16.06.2023 |

HLPE report calls for action to reduce inequalities in food systems

Farmer in Vietnam (Photo: CC0 Pixabay)

The world is characterized by considerable inequalities that are particularly stark within food systems, where they exacerbate already alarming conditions of hunger and malnutrition, presenting a serious impediment to achieving global goals and national policy promises. This is the message of a new report released by the UN Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), a body for assessing the science related to world food security and nutrition. “Reducing inequalities for food security and nutrition”, the 18th thematic report of the panel, was presented at an event in Rome on June 15th. “The report shows that fundamentally food security and nutrition outcomes display huge variations across regions but it is also true that no single region is exempted from some burden of malnutrition or the other so every region is suffering from at least one aspect of malnutrition. But within regions there is a lot of disparity,” explained Bhavani Shankar, HLPE drafting team leader and professor in Food and Health at the University of Sheffield. “Inequalities within countries are profound, in many cases they are increasing, and that’s a huge part of the problem. And those groups that fare consistently worse with regard to the food security and nutrition outcomes are women, those with less education, indigenous peoples and poor people,” he said during the launch of the report. This message is underlined by Bernard Lehmann, Chairperson of the HLPE: “Food security and nutrition inequalities exist throughout the food system, from farm to fork. They include inequalities in access to food production resources and market opportunities for small-scale producers, unequal power dynamics between large food corporations and food producers, as well as unequal access to adequate and nutritious food among consumers,” he wrote in the foreword to the 200-pages report which will be presented at the 51st plenary session of the CFS in October.

The report is organized around six chapters. Chapter one is dedicated to the conceptual framework. The authors explain why it is important to address inequalities. Inequalities threaten progress on food security and nutrition (FSN) and tackling them is mandated in global goals and human rights covenants and corresponds to a natural sense of human justice and fairness that is embodied in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The report defines inequalities in food systems “as the observed differences in FSN outcomes, or related food systems factors (such as access to food production resources), between individuals and groups (when disaggregated by social, economic and geographical position).” The conceptual framework is illustrated in a diagram which shows how food security and nutrition can be improved by addressing inequalities within food systems and in other related systems such as health, education or infrastructure which are all important for food security. The authors write that sustainable change requires understanding and addressing the systemic drivers and root causes of inequity.

Chapter two describes patterns and trends of inequality in food security and nutrition. “While inequalities in food security are particularly seen to affect populations in Africa, South Asia and the Caribbean, inequality in nutritional status exists globally,” the authors explain. Despite gains made in reducing undernutrition in low- and middle-income countries, the global rise in overweight and obesity among both adults and children undermines the past progress made in nutrition. In addition, since 2015, food insecurity has worsened in most regions of the world. Within each of the major regions (Africa, Northern America and Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Asia), the highest burden of severe food insecurity is found in Middle Africa (37.7 %), Southern Europe (2.8 %), the Caribbean (30.5 %) and Southern Asia (21 %). Gender differences in food insecurity trends are consistently noted both globally and between regions; a gap that has further widened. Around the world, more women than men are experiencing food insecurity, and women experience more severe food insecurity than men. People with disabilities are at greater risk of food insecurity given they are also more likely to be living in poverty. Studies show that indigenous adults in Australia have a five to seven times higher risk of experiencing food insecurity than their non-Indigenous counterparts. In North America, Black non-Hispanic households have a higher proportion of food insecurity (22.7 %) compared to White non-Hispanic households (8.7 %). The researchers find that more qualitative and adequately disaggregated data along gender, location, economic status, ethnicity, other social group and physical ability is required to systematically quantify and track food system and nutrition inequalities.

Chapter 3 examines the proximate drivers of inequalities within food systems and related systems. Within food systems, it explores three broad areas: inequalities in food production resources, in food supply chains and in food environments and consumer behavior. Large inequalities in access to food-production resources exist and persist. A prominent example is seen in the high and increasing inequality in land ownership globally. Globally and in most regions of the world other than Africa, land inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient has been on an increasing trend since 1975. In food supply chains, unequal access to financial services is another driver of inequalities: Small-scale food producers and small businesses have long faced significant obstacles in accessing or taking up credit, insurance and other financial products, or they lack access to information and technology. They also have limited ability to engage with and gain from modern value chains and markets, storage, processing and distribution, and international food trade. “Large traders, processors and retailers prefer not to incur the transaction costs of buying small quantities from many smallholders. Thus, they often stipulate minimum volume requirements and/or quality standards that small producers may struggle to meet, especially if upgrading and investment in inputs requires financing and better information.,” the authors explain the dilemma. Third, food environments provide highly unequal opportunities for food security and nutrition, with low-income populations and minority groups particularly impacted by the inequalities.

