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Africa: Agricultural or Food Systems Transformation – What’s The Difference And Why It Matters


As countries grapple with the challenge of advancing their national food systems transformation pathways, agriculture ministries, which are often tasked with meeting this challenge, are increasingly asking how food systems transformation differs from the process of agricultural transformation that they have traditionally been mandated to steward.

In this blog, we argue that these transformations differ in two ways. First in their focus and in the channels and interventions through which they are promoted. Second in the roles of involved stakeholders. We also argue that the distinction is important if the broader benefits of transformation to more sustainable food systems are to be achieved.

Agricultural transformation – what is it and what are its limitations?

Agricultural transformation has played a well-documented and fundamental role in the history of economic development. As economies develop, an increasingly productive agriculture sector not only contributes to improved food security (increased availability and affordability), but releases labour to higher return activities in the manufacturing and service sectors. This increases the incomes of both agricultural workers and of labour moving to more remunerative employment outside agriculture. A knock-on effect of these higher incomes is increased demand both for food and for manufactured goods and services, creating a virtuous cycle – initially in rural areas and then the wider economy.

A key focus of governments and their development partners has therefore been on strategies to maximize on-farm productivity of food staples for which, in the past at least, there were remunerative regional and international markets. The focus has tended to be on interventions targeted at the farm and early post farm stages of the value chain. Research and development, the extension of more efficient farm practices and input intensive technologies, improved access to finance and facilitating farmers’ access to better connected markets by investing in market infrastructure have all been prioritized. Often, these interventions were backed up with fiscal policies including price support and input and output subsidies to incentivize increased production of these food staples.

When the right conditions prevail, processes of agricultural transformation have provided a significant stimulus to increased levels of food staples, improving the livelihoods of the rural poor, and through the economic multiplier effects, resulting in wider economic growth. While chronic hunger persists in the world and the sustainability of many farming practices are under scrutiny, today agriculture feeds billions more people than it did even a few decades ago.

However, in many cases, the right conditions have not prevailed. Climate impacts have constrained productivity increases; weak land tenure and labour markets have skewed returns; falling real commodity prices have undermined profitability; and uncompetitive or small manufacturing sectors have failed to absorb the released labour.

The hidden or true costs are significant. Environmental degradation has resulted from the overuse of chemical inputs and from extensification onto fragile or forested land; the adoption of petrochemical reliant practices has increased the sector’s contribution to GHG emissions; the focus on increased calorie intake as opposed to balanced nutrition has had negative health impacts; and inappropriate policy and institutional interventions have increased the marginalization of asset poor populations.

Such costs have been increasingly recognized, as has the call for a more nuanced role for the agriculture sector in playing its transformative role as a component of a food system that delivers improved health, more inclusive growth, and uses the natural resource environment less intensively.

So what makes food systems transformation different?

Food systems transformation retains the goals of agricultural transformation – improved food security and income generation to enhance rural livelihoods and drive economic growth – but adds concomitant goals. These include increased access to healthier diets to reduce malnutrition, biodiversity promotion, natural resource conservation, climate change mitigation and improved resilience to the impacts of climate and other shocks. Importantly, it seeks to achieve these goals while ensuring the equitable inclusion of more marginalized groups to improve the resilience and sustainability of their livelihoods. It looks at the world as a system in which the imperative is to see food as the focus of multiple goals.

This requires a more systemic approach – connecting activities and decisions from farm to plate to ensure that farming practices (including the choice of crops) are not driven solely by income generation, but by the other outcomes. This will entail an approach through which government enables not just farmers, but all value chain actors (processors, traders, financiers, retailers, consumers) to make the choices which deliver these outcomes.

For Ministries of Agriculture this means a shift in goals. They need to facilitate better alignment of investments in, say, agricultural R&D (e.g. productivity of nutrient rich crops), finance (e.g. impact investment funds), technology (e.g. to reduce food loss and waste), extension (e.g. practices that are more resilient), infrastructure (e.g. wet markets, cold hubs), and SME business development (e.g. certification, product formulation) need to support farming processing, storage, purchasing, and preparation practices that collectively have good income, health and environment outcomes. Effectively, shifting from a strategy of intensification to one of sustainable intensification.

But it also means a huge focus on inter-ministerial collaboration and “whole of government” efforts with Ministries of Environment, Health, Planning, Finance, Transport, Labour, Social Welfare, Education etc. to promote the market demand (e.g. through campaigns, diet guidelines, youth movements) and public procurement demand (e.g. through social protection and school feeding programmes) for food products that have a good income, health and environment outcomes.

The increased emphasis on demand in food systems transformation will require a broadening of focus from rural based activity to reflect the more prominent role of urban food systems as drivers of change. In fact, meaningful food systems transformation involves building on the linkages between multiple sub-national regions and populations and needs to be planned at a scale that is more ambitious than just local.

How can we transition from agricultural transformation to food systems transformation?

The distinction between agricultural transformation and food systems transformation is therefore critical in fostering change in the approach to supporting the agriculture sector.

What this means in practice is complex. On the one hand, agricultural transformation focuses on a relatively limited set of objectives, the achievement of which is informed by a longstanding empirical basis. On the other hand, food systems transformation strives to achieve multiple outcomes, bringing a wider set of trade-offs to contend with and choices to make, and needing improved inter-sectoral coordination and institutional change supportive of coordinated investments along food value chains. It also requires greater devolution of decision making to allow the adaptation of national policy to local agroecological and socioeconomic contexts, for example to allow impactful repurposing of fiscal support towards higher nutrient, often neglected, crops and improved environmental outcomes.