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GREAT insights Magazine

Diversification for sustainable food systems and the role of ECDPM

September 2017

Torres, C., Rampa, F. Diversification for sustainable food systems and the role of ECDPM. GREAT Insights Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 4. September/October 2017.

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Delivering food security and nutrition to all is undoubtedly an essential goal of our food systems. Their environmental and socioeconomic outcomes are equally important, in particular in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. Today, however, our food systems are unsustainable.

Our food systems need to serve better, and simultaneously, the needs of the Planet, as current food production, distribution and consumption practices are depleting our resources and polluting the globe; People, as almost two-thirds of the world’s population is not properly nourished (malnutrition is the single largest contributor to disease in the world); and Profit, as our food systems are generating inequality in income and wealth, with profit concentrated in a small portion of the value chain actors.

The global challenge ahead of us is to promote sustainable food systems to feed (and nourish) the growing population in a sustainable way.


Diversified sustainable food systems deliver food security and nutrition and are socially, economically and environmentally sustainable


International expert recommendations point to the need to diversify production and consumption. The IPES report ‘From Uniformity to Diversity’ (2016) calls for “a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems”, as these systems can be competitive, perform particularly strongly under environmental stress, and also pave the way for diverse diets and improved health. The same report argues that promoting a food systems approach can help meet 13 of the 17 UN SDGs. Likewise, the FAO ‘Recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems’ (2015) highlights the importance of facilitating production diversification, marketing of nutritious foods, and increasing incentives (and decreasing disincentives) for availability, access, and consumption of diverse, nutritious and safe foods through environmentally sustainable production, trade, and distribution. The UN Decade of Action on Nutrition (2016-2025) work programme, action area 1 (Sustainable, resilient food systems for healthy diets), calls for “improved production, availability, accessibility and affordability of a variety of cereals, legumes, vegetables, fruits and animal-source foods, including fish, meat, eggs and dairy products, produced and consumed sustainably; and diets containing adequate macronutrients, fibre and micronutrients in line with WHO recommendations on healthy diets.” The foresight report of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition (2016) highlights the importance of enhancing the ability of food systems to deliver high quality diets, and stresses the importance to go beyond agriculture to “encompass trade, the environment and health, harnessing the power of the private sector and empowering consumers to demand better diets.”


‘Traditional’ food will be key to address together the challenges of nourishing people, protecting the planet and reducing inequality


One way to foster food variety in our food systems is by supporting the production, processing, marketing and consumption of neglected and underutilised species (NUS). NUS, still abundant in the tropics, are very high in minerals, nutrients and vitamins; perform well under extreme weather conditions and tend to adapt easily to climate change; contribute to protecting agricultural biodiversity; if properly recognised are more likely to generate fair profits for smallholders (compared to food chains controlled by powerful corporations); and, with their related traditional knowledge, can reinforce cultural identity and strengthen people’s ownership of the food system. But they are likely to be wiped out in a world where about 90% of the food energy and proteins consumed comes from only 15 plant and 8 animal species, and agricultural production systems for more recognised species continue to erode genetic diversity. As Bioversity International states, “NUS should be at the centre of global efforts on nutrition, sustainability and climate change adaptation: they can provide a robust contribution in the implementation of most of the 17 SDGs”.


Integrating NUS with more commercial/popular crops can contribute to more sustainable food systems


Unfortunately, diversifying food production and consumption is easier said than done, given that four crops (rice, wheat, corn and soy) represent 60% of all calories consumed across the globe. Diversification will require, in particular, helping farmers identify and produce efficiently a more diverse range of crops, as well as building new markets by educating communities about the nutritional importance of eating a wide range of foods. But it will require much more than that, including addressing the power imbalances and vested interests along and across very complex food systems, where concentration of power largely influences production and consumption.

As recently explained by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, “market systems that make diversity of diets both affordable and attractive to the consumer are game changers to achieve food security for all. This requires imaginative investment in appropriate producer incentives, markets that work for the poor, and more resource-efficient value chains.”

In the case of ‘traditional’ food, according to Bioversity, promoting NUS will entail (1) creating an enabling policy environment, adequate incentives and partnerships; (2) institutional support to scale up successful pilot business opportunities (facilitate access to financing, meet food safety standards, design packaging and labeling, access export markets, etc.); and (3) promoting multi-disciplinary research and knowledge creation. Taking into account the importance of market demand and economic incentives within the food system, a particularly interesting area for further work towards diversification (and conservation of agricultural biodiversity) is around certification and labelling approaches, to indicate to consumers that NUS support the conservation of ecosystems, improved nutrition and more equitable and culturally viable food systems.


The contribution of research, policy processes and partnerships…as well as ECDPM


ECDPM, as part of its new strategy, is committed to contributing to this required shift towards food systems that better serve the needs of Planet, People and Profit simultaneously. In a consortium with Italian Universities, we launched a programme on ‘food systems for sustainable development’, called “SASS” (Sustainable Agrifood Systems Strategies), co-funded by the Italian Ministry of Research). Between 2017 and 2019, the SASS programme will build knowledge, policy dialogue and partnerships contributing to sustainable food systems at national, regional and international levels, based on three research locations: the Arusha area in Northern Tanzania, the SAGCOT area in Southern Tanzania, and the Naivasha basin area in Kenya. In each of these locations, the aspects of social, environmental and economic sustainability will be addressed by analysing the challenges and opportunities for the integration of local NUS into the existing, more commercial and widely supported staple food systems such as maize, rice and dairy. Among the areas of focus of such research and concrete policy recommendations will be the possible launch of Labelling and Certification schemes, as well as marketing strategies, to promote the production and consumption of NUS.

This work will be carried out in partnership with different local stakeholders, to ensure the institutional and political feasibility of the proposed improvements in the food systems, and will aim at contributing to several processes, at local, national, regional and global levels, such as: creation of labels that recognise simultaneously the environmental, social and economic sustainability of local NUS; participatory certification schemes affordable to smallholders; strengthening of the food system dimensions of the national CAADP in Kenya and Tanzania; revision of the Eastern African Community Organic Standard to capture all three types of sustainability; a continental level ecolabelling system under the framework of the AU; and feeding such results and approaches from Africa to the relevant multilateral processes such as the within the Committee on World Food Security and the Decade of Action on Nutrition.


About the authors


Carmen Torres is Policy Officer for the Sustainable Food Systems team of ECDPM’s Economic and Agricultural Transformation programme.

Francesco Rampa is Head of Programme for the Sustainable Food Systems team of ECDPM’s Economic and Agricultural Transformation programme.


Photo: Women selling cowpea – a type of African leafy vegetable – in a market. Credit: Bioversity International P. Maundu, via Flickr 


This article was published in GREAT Insights Volume 6, Issue 4 (September/October 2017).

Economic Transformation and TradeFood SecuritySustainable food systems