Towards next generation food policy research

November 24, 2015
by Simon Maxwell

The following story by IFPRI Board Member Simon Maxwell was originally published on his personal blog.

We were asked at the 40th anniversary conference of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to think about the challenges for food policy research over the next 40 years – so let me try to do that. I promise to try really hard not just to lay out the agenda I myself have written about over the years, though do feel bound to refer to the special issue of Development Policy Review, later a book, ‘Food Policy Old and New’, that Rachel Slater and I edited together in 2003. I won’t be able to resist drawing on that, but will also make use of the 50-odd speeches at the IFPRI event, and of IFPRI’s own resources, including the Global Food Policy Report, the Global Hunger Index and the Global Nutrition Report.

To summarise the conclusions in a few bullets. Future food policy research will need to:

  • Provide ‘more of the same’, to maintain progress in reducing hunger via careful research and policy analysis.
  • Respond to the multifaceted nature of the new global goals, emphasising such issues as equity and responsible consumption and production.
  • Recognise the importance of food not just as a source of nutrients, but also as a medium of social exchange, an essential component of cultural and social capital.
  • Build policy on an ethical foundation which takes account of food rights, but also the need for redistribution of power and resources to tackle multiple inequalities at global, national, local and household levels.
  • Take account of the rapid change in global food systems and build a ‘new’ food policy for a globalised and urbanised world in which food processing and manufacturing play an ever-larger role;
  • Find the right balance between policies to tackle chronic and transitory problems, focusing both on longer-term malnutrition and on the immediate humanitarian crises caused by weather shocks or conflict.
  • Put sustainability at the heart of food policy, aiming in particular for deep decarbonisation of the entire food system, and putting in place policies to manage the dislocations which will inevitably occur.
  • Invest in understanding how to foster innovation, in agriculture but also more widely, in such a way as to promote overall goals of growth, equity and sustainability.
  • Build a capacity to understand the politics of food policy reform as a routine component of all research and policy analysis, equipping policy-makers with the confidence to make the case for change.
  • Acknowledge the methodological implications, especially the need for multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams.
  • Build stronger networks and alliances, in order to improve access, reduce costs and enable some specialisation.

I don’t know whether any of these recommendations apply directly to IFPRI. I am on the Board, but the future IFPRI strategy was not at the front of my mind in writing this. In any case, IFPRI’s excellent research portfolio already covers many of these points.

Where have we come from?
The starting point in Washington was to note that IFPRI’s agenda has evolved considerably over the 40 years’ of its existence. We were reminded of IFPRI’s founding just after the world food crisis of 1972-74 and in the still early days of the Green Revolution. There was important work in that period on managing global shocks, the macroeconomics of food policy, winners and losers from the Green Revolution, growth linkages from agriculture, and the role of infrastructure. I well remember IFPRI’s work on cash crops, reminding policy-makers that sometimes the best route to growth and poverty reduction was not to grow food for home consumption, but instead to produce (sometimes staples, often not) for the market.  A second period of research put nutrition concerns more firmly at the centre, including the highly influential work on micronutrients and biofortification, which has led to the commercialisation through HarvestPlus of crops like Vitamin-A enriched sweet potato. More recently, IFPRI has picked up new themes, including value chain management, governance, and national/household resilience. It has long had a powerful voice on gender. Figure 1 summarises its current strategy.

No-one, least of all IFPRI itself, will claim that IFPRI is the only voice on food policy. Indeed, some of us made a living for years, tracking the narratives and counter-narratives, the interests and the politics of food policy and food policy research. Nevertheless, IFPRI has brought careful analysis to the debate and, as we were reminded at the 40th anniversary event, has been influential in many countries. Overall, and of course, for many reasons in addition to good research, famines have almost been eliminated, hunger overall is down, under-nutrition is falling, and global food shocks are handled somewhat more effectively. Investment in agriculture, severely neglected in the 1990s, has recovered, though many would argue not yet fully. The flagship reports linked above summarise the evidence on these topics.

Read full story on Simon Maxwell's blog