Simon Maxwell

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Towards next generation food policy research

We were asked at the 40th anniversary conference of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) to think about the challenges for food policy research over the next 40 years – so let me try to do that. I promise to try really hard not just to lay out the agenda I myself have written about over the years, though do feel bound to refer to the special issue of Development Policy Review, later a book, ‘Food Policy Old and New’, that Rachel Slater and I edited together in 2003. I won’t be able to resist drawing on that, but will also make use of the 50-odd speeches at the IFPRI event, and of IFPRI’s own resources, including the Global Food Policy Report, the Global Hunger Index and the Global Nutrition Report.

To summarise the conclusions in a few bullets. Future food policy research will need to:

  • Provide ‘more of the same’, to maintain progress in reducing hunger via careful research and policy analysis.
  • Respond to the multifaceted nature of the new global goals, emphasising such issues as equity and responsible consumption and production.
  • Recognise the importance of food not just as a source of nutrients, but also as a medium of social exchange, an essential component of cultural and social capital.
  • Build policy on an ethical foundation which takes account of food rights, but also the need for redistribution of power and resources to tackle multiple inequalities at global, national, local and household levels.
  • Take account of the rapid change in global food systems and build a ‘new’ food policy for a globalised and urbanised world in which food processing and manufacturing play an ever-larger role;
  • Find the right balance between policies to tackle chronic and transitory problems, focusing both on longer-term malnutrition and on the immediate humanitarian crises caused by weather shocks or conflict.
  • Put sustainability at the heart of food policy, aiming in particular for deep decarbonisation of the entire food system, and putting in place policies to manage the dislocations which will inevitably occur.
  • Invest in understanding how to foster innovation, in agriculture but also more widely, in such a way as to promote overall goals of growth, equity and sustainability.
  • Build a capacity to understand the politics of food policy reform as a routine component of all research and policy analysis, equipping policy-makers with the confidence to make the case for change.
  • Acknowledge the methodological implications, especially the need for multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary teams.
  • Build stronger networks and alliances, in order to improve access, reduce costs and enable some specialisation.

I don’t know whether any of these recommendations apply directly to IFPRI. I am on the Board, but the future IFPRI strategy was not at the front of my mind in writing this. In any case, IFPRI’s excellent research portfolio already covers many of these points.

Where have we come from?

The starting point in Washington was to note that IFPRI’s agenda has evolved considerably over the 40 years’ of its existence. We were reminded of IFPRI’s founding just after the world food crisis of 1972-74 and in the still early days of the Green Revolution. There was important work in that period on managing global shocks, the macroeconomics of food policy, winners and losers from the Green Revolution, growth linkages from agriculture, and the role of infrastructure. I well remember IFPRI’s work on cash crops, reminding policy-makers that sometimes the best route to growth and poverty reduction was not to grow food for home consumption, but instead to produce (sometimes staples, often not) for the market.  A second period of research put nutrition concerns more firmly at the centre, including the highly influential work on micronutrients and biofortification, which has led to the commercialisation through HarvestPlus of crops like Vitamin-A enriched sweet potato. More recently, IFPRI has picked up new themes, including value chain management, governance, and national/household resilience. It has long had a powerful voice on gender. Figure 1 summarises its current strategy.

Figure 1

Source: IFPRI

No-one, least of all IFPRI itself, will claim that IFPRI is the only voice on food policy. Indeed, some of us made a living for years, tracking the narratives and counter-narratives, the interests and the politics of food policy and food policy research. Nevertheless, IFPRI has brought careful analysis to the debate and, as we were reminded at the 40th anniversary event, has been influential in many countries. Overall, and of course, for many reasons in addition to good research, famines have almost been eliminated, hunger overall is down, under-nutrition is falling, and global food shocks are handled somewhat more effectively. Investment in agriculture, severely neglected in the 1990s, has recovered, though many would argue not yet fully. The flagship reports linked above summarise the evidence on these topics.

Have we finished?

So, have we finished? Obviously not. The 2008 food crisis was a reminder that global food supply and demand can still cause surprises. Environmental shocks still cause food problems, as this year’s El Nino will show. And nutrition, both under- and over-, still remains a major problem, as reflected in the World Health Assembly Targets for 2025, and in the Sustainable Development Goals. Globally, more than a third of the world’s population suffers from some form of malnutrition, with 160 million children in the world stunted. These numbers underpin IFPRI’s new Compact 2025, aimed at scaling up multisectoral interventions to tackle malnutrition in focus countries like Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Rwanda.

