IFPRI Blog

Food and nutrition security programs: Too focused on agriculture?

February 11, 2016

The following story by Sara Gustafson was originally published on the IFPRI-led Food Security Portal for Africa south of the Sahara.

Food and nutrition security (FNS) is a multi-dimensional concept, spanning the agriculture, trade, health, and social sectors. Often, however, policies only address FNS through one lens: that of food production. This could be due to the fact that many FNS stakeholders have a background in agriculture and thus tend to focus on sectoral agricultural issues, says a new report from the FoodSecure project.

The report focuses on net food-importing countries, specifically Burkina Faso and Ethiopia, and examines how FNS is treated in those countries’ policymaking processes. The study’s authors conducted an extensive literature review as well as field interviews with key stakeholders, including government officials, donors, and civil society representatives. The study focused on the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) in Ethiopia and the National Policy on Food and Nutrition Security (Politique nationale de sécurité alimentaire et nutritionelle, or PNSAN) in Burkina Faso, as both of these programs are considered to be FNS-centered. Findings suggest that FNS policies are extremely fragmented between agriculture, nutrition, and social programs.

Ethiopia has made great strides over the past 20 years in reducing poverty and food insecurity; IFPRI’s 2014 Global Hunger Index (GHI) reports that between 1995 and 2014, the country’s GHI score fell from 42.6 to 24.4. However, food insecurity and malnutrition remain a problem, with more than 20 million Ethiopians living with hunger in 2015 and more than 5 million children stunted in 2011.

Burkina Faso also faces persistent poverty and growing hunger, despite sustained economic growth of more than 6 percent per year from 2000 to 2012. The most recent national food security survey, conducted in 2008, reported that one in three households was food insecure, particularly in rural areas. In 2012, 32.9 percent of children in Burkina Faso were stunted, and 88 percent of children under five suffered from anemia caused by micronutrient deficiencies in 2010. Overweight and obesity are also increasing in the country, with 7.7 percent of the population considered overweight in 2010.

According to the study, both Ethiopia’s PSNP and Burkina Faso’s PNSAN, while nominally focused on FNS, are predominantly shaped by the agricultural sector and do not truly take food and nutrition security’s multi-dimensional nature into account. While both countries have built inter-ministerial bodies to try to involve all relevant sectors in the FNS discussion, these groups still tend to be dominated by short-term and agriculture-focused discussions; in addition, FNS-related sectors such as health and nutrition tend to develop their own agendas and frameworks rather than integrating with the agricultural sector.

The report points out, however, that Ethiopia’s PSNP has taken some important steps to shift from a short-term to a more long-term perspective when it comes to FNS policies. By enacting policies that address both transitory food insecurity due to weather or price shocks and chronic food insecurity due to poverty and lack of development, the PSNP has been successful at balancing short-term and long-term responses. Ethiopia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoARD) encompasses both social safety nets and disaster risk management, as well as agricultural and food security programs. 

On the other hand, Burkina Faso’s National Council on Food Security (CNSA) was designed to prevent food shortages due to cereal production deficits; thus, its focus remains primarily on short-term agricultural needs. This focus is highlighted through the CNSA’s annual response plans, which aim to prevent food crises. These plans are effective at distributing food and mobilizing food security stocks in times of crisis, but fail to address chronic food insecurity and other development challenges, like urban migration, non-agricultural livelihoods, or over-exploitation of natural resources.

The study argues that this agricultural focus persists in many FNS programs because the predominant actors in FNS policymaking tend to be officials from ministries of Agriculture and donors and NGOs involved in agricultural development. In Ethiopia, the study found that many stakeholders view food insecurity as a rural issue. While there is growing recognition that programs need to look beyond supply-side constraints to address more structural and institutional challenges, such as population growth, land tenure issues, and growing urban food insecurity, for now, these voices do not appear to be well-represented in the country’s FNS policy framework.

In Burkina Faso, food insecurity is also seen as predominantly a rural problem. Stakeholders who participated in study interviews tended to defend FNS policies’ agricultural bias by emphasizing Burkina Faso’s vulnerability to climate shocks and dependence on rain-fed agriculture; these challenges are often used to justify a more short-term, emergency response approach rather than FNS policies that focus more on long-term development. For both countries, it will be important to extend the focus of FNS policies from rural areas to consumers in urban populations and to account for both social and nutritional issues.

The paper concludes that, while it is important that countries establish more comprehensive, balanced FNS policies, the structure with which to do so will vary depending on the country context. Some countries may find it more effective to bring FNS under the auspices of their Ministry of Agriculture; others, under the auspices of their Prime Minister or President. Similarly, some countries may be better served by merging their food security and nutrition organizations into one umbrella institution, while others may find it more effective to maintain separate institutions that collaborate closely. Such structural decisions will require policymakers to take into account their specific country’s political and social histories, as well as their institutional capacity.

High-level commitment from both governments and donor organizations will be needed to establish truly multi-dimensional FNS policies. Focus should be put on better integrating emergency responses in times of food crisis with longer term development goals. In addition, strong investment in and support for agriculture, social programs, and nutrition interventions will be key.