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Tomlinson Commemorative Lecture: Food Policy and Nutrition Economics in the SDG era

For analysts and academics alike, the world of development policy changes quickly. Decision makers are faced with increasing complexity and a growing list of elements that have to be taken into account in policy reform and design.

Despite the well-grounded and long-standing knowledge that nutrition is essential for development, and notwithstanding its centrality to many development approaches over the decades, it is not until recently that it has been taken seriously. Why? This was the question debated by Prof Hendriks during the Agricultural Economics Association of South Africa’s Tomlinson Commemorative Lecture at the University of Pretoria on Thursday 22 February 2018.

Prof Hendriks is the first woman to have been recognised for her contribution to the profession since the initialisation of the award in 1986. The award commemorates the contribution of Professor FR Tomlinson, the founder of the Association.

Ending hunger is still central to the global development agenda and the challenge of doing so is just as daunting as ever. Especially in Africa where population growth remains high, leading to an increase in the absolute number of hungry people over the last 15 years. Even when the importance of food security and nutrition in development is appreciated, policy actions do not necessarily lead to significant reductions in widespread hunger and malnutrition. Progress has been slow, especially in Africa. Only near the close of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) era and in the negotiation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was the MGD's narrow focus of reducing extreme hunger and poverty (MDG1) broadened to include food security and nutrition (SDG2). SDG2 seeks to end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainability.

The professional constructs of policymakers, analysts and practitioners alike has confined their long-term attention and actions to their familiar domains. This has led to three usually disparate and sometimes interconnecting areas of policy development and practice: agriculture, nutrition and sustainable development. It is only in the SDGs that these three areas, at last, come together. Unlike the MDGs that only applied to developing countries and in which the environment was an afterthought, the SGDs include a focus on the environment but are universal – meaning all countries have to address them and are being judged on their progress. The SDGs call for a convergence between the three pillars of economic development, social equity and environmental protection.

In some ways, the context for food policy is entirely different to that of the 1970s and 80s. The gains are threatened by some formidable challenges. One of these is climate change. Climate change will have far-reaching impacts on crop, livestock and fisheries production, and will change the prevalence of crop pests. The challenge of how to stimulate and sustain economic growth that reduces poverty, generates employment and fosters equality while at the same time improving nutrition for all persists. Population growth and agricultural system change have significant implications for food policy – regarding production, consumption and trade. Population growth in Africa is likely to continue to put pressure on food, land and water resources. The geography and demography of Africa are likely to change considerably by 2030. The so-called youth bulge will add to the pressure. Not only will the number of mouths to feed increase, but many will also migrate to urban centres in search of employment and opportunities.

Unlike the development planning of the past, the responsibility for driving such policy reform is no longer the development community but African governments themselves. Moreover, food policy governance is also different today. Whereas in the past, food policy was primarily used to indicate the whole range of policy efforts that affect food system outcomes; more recently, food policy has emphasised the need for aligning policy efforts across sectors to achieve a shared vision. Many governments now realise that multisectoral action is an absolute necessity for dealing with the complexities.

Perhaps the convergence of food policy, nutrition and sustainable development in the SDGs offers some hope for development planners in overcoming the challenges of complexity? If so, what does the agricultural economics profession provide to support the delivery on the SDGs and development agendas in the SDG era?

The role of the agricultural economist in achieving the SDGs is pivotal. Armed with knowledge, skills and tools not common to nutrition, in particular, the agricultural economist offers analytical power and the ability to produce evidence for decision-making. Unless equipped with the ability to think inside, outside and without a box, the contribution to teamwork will be limited. Exposing agricultural economics students to a broader domain than consumption theory within the supply-demand confines is essential to building an appreciation for nutrition, behavioural science and poverty dynamics in particular. Updating syllabi with food systems thinking, critiques of planning approaches and the mastery of essential soft skills are crucial for training the next generation of professionals.

The full paper is available online.

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