It follows that ‘more of the same’ needs to be part of the food policy agenda in the future. Policy research, policy design and policy implementation are all part of the mix. As IFPRI evaluations have shown, and as a growing body of work there on the politics of policy also demonstrates, research can help drive change, but on its own is not enough.

‘More of the same’ needs to be balanced, however, with new research that both addresses a new context, and also faces up to new or under-explored issues.

The context is certainly changing. With population and incomes both rising, future demand for food in general, and high-value, diversified food baskets in particular, will rise significantly. Urbanisation, globalisation, industrialisation of the food system, technical change, and natural resource scarcity were all referenced many times at the 40th anniversary event. Climate change also received numerous mentions: how will the food system as a whole not just decarbonise in terms of inputs, but also eliminate other Greenhouse Gases, especially livestock emissions of methane? Who will gain, and who lose, in that process?

Further, there are issues which need to be mainstreamed in food policy research – many reflected in in the Sustainable Development Goals: rights; equity between and within countries; power; decent work; responsible production and consumption; and a new partnership between countries, including via finance, trade and technology. Climate change should feature in this list also.

The future of food policy research

What, then, of future food policy research? In 2003, drawing on a large literature in both developed and developing countries, we characterised food policy old and food policy new as in Figure 2. We also emphasised the importance of thinking about the entirety of the food system, developing a checklist of quantitative and qualitative indicators for evaluation purposes (Figure 3). Noting differences between countries, we nevertheless concluded that the new food policy agenda was relevant to all countries: ‘‘Food Policy New’, we said ‘is growing in importance. Developing countries and their international partners will not want to be taken by surprise.’

Figure 2



Figure 3


In the years since 2003, the themes our contributors identified have continued to grow in importance and become the subject of lively public debate. In the UK, writers like Felicity Lawrence and Joanna Blythman have brought issues associated with food manufacturing to public attention. Geoff Tansey has analysed issues related to intellectual property. The UK Food Group has campaigned on issues like GMOs and biofuels. Outside the UK, Robert Lustig has written a powerful denunciation of sugar, and the industry which uses it, in ‘Fat Chance: the Bitter Truth about Sugar’. In China, as we were reminded in Washington by Justin Lifu Yin, the former Chief Economist of the World Bank, food safety has become a predominant issue.

More generally, food systems research, which we traced back in 2003 at least as far as Peter Timmer’s work in the early 1980s, has been taken up by bodies like FAO. The 2015 Global Nutrition Report has a chapter on the subject, with its own set of evaluative criteria.

I have not surveyed the current field. Perhaps someone has? In any case, it seems to me, and listening also to the conversation in Washington, that ten issues need to feature more prominently (or continue to feature prominently) in the future food policy debate.


First, and before embarking on generalisations, beware generalisations! UK or US food policy cannot be transposed at the stroke of a pen to Somalia or Southern Sudan. The food systems chapter in the Global Hunger Report contains a nice classification of food systems in different kinds of countries, distinguishing five different kinds of food system with different characteristics (Figure 4). However, classification can become a trap. Remember our stricture from 2003, that in a globalised world, the new food policy issues are relevant everywhere, even if to different degrees. Further, current development thinking emphasises complexity, flexibility, and process rather than blueprint planning. Joachim Von Braun made a similar point in Washington, reminding food policy researchers and planners not to be shackled by plans, but to be nimble in responding to food challenges as they appear. I have written in a similar vein, in a framework of ‘postmodern’ food security planning.

Figure 4


            Culture and social capital

Second, food needs to be understood not just as a source of nutrition, but as a medium of social exchange, an essential component of cultural and social capital. Any review of the term ‘food security’ will inevitably focus on the availability of food, and on the entitlement of poor people; but most reviews will also turn up substantial literatures on the need for food to be culturally appropriate, consistent with food preferences, and respectful of people’s dignity. Roberto Ridolfi from the European Commission made this point in Washington, arguing that dignity was the key objective of food policy, and everything else a means to an end. That is pretty strong, and raises questions about the hierarchy of needs, but Ridolfi certainly connects to the overarching principles of the UN Resolution launching the new SDGs, which refers repeatedly to dignity as a goal. More generally, food policy should not neglect the cultural apparatus associated with preparing, sharing and consuming food.


