John Swinnen, director general of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), now is on a three-day visit to Bangladesh. On Sunday, IFPRI and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-sectoral Technical Economic Cooperation) signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on collaboration in agricultural trade and investment, technological innovation in agricultural and promotion of good agricultural practices. Mr. Swinnen inked the deal on behalf of IFPRI. While responding to a questionnaire e-mailed to him by The Financial Express, he dwelt on many issues, including the ones concerning global hunger, malnutrition and the role of the institution he is now leading.
Financial Express (FE): IFPRI's mission is a world free of hunger and malnutrition. How do you assess the accomplishment of IFPRI in fulfilling that mission during the last nearly five decades of its existence?
Johan Swinnen (JS): There is clear evidence that IFPRI, working with its partners in Bangladesh, has made important contributions to global food and nutrition security. Partnerships we have built with local, national, and regional institutions across the globe, including those in Bangladesh, have been key to being able to provide decision makers with actionable research insights and data tools to foster healthy, equitable, and sustainable food systems.
The policies we inform have benefited millions of people around the world. To give you just a few examples, in Brazil, IFPRI evaluated a major social protection programme, providing suggestions for the new programme, Bolsa Familia. As of 2021, Bolsa Familia reached over 52 million beneficiaries. The IFPRI-based HarvestPlus programme has worked with over 600 partners around the world to improve nutrition outcomes via biofortified crops for over 48.5 million people. This includes over 94,000 families in Bangladesh. The Government of Bangladesh also used insights from IFPRI and the World Food Programme's Transfer Modality Research Initiative (TMRI) to launch the Mother and Child Benefit pilot programme, which has reached around 1 million beneficiaries including over 150,000 pregnant and lactating women. One of the many tools IFPRI has developed is the Women's Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI), which has been used by 246 organizations in 58 countries worldwide, including Bangladesh.
FE: Hunger and malnutrition still haunt many least developed and developing countries. The Global Hunger Index is a pointer to that fact. What are the basic problems that you think responsible for the slow progress made so far in eliminating hunger across the world?
JS: The number of hungry people in the world was steadily decreasing for about 45 years since 1970s. Then, around 2015, the progress stagnated. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, multiple natural disasters spurred by climate change, and other shocks have led to a dramatic increase in hunger in recent years. The Global Report on Food Crisis estimates that over 190 million people experienced a food crisis or worse in 2021. Similarly, malnutrition is a growing concern. According to the FAO, about 150 million more people are undernourished today compared to 2019, an increase of almost 25 per cent.
To overcome these challenges, there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way decision makers think about food systems. Resilience must be at the center of food systems policy. This means taking action to limit the frequency and magnitude of shocks, anticipating shocks before they occur, and taking an approach that links short-term humanitarian actions with longer term development and peace goals. Throughout these resilience building strategies, inclusion of marginalized groups, especially women and youth, must be a central focus.
Even before the pandemic, food systems were largely unsustainable, unhealthy, and inequitable. In the long run, we need research-based innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute, and consume food. This requires an enabling environment of policies and institutions that support transformative action. This environment should create incentives for sustainable and healthy food production and consumption. It should also encourage knowledge sharing and cooperation across countries and sectors. An enabling environment must also empower marginalized groups to take part in making decisions about their own food systems.
FE: Do you find the developed and rich nations are truly interested in addressing the issues of hunger and malnutrition?
JS: I believe that solving the issue of hunger and malnutrition is a question of security and survival for all people on the planet. Developing countries who have transformed their economies and lowered poverty can provide great examples to low-income countries, and there is great promise in so-called "South-South cooperation." But it remains imperative for wealthier countries and international organizations to work hand-in-hand with countries and regions that are still struggling to fight hunger, but such collaboration must focus on building and strengthening local capacity.
Despite progress made at the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit and the 2022 COP27, more concerted actions are needed to bring about food systems transformation. Even before the pandemic, we were not on track to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Stronger commitments and accompanying accountability mechanisms are needed to push this agenda forward. This would include a significant increase in funding for food systems research and development, international development projects as well as a reorientation of global financial markets. The UNFSS finance lever estimated that it would cost between $300 million and $400 billion per year through 2030 to transform food systems and that was before the current spike in food prices. However, if this level of investment could be achieved, the return on investment would be much greater in the form of reduced poverty, healthier diets, and more sustainable systems.
FE: Do countries facing problems of hunger and malnutrition demonstrate a due willingness to follow and accommodate the suggestions you make from time to time?
JS: IFPRI really does not make suggestions on its own - we work in response to requests from policymakers and are thus demand driven. For example, IFPRI has been asked by the Ethiopian government to study and improve its Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), which reaches over 8 million people and proved highly effective at protecting families from hunger during the pandemic. We have also, upon request, assisted numerous countries in Africa develop National Agriculture Investment Plans, which have helped to greatly improve agricultural productivity. In Enhancing Nutrition Services to Improve Maternal and Child Health in Africa and Asia (ENRICH) Project was highly successful in addressing micronutrient deficiencies and increasing agricultural production knowledge in Bangladeshi households. We are hopeful that this programme will be scaled up in the future.
