The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) related to food security and nutrition have become top priorities for governments of developing countries. To attain these by 2030, multiple sectors must be brought together to design and implement program and policy interventions—but such efforts continue to face major obstacles. What paradigm will best help to unify all sectors to implement nutrition interventions at all levels?

Several such paradigms have been proposed in the past to help the various sectors that address nutrition goals work together. Each has fallen short, partly because nutrition was seen as a side issue, and thus efforts were not mainstreamed in policy making and program development. Previous approaches also failed to develop a clear operational framework and the capacity to identify policy and investment gaps, slowing the promotion of nutritional objectives.

The UN High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) 2017 report outlining a food system approach to nutrition outcomes offers a path to overcome these obstacles. The food system paradigm involves taking a holistic perspective on all food-related activities: Input supply, production, processing, storage, transportation, marketing, distribution, and consumption. Even non-food commodities and services relating to nutritional objectives should be considered.

This approach begins with an analysis of a broad set of drivers—biophysical, technological, political, demographical, cultural, and socio-economic—that affect food supply chains and food demand. It then links these drivers to more immediate factors affecting food and nutrition security at the household level: The availability, accessibility, and safety of food. These factors, along with clean water, sanitation, and hygiene, and gender and intrahousehold allocation behavior, are what determine individual nutritional outcomes.

To employ such analyses to achieve nutrition goals, sectors including agriculture, health, social welfare, education, and commerce must come together at various stages—from program and policy design to implementation—to discuss strategies and joint efforts. Typically, though, single sectors develop and implement policy and strategy documents and investment plans without much coordination.

For example, national nutrition action plans currently under preparation in several developing countries lay out specific pathways to reach nutritional goals, such as productivity of crop and livestock enterprises, and livelihood, income, and food quality. Yet these leave out several sectors outside of agriculture, health, or social welfare. Meanwhile, nutrition investment plans are typically implemented by a single sector, such as health.

How can the food system approach to nutrition engage all sectors to work at the country level to deliver on nutrition goals? Initial national level consultations through IFPRI’s collaborative research project on food systems issues in several developing countries—including Myanmar, India, Bangladesh, Malawi, and Nigeria—suggest the following steps:

Governments should make implementing the food system approach a key nutrition policy priority at the highest level.
Policy makers should tailor the approach to their own countries. This means reviewing the policy and programmatic constraints they face and developing a common understanding among key players in different sectors to move towards practical implementation. This requires identifying the entry points in the current policies of each sector and integrating strategies to meet nutrition objectives into their investment and implementation plans.
Policy makers from various sectoral ministries should work together to develop a consensus on how to achieve these objectives. Multi-stakeholder consultations, panel discussions, and group discussions are crucial in developing a necessary common understanding of operational principles.
Researchers and analysts should examine individual sectoral plans, investment frameworks, and their implementation to clearly establish how each sector will contribute to achieving the objectives identified in the national nutrition plan of action.
Program managers should develop common monitoring, evaluation, and learning framework that can be used at the food system level. This will provide an opportunity to track individual sectoral goals and monitor progress. Establishing such an overview role requires multidisciplinary capacity developed in one or two key sectors, typically agriculture and health. At this stage, the role of key national nutrition leaders and advisors becomes crucial: They should periodically review monitoring and tracking data on nutritional outcomes to assess progress. Their leadership is also needed to guide the process of resource allocation by government agencies and development partners, identifying the gaps and focusing attention on implementation challenges.
Policy makers from the key participating sectors should mainstream this process, integrating it into the organizational work plans of sectoral ministries and their nutrition departments.
Much still needs to be done in practical terms to operationalize the food system approach, and the national level consultations revealed several broad lessons. First, obstacles remain in using individual research results to shape a broad policy process. Some researchers and practitioners believe that research studies focusing on a narrow area—such as consumption patterns, specific value chains, postharvest losses, social safety nets, or the impact of specific nutrition interventions—miss out on the bigger picture. They argue that such individual research efforts on impact assessment of a specific element of intervention (while helpful in publishing in high impact journals) do not add up to the national policy making for food security and nutrition goals unless they are strategically brought together in the nutrition policy process. Capacity for meeting this need is grossly missing in developing countries.

Second, some practitioners and researchers express a growing discontent that the development community is shifting its paradigms for achieving nutrition goals so fast that it is hard to keep up due to lack of capacity at the individual, institutional, and policy systems levels. In the past 30 years, the paradigm has shifted from farming system research, to integrated nutrition interventions, to livelihood approaches, and now to the food system approach and building resilience. Every 5-10 years or so, it seems, the paradigms shift and both researchers in the field and policy makers fail to fully understand, let alone adopt and implement, their functional aspects. As a result, the argument goes, the design and implementation of nutrition policies and programs suffer.

Finally, using research results from specific sub-sectors to contribute effectively to holistic policy-making and programming poses another major challenge to the food system approach. Again, the lack of credible multidisciplinary capacity needed for such synthesis of results is missing at the national level. This lack of capacity often means the research evidence is not fully owned by the local researchers, is not highly inclusive, is less timely to meet policy making needs, and is poorly accessible to policy makers. All are needed for effective translation of research into policy action.

Operationalizing the food system approach to nutrition can overcome past deficiencies in nutrition policy-making and programming. Yet currently this is not a feature of nutrition plans at the country level. To the extent it exists, it is mostly driven by external technical assistance. Developing the capacity of actors and players in all sectors across a country’s food system should be a key target for investment and will help to reach nutrition goals more cost-effectively. Preparing them with robust research-based knowledge can bridge the persistent divide between research and policy making, and ultimately help countries to fully implement a food systems approach to reaching nutrition goals.

Suresh Babu is a Senior Research Fellow and Head of Capacity Strengthening at IFPRI.