.

Transparency, systems thinking and a wide range of expertise from agriculture, public health and behavioural sciences are the keys to actionable ‘do no harm’ interventions.

‘All the people engaged in designing a food-security intervention should be open to sometimes conflicting objectives between private strategies and public goods,’ concluded Andy Hall, CSIRO’s agri-food system innovation specialist. ‘With an agri-food systems’ perspective, you can identify alternative scenarios and refine your theory of change. If this is done early on, you can define possible mitigation measures and improve your impact.’

Mr Jerome Bossuet, Strategic Communications Consultant

Read the article

Mausch K, Hall A, Hambloch C. 2020. Colliding paradigms and trade-offs: agri-food systems and value-chain interventions. Global Food Security 26.

This work was undertaken as part of, and funded by, the CGIAR Research Programme on Grains, Legumes and Dryland Cereals, supported by CGIAR Fund Donors. We thank all contributors to the Fund.

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