Political Economy of Agri-Nutrition: what’s politics got to do with nutrients?

Authors: Fiorella Picchioni, Adwoa Yeboah Gyapong, Sara Stevano, Siera Vercillo 

Agriculture plays an important role in addressing nutritional challenges, but the pathways through which these connections take place are contested and evidence is mixed (1,2). For instance, when farmers produce more nutritious and diverse foods, positive impacts might be seen on their dietary diversity and nutrition status. However, food producers face various pressures to place their products on the market that lead to crop specialisation, and they often are net food buyers, hence what they produce is not the only – or the most important – determinant of their nutrition status. If the multi-faceted reality of agrarian change and post-colonial capitalist development in the Global South are overlooked, simplistic and linear agri-nutrition pathways will be favoured.  Against this backdrop, agri-nutrition interventions and programmes are widely used by governments in the Global South, and are promoted by international agencies and generously financed by international donors.  Agri-nutrition interventions range from home-stead gardening, food fortification to livestock and technology distribution and training. Discourses and theories at the foundation of such interventions tend to focus on household food production and biomedical or technical perspectives on nutrition.

In fact, it may generally be considered that agri-nutrition interventions are apolitical and that political and economic influences may not play a significant role in their implementation and outcomes. For example, food fortification interventions are among the main strategies to address micronutrient deficiencies (MNDs). MNDs can have devastating effects, including impaired brain development, weakened immunity against disease, blindness and even death (3) and  affect approximately 2 billion people globally with countries in the Global South bearing the disproportionate burden (4). In 2008 and 2012, the Copenhagen Consensus — a panel of expert economists that assessed strategies for addressing global challenges — ranked food fortification as one of the most cost-effective development priorities (5,6). In the past two decades, food fortification to  enhance the nutrients content of crops via industrial or breeding practices, has become increasingly popular in the Global South where it is being manifested in public policy directives  (7). International donors have also shown growing interest in this approach and recognise food fortification as a useful strategy to improve the diets of vulnerable populations. Despite being applied to a wide range of geographies and socio-economic contexts, food fortification strategies are not designed or assessed with a political economy lens. Indeed, research from a political economy point of view is limited, with a few exceptions (8).

The ANH Academy Technical Working Group (WG) on Political Economy of Agri-Nutrition highlights the political economy processes and political ecology aspects that shape the implementation and implications of agricultural interventions that are designed to improve nutritional outcomes. The WG is composed of an interdisciplinary group of scholars with expertise on the experience of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa, a region that stands out for the high concentration of countries facing a double or triple burden of malnutrition (9), i.e., the co-existence of overnutrition, undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies. The work of the WG draws on political economy approaches to the study of agricultural and food systems, ranging from Food Regimes (10), Systems of Provision (11), and Food Sovereignty (12) to mention a few. The significance of such work is that debates and theories deriving from this literature are absent in the design and evaluation of agri-nutrition interventions and policies.

The WG presents two main critiques of mainstream agri-nutrition approaches.  First, the understanding of the relationship between agriculture and nutritional outcomes is often fragmented and heavily focused on technical approaches to nutrition characterised by the promotion of specific food crops, technologies, novel farming systems or micronutrient enrichment. There is a place for such interventions to benefit farmers and consumers, but their focus is often premised on decontextualised scientific and productivist notions that are removed from the context of food, food culture, food chains and dietary patterns (13). Second, mainstream agrinutrition interventions are silent on how policies translate into outcomes. When they do, such linkage is usually assumed, deterministic and analysed linearly, thus missing out on essential processes, interests, and intervening factors that affect nutrition outcomes (14).

The WG has focused its work on three objectives: 1) providing a systematic overview of the main theoretical debates on the political economy of agri-nutrition; 2) conducting a mapping exercise of the main agri-nutrition interventions taking place in three countries in sub-Saharan Africa (South Africa, Ghana, and Ethiopia) that are positioned at different stages of the nutrition transition, agricultural commercialisation and transformation of the food environment; and 3) capacity building in future on what political economy analyses look like . This blog is informed by the scoping literature on political economy of agri-nutrition with a focus on food fortification conducted by some of the members of the team.

What can we learn about agri-nutrition using political economy lenses?

An area often overlooked in agri-nutrition discourses and nutrition paradigm are issues around power and control in the global food systems. For example, the concept of food regimes highlights that agri-nutrition interventions are conceptualised and operationalised within the corporate food production under capitalist food system. The Food regimes concept links food and capitalism in a tight relationship and provides room for engagement with the structural causes and roots of malnutrition (10). In this sense, malnutrition is not a “disfunction” or an unexpected result of global food systems under the capitalist mode of production, but a direct consequence of putting the logic of profit over concerns about environmental degradation, rural livelihoods, local food cultures and indigenous agricultural practices. Institutional, structural and discursive power all play their role in legitimising the neglect for such issues, through the use of technological and scientific advancement, advertisement, experts’ opinion, overt coercion, and control over institutions and forums about nutrition.