FE: Will there be a hunger-free world ever? If yes how?
JS: The global food system has shown incredible potential for change. Prior to 2015, global hunger was falling rapidly for over 40 years. Today, while numerous problems persist, we provide enough calories to support a population of over 8 billion people. The key is establishing a system that produces healthy diets for all at affordable prices along with sufficient emergency assistance capacity to meet the needs of those in crisis. This can happen once food systems actors place a greater value on inclusion, nutrition, and resilience rather than focusing solely on efficient production.
FE: The rising inequality in resource distribution is a major cause behind the problems of hunger and malnutrition becoming more intense in many countries. Do you foresee any notable improvement in the situation soon?
JS: Unfortunately, there is a great risk that these inequities will continue to grow, requiring a greater focus on reducing them. Food systems shocks brought on by COVID-19, conflict, and climate change disproportionately affect the poor and other vulnerable groups. As these shocks become more frequent and severe, inequality is likely to grow. In the more immediate term, many developing countries have taken on large amounts of debt to finance their pandemic responses and now have limited resources to provide for their citizens. It is critical for global financial institutions and lending countries to offer debt relief for these borrowing countries in order to avoid economic turmoil and risk further inequality gaps. In the long run, innovative technologies, practices, and policies have potential to improve livelihoods and make healthy diets more affordable. However, these must be complemented by inclusive policies and institutions to ensure that the benefits of transformation reach those that need them most.
FE: IFPRI's country programmes play a critical role in responding to the demand for food policy research. How does the Government of Bangladesh respond to IFPRI's research?
JS: The Government of Bangladesh has consistently demonstrated strong commitment to improving food security, nutrition, reducing poverty, empowering women, and enhancing other development outcomes. For more than 40 years, our IFPRI team in Bangladesh has been working closely with the Government to provide practical recommendations and implementable solutions to achieve these goals
A recent example is the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Gender Linkages (ANGeL) pilot project, which was designed and evaluated by IFPRI and implemented by the Department of Agricultural Extension under the Ministry of Agriculture. IFPRI's research in Bangladesh had uncovered linkages between agriculture, nutrition, and gender that were previously not on the 'policy radar.' Motivated by this evidence, we brought this concept of randomizing farm households into receiving different combinations of trainings - agricultural production, nutrition behavior change communication, and gender sensitization - to the Ministry of Agriculture for the overall purpose of generating definitive evidence on ways to enhance nutrition-sensitive agriculture in Bangladesh. Throughout the pilot project, the Government was heavily involved - from chairing and participating in technical advisory and steering committees, advising on the research design, participating in field visits, and more.
FE: Do you intend to achieve anything special during your upcoming visit to Bangladesh?
JS: My visit to Bangladesh has two main purposes. Significantly, this will be my first visit to Bangladesh since I joined IFPRI as Director General in 2020 (previous plans were changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic). So, first, I would like to reinforce IFPRI's appreciation of its partnerships with the Government of Bangladesh and with development partners on the ground, and to discuss our ongoing collaboration. Second, for the last few months, IFPRI has been communicating with the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC)- the organization responsible for facilitating trade among seven countries in the South and Southeast Asia region, including Bangladesh. In November 2022, IFPRI and BIMSTEC agreed to work together to promote economic and technical cooperation among the BIMSTEC member countries. We intend to sign a memorandum of understanding to formalize this partnership on March 5.
FE: In addition to serving as the Director General of IFPRI, you are also the CGIAR Managing Director of the Systems Transformation Science Group. Could you explain the remit of this group and how it interacts with the other two CGIAR Science Groups focusing on Genetic Innovation and Resilient Agrifood Systems?
JS: The challenges facing global food systems are incredibly complex and require close coordination across all actors, from smallholder farmers to policy makers and agri-food industry leaders. The CGIAR Systems Transformation Science Group provides insights into policy and institutional innovations that can facilitate this coordination and thereby catalyze transformative change. These include strategies for shaping the incentives of food systems actors, removing bureaucratic hurdles to innovation, providing proper oversight and regulation, and promoting equity throughout transformation processes. Ultimately, these insights come together to create an enabling environment that facilitates the development and scaling of technical solutions through the other two science groups. Currently, the Systems Transformation Science Group is leading 11 initiatives that address all five CGIAR impact areas: Climate adaptation and mitigation; Environmental health and biodiversity; Nutrition, health, and food security; Poverty reduction, livelihoods, and Jobs; and Gender equality, youth, and social inclusion.
[Johan Swinnen is Director General (DG) of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and MD of Systems Transformation at CGIAR. From 2005 to 2019, he was professor of economics & director of the LICOS Centre for Institutions & Economic Performance at KU Leuven (Belgium) and senior research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. Earlier he was lead economist at the World Bank (2003-2004) and economic adviser to the European Commission (1998-2001). He has been a visiting professor at various universities and a frequent adviser to institutions such as the World Bank, OECD, FAO and EBRD.]