Third, ethics are at the heart of food policy. This can be defined narrowly in terms of rights, connecting again to the principles of the SDGs, and also to the global concern with the right to food. It can also be connected to debates engendered by bodies like the Food Ethics Council, which broadens the scope. Their ‘diagnosis’ is in Figure 5, covering such topics as animal as well as human welfare. Equity features also, as of course it does in the SDGs. On this reading, food policy needs to be thought of – and judged - as an instrument to tackle the multiple inequalities which bedevil the world, globally, nationally, locally and within households. The idea that trade should be ‘fair’ as well as ‘free’ fits within this paradigm. It was interesting in Washington to hear Berry Martin from Rabobank say that ‘every value chain should be a cooperative, sharing benefits equally between all participants’. As I tweeted at the time, that is a radical view, implying significant reform. Should food policy advocate fair trade?

Figure 5


            A global food systems approach

Fourth, a food systems approach directs attention not just to the need for policy to engage with the whole of the value chain, ‘from farm to fork’, but also to cross international borders. For my money, there is a huge need for food policy analysts to engage fully with the food processing, manufacturing and distribution industries, including with the supply chain management practices of large traders, manufacturers and distributors, including supermarkets. Tim Wheeler, DFID’s Deputy Chief Scientist, made this point in Washington. Certainly, much of the developed country literature is concerned primarily with these issues. As just one example, Tim Lang and Michael Heasman’s book ‘Food Wars: the Global Battle for Mouths, Minds and Markets’ has just been published in a second edition. It has a great deal to say about market power. I also strongly recommend Joanna Blythman’s book ‘Swallow This: Serving up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets’. It will certainly make you read food labels even more carefully. Joachim Von Braun talked in Washington about a ‘post-agricultural age’.

By the way, a focus on food systems is not new. I googled the term during the IFPRI event: there were 544,000 hits on Google, and 126,000 on Google Scholar.

            Both chronic and transitory food security

Fifth, there needs to be an appropriate balance between chronic and transitory food problems. A great deal of attention focuses, rightly, on programmes which scale up long-term interventions to secure child growth in the first thousand days, and especially avoid stunting or micronutrient deficiency. The SUN Alliance (‘Scaling Up Nutrition’) leads the way, along with organisations like GAIN, the ‘Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition’. At the same time, food shocks caused by natural disasters or conflict damage children’s growth and undermine the impact of long-term programmes. At the time of writing, for example, the El Nino driven drought has led to 7.5 million people in Ethiopia needing food relief, with the number likely to rise to 15 million in 2016. Conflict causes widespread hunger, as Alex de Waal reports in a chapter on conflict and hunger in IFPRI’s Global Hunger Index Report. Social protection provides one answer, but even the most robust social protection schemes may be overwhelmed at times of crisis. Chronic and transitory problems must be considered together, with a strong link between development and humanitarian programmes. IFPRI’s work on resilience is highly relevant to this theme.


Sixth, it goes without saying that food policy will need a strong focus on sustainability, to deal with potential breaching of planetary boundaries in many different dimensions, but most particularly biodiversity, water, marine life, and of course climate. My own work touches on climate, with the latest research suggesting that the world will need to decarbonise completely by about 2065, and eliminate all greenhouse gases by the mid 2080s. Even on such a trajectory, there will be increasing numbers of weather-related shocks, of which extreme El Nino events are just one example. There is a large literature on climate smart agriculture, and significant investment in the field. I see there is even a Global Alliance for Climate Smart Agriculture. Despite this level of engagement, disruption is likely to be significant. For example, estimates are that area suitable for arabica coffee production will shift upwards by 400m, meaning that many current production zones will become unviable, potentially with significant losses of employment and foreign exchange. Global models, including those coordinated by IFPRI, predict lower yields and higher prices affecting many tropical areas. As one example, see the graph presented by Mark Rosegrant in Figure 6, summarising the likely impact on maize yields. It may be the case that global food security overall can be protected, but there will certainly be dislocations.

Figure 6

Source: IFPRI

Furthermore, low emission and resilient agriculture is only the first step in revolutionising the food system to eliminate emissions. What, for example, does ‘responsible consumption’, an SDG Goal, mean in this context? Should we all become vegetarian? I tweeted from Washington, only half in jest, that in forty years’ time, we may be eating Quorn for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It was important that many speakers in Washington named climate change as the biggest challenge to future food policy. For example, Nancy Stetson, the US Special Representative for Global Food Security, identified climate change as the top priority for the future. So did Francois Houllier, the President of Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique (INRA) in France. Robert Paarlberg argued that the key to climate action was to focus on productivity and avoid low yield farming; the US, he said, could show the way.