If food regimes offer a reading of the macro processes in which agri-nutrition policies are positioned, agrarian and feminist political economy allows for the unpacking of the micro-level factors that shape food production and malnutrition, including the politics of resource distribution on grounds of gender, class, race, religion and ethnicity. Agri-nutrition interventions are often targeted at women, who are considered as carers, mothers and nurturers. Indeed, such approaches have been criticised for reinforcing patriarchal norms and often overburden women with tasks and unrealistic expectations. They do so by neglecting issues around access to natural and productive resources, public services, rights and freedoms. A feminist political economy approach to agri-nutrition, therefore, raises important questions about the structural inequalities in the household economy. It links the rationale, recurrent implications of such interventions to broader scales and politicises women’s subordination and the structural privileges of men and masculinity (15–18).

Finally, the food sovereignty movement offers an important framework to view food and nutrition differently . It is a powerful counter narrative to dominant food systems approaches. One of its most “radical” claims is to centre the notion of food and natural resources back to their inherent cultural, social and relational value, instead of being just commodities. Although criticised over concerns about conflating diverse struggles under an unprecise framing or for its questionable approaches around gender  (19–21), food sovereignty successfully addresses issues of technological and knowledge dependency in agriculture development practices in SSA.

Political economy of food fortification

Food fortification programmes are widespread in SSA (22). Below we outline some political economy enquiries that emerge from a closer look at fortification strategies aimed to address MNDs. First, food fortification interventions emphasise technical solutions over social political ones, and by doing so they promote biomedical and commodified perspectives on nutrition. Second, food fortification programmes address malnutrition as a supply issue, particularly adequate vitamins and minerals. By only focusing on availability, such programmes rarely address issues of access to culturally appropriate and healthy diets. Creating markets for nutritious foods can be part of the solution in certain contexts, but alone fails to address the factors that make households vulnerable to undernutrition in the first place. Third, there should be a critical debate on the trade-offs between promoting processed foods as “vectors” for nutrient enriched products (such as fortified sugar, salts, confectionary products and energy drinks) instead of fruit and vegetable rich diets. There are indeed concerns that nutrient improved snacks (such a biscuits) have exacerbated addiction among young children suffering malnutrition, who already eat a lot of snacks, such as fried chips, cookies, and cold drinks (8).  Finally, under the auspices of increased roles of the private sector to tackle malnutrition (i.e. New Alliance for Food Security and Nutrition), food fortification programmes promote the penetration of new actors that can displace smaller and informal processors and vendors from local markets (23). Increasingly driven through multi-stakeholder collaborations in the form of private public partnerships (PPP), food fortification partnerships provide an opportunity for a large “new” market for larger domestic millers and processors as well as agri-food businesses supplying fortification premixes or biofortified seeds. It is therefore important to ask questions on the role PPPs between the private sector, non-profit organisations and large donors in shaping state level policies to reduce malnutrition (24). Given the importance of informal markets for large sections of the population in the Global South (particularly for the most vulnerable groups), it is central to evaluate the market reconfigurations of such interventions and how the benefits are shared across the formal and informal food value chains.

New (and old) research and policy agenda

Considering and conceptualising agri-nutrition from the point of view of political economy is in its infancy. There are gaps in knowledge that need to be filled for improved policies that address the root causes of malnutrition. This blog briefly touched upon some of the processes that shape the dominant technical terminology and medicalised practices about food security and nutrition (25). Many governments in the global South envision food security and nutrition from a narrow and a technical outlook. There is a lack of resources (and perhaps unwillingness) to commit to the cause of food security and nutrition via enhancing local food systems. Such a course requires research and policy agendas that include:

  • Scrutiny and accountability of who and what is accorded space in  nutrition debates and how is power exercised;
  • Increased attention to alternative and sustainable food systems knowledge, such as agroecology;
  • Incorporating issues of equality in the design and evaluation of agri-food interventions that transcend specific targets (e.g., improved yields or distribution of technology) to whole systems improvement;
  • Levy on the food industry to fund public and community initiatives to address malnutrition in all its forms;
  • Diffuse power concentration and democratic food governance whereby consumers and farmers are empowered and control the food they produce and consume;
  • Positioning advocacy partners front and centre of research and impact evaluations.
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This post article was first published on ANH-Academy.org on 29 June 2022.