The fourth chapter takes a broader social and historical perspective and examines the underlying systemic drivers and root causes of food security and nutrition inequalities. Many drivers that act on food systems have underlying drivers within food systems themselves, the report finds. For example, climate change and environmental decline harm food system workers and are a threat to food security and nutrition, particularly where people and places are most vulnerable to change. However, food systems themselves are major drivers of climate change. The same holds true for biodiversity loss, water and soil depletion, and pollution. Other root causes are economic and market drivers which have fundamentally transformed global food systems by shaping market dynamics, flows of finance, and patterns of global trade to consolidate decision-making power and ownership. Most notable has been the shaping and scale of international trade, and the influence of a small number of private actors increasingly in control of market making. “These changes have altered dietary patterns in complex ways and curtailed the agency of most food system workers. While some nutritional benefits accrue, there are concerns about the impacts of a transition towards a Western obesogenic diet that exacerbate FSN outcomes, initially affecting the wealthiest in society but then gradually becoming a problem for the most marginalised or socio-economically disadvantaged sections of society.” But there are also political and institutional drivers, like violence and armed conflict and policies and governance (e.g. land policy, agricultural policy or labour market regulations). In addition, sociocultural drivers like cultural norms or gender-based violence produce and reinforce existing inequalities. Historical inequities will therefore persist if they are not addressed explicitly with equity-sensitive policies and practices.

Chapter five focuses on actions that can be taken within food and other systems to improve food security by presenting priority areas that hold significant potential for reducing inequalities. The proposed actions are grouped into four broad categories: food production; food supply chains; food environment and consumption; and enabling environment, broader context and governance. First, within food production, options to reduce inequalities in the area of food security and nutrition include: enabling more equal access to land, forests, livestock and fisheries, applying agroecological principles across production and broader food systems, establishing inclusive producer organizations, and investing in equity-sensitive public agricultural and food- systems research and other rural public investments. The latter includes, for example, incorporating gender equity into strategic prioritizing, which may lead to new areas of emphasis, such as on crops or livestock particularly important for household food security, or investments in crops and livestock for marginal environments and low-potential rain-fed areas, as well as climate-resilient technologies for smallholders. Second, the action areas in food supply chains mentioned in the report are adopting inclusive value chain approaches; developing labour-protection policies, strategies, and programmes for food-system workers; considering territorial approaches in food system and regional development planning; investing in equity-sensitive storage, food processing and distribution infrastructure; and investing in improved information systems, leveraging digital technologies. With regard to food environment and consumption, the main action areas include food-environment planning and governance; incorporating behavioural insights into policymaking and programming; and strengthening social protection. Within the last category, the authors mention food- and nutrition-sensitive policy and planning and addressing corporate power asymmetries in governance, just to name two aspects.

The sixth chapter provides recommendations to support a fundamental transformation of food systems. As Bhavani Shankar outlines during the presentation of the report, there are ten broad recommendations grouped into four cluster but within these ten broad recommendations, there are many sub-recommendations, i.e. more sharp and precise recommendations. For example, cluster A focuses on addressing inequalities within food systems. The first broad recommendation is thus that “states, intergovernmental organizations, the private sector and civil society should work across sectors to ensure more equitable access to land, forests, aquatic resources and other food-production resources, applying rights-based approaches”. A related sub-recommendation is to bolster the land and resource rights of women, peasants, Indigenous Peoples and other marginalized groups, including legal recognition and inheritance rights. Cluster B looks at inequalities in related systems and one recommendation is that States should ensure universal access to services and resources that have a direct impact on food security and nutrition. More precisely, states should ensure universal access to FSN-relevant services, including primary healthcare, immunization, nutrition education, sanitation and safe drinking water, just to name on example. Cluster C focuses on tackling social and political drivers of inequality while cluster D includes recommendations related to strengthening data and knowledge systems to enable improved understanding and monitoring of equity in domains relevant for food security and nutrition. All recommendations can be found in the report and or the executive summary of the report. (ab)

Back to news list


Donors of globalagriculture Bread for all biovision Bread for the World Misereor Heidehof Stiftung Hilfswerk der Evangelischen Kirchen Schweiz Rapunzel
English versionDeutsche VersionDeutsche Version