Seventh, absolutely key to the future of food policy will be understanding, supporting and guiding innovation, for the food system as a whole. This is a theme much discussed in climate circles, where cases like the rapid fall in the price of solar panels are cited to suggest that innovation can transform both public appetite for change and the possibility of reaching global goals. See, for example, the work of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate.

A strong understanding will be needed of how to help generate ‘disruptive innovation’ and how to support ‘innovation systems’. This will have to go far beyond the CGIAR, which has made large contributions to staple crop technology and policy, and which needs to be supported. Other crops are also relevant, however, since food security at the farm level is often secured by growing cash crops (as IFPRI research demonstrated many years ago). In addition, innovation will need to be accelerated in processing, manufacturing and logistics. Gerda Verburg, the Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Food Security, made this point in Washington.

Innovation often happens within firms, but Government funding and policy is key, as Mariana Mazzucato has demonstrated in her work on The Entrepreneurial State. An excellent guide to how disruptive innovation can be made to happen, for example by putting unlikely people together, can be found in the work of Lynda Gratton, especially her book Hot Spots. Another book I recommend very highly is the history of the container, The Box, by Marc Levinson: when technology and policy come together, the results are profound and remarkably swift. As the Economist reported, the container did more to boost world trade than all trade agreements in the past 50 years put together.

            The politics of food policy

Eighth, and underpinning all the above, is the importance of understanding and influencing the policy process. Researchers are sometimes surprised, for example, at times of global shortages and rising prices, when leaders allow obstacles to free trade, like export bans. My view has always been that maybe they fear the consequent price hikes would cost them their jobs. On the other hand, Kym Anderson observed in Washington that crises often drove policy change. That’s true. See my piece on how natural disasters drive climate policy (and more generally on how to help win the political argument). Further, Peter Timmer talked about how better policy and the availability of reserves, can give policy-makers the confidence to use the market.

There are many groups now working on how researchers can understand the policy process. My old Institute, the ODI, for example, has a programme on Research and Policy in Development, RAPID, which has created the ROMA guide to policy engagement and influence. IFPRI has its own programme of work in this area, including the Kaleidoscope model for ‘Conceptualizing Drivers of Policy Change in Agriculture, Nutrition, and Food Security’. Outside the immediate field of food policy, there is a great deal of interest in knowledge brokers. Another organisation with which I am associated, the Climate and Development Knowledge Network, has recently helped broker a Manifesto by climate knowledge brokers. Its core principles are in Figure 7.

The key, I think, is to make sure that policy engagement becomes a core competence of food policy research institutes and food policy researchers. Should there, for example, be a certification scheme?

Figure 7


Multi-disciplinary and inter-disciplinary approaches

Ninth, when I look back at the range of issues on the food policy agenda, remembering that the list starts with ‘do more of the same’, and when I have stopped feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the challenge, I am struck by the fact that none of the big problems will be solved without strong collaboration between disciplines. Of course, this is true in agriculture, where natural and social scientists have learned to work together. I used to write about that. More generally, though, teams of different kinds of scientists, engineers and social scientists will need to be assembled, in new coalitions. There is a literature on how to manage inter-disciplinary research. Here is one example, in Figure 8, from the US National Academy of Sciences. There is much good advice here, including on physical co-location. Donors: note the importance of seamless and flexible funding.

Figure 8


            Building networks

Finally, a priority for food policy researchers in the future should be to build networks. These improve access for researchers at the periphery, encourage collaboration, help bring together diverse teams to solve ‘wicked problems’, and allow some specialisation. In Washington, Joachim Von Braun suggested an IPCC for food policy. My own solution, in another field, has been to help create an alliance of think-tanks working on European Development Cooperation, the European Think Tanks Group. This has the character of an airline alliance, like One World or the Star Alliance, offering cross-guarantees of quality and the opportunity of high-level collaboration, We call this ‘policy code-sharing’. Of course, the CGIARConsultative Group on International Agricultural Research operates as a network. Perhaps, then, we need not so much an IPCC for the new food policy, but a new CGIAR.


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