Access to food depends on how markets function

South Asia has experienced rapid economic growth, yet it still has the highest rate of child malnutrition in the world, and half the population is undernourished. Besides children, undernutrition among women and adolescent girls is also a major concern.

Within the overall picture of undernutrition, micronutrient undernutrition (caused by inadequate intake of vitamins and minerals) is a particular issue in countries such as Bangladesh, which have very successfully increased production of food staples.

LANSA is concerned with analysing and improving links between agriculture and nutrition. There are two ways to frame this question.

The most obvious way, and one that receives extensive attention both within the LANSA research programme and more broadly, is to focus on encouraging poor agricultural households to grow and consume more nutrient-rich foods. Such foods may be produced in addition to cash crops (for example, through the promotion of kitchen gardens or vegetable plots) or be crops that are both consumed and sold for cash. Parts of the LANSA research programme are concerned with these approaches.

At the same time, another part of the LANSA programme approaches this issue from the perspective of the many households in South Asia that rely on market purchases seasonally or year round, for some or all of their dietary needs. This includes farm households, non-farm rural households and urban households.

For these people, access to food depends upon how the food markets function. What are the ways in which food reaches these populations, and is it nutritionally adequate, geographically accessible (close enough to where people live to enable them to purchase it), acceptable in terms of taste, ease of preparation, cultural norms, and affordable?

The LANSA approach to markets for nutrition

Development agencies and national governments are increasingly looking to mobilise the private sector to help reduce undernutrition and deliver nutrient-rich, safe food to those groups most at risk of undernutrition.

The LANSA research programme will provide information about how effectively the markets for food that link agriculture to undernourished populations are working, and what can be done to improve them. In so doing, it takes a broad approach to markets and market actors, examining a range of different initiatives that are involved in providing foods to the undernourished. These include the promotion of markets, particularly local markets for nutrient-rich foods (millets, dairy, vegetables, etc.), food distribution programmes, mandatory fortification initiatives and the marketing of products enhanced with vitamins and minerals.

Particular attention will be given to markets for ready-made complementary foods for infants, or products that are used in home preparation of such infant foods, given that the quality of food intake in the period of 6 to 24 months of age is particularly important for child development. Such initiatives employ a variety of approaches to producing and selling nutrient-rich foods, ranging from public distribution systems, public incentives for businesses to market nutrient-rich foods, social enterprises, pure private sector initiatives, and a range of public-private collaborations.

Research teams in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan have worked together to develop an approach to this issue using case studies of agriculture-nutrition value chains. These case studies will examine particular initiatives across the range of initiatives just mentioned.

These case studies will fill four important knowledge gaps:

First, they will analyse the effectiveness of particular interventions. In this context, effectiveness is defined as the capacity of the initiative to facilitate access to nutrient-rich foods by populations that are undernourished. Many claims are made about the benefits of interventions, but not enough is known about precisely who buys or consumes the foods that are made available. Do the initiatives actually increase consumption of these foods by those that are most in need of them?

Second, market interventions interact with social structures in ways that create complex and unforeseen consequences. The issue of how the impacts of such interventions impact on women and are shaped by gender relations will be investigated.

Third, interventions will identify the many ways in which public actors can and do influence the functioning of markets for nutrient-rich foods. Governments, at different levels, influence food markets in many ways, ranging from the regulatory context to providing incentives for other actors (private and not private) to operate in food markets. Governments may be failing to do things that are important, such as provide effective regulation and promote food safety and food awareness, but may also be intervening in ways that are counter-productive.

Fourth, case studies will identify the major challenges that have to be overcome to make markets work more effectively. There are success stories in food markets, but there are examples where initiatives have failed to reach the populations most at risk.

There are initiatives that have provided food needed by the undernourished, but are not sustainable in a business sense. Often there is a proper role for government intervention, but the policies and capacities of fragile public sector organisations are weak. The case studies, taken together, will allow identification of the situations in promoting strategies to improve nutrition through food consumption are most likely to be successful.

Markets for nutrient rich foods are an important part of the linkage between agriculture and nutrition. Most poor people depend upon markets for some purchases of foods, and many will rely on market purchases to a considerable extent. However, market-based solutions alone will not be sufficient.

Thus, an analysis of how markets operate will enable identification of the circumstances where market solutions are likely to be effective, and also how they might be improved, but equally an understanding of the limitations of market-based solutions and the need to complement these with other approaches to reducing undernutrition.

John Humphrey
Tuesday, September 8, 2015

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South Asia Focus

Funded by UK DFID

This research has been funded by the UK Government’s Department for International Development; however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the UK Government’s official policies



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