Strategy 2014-20

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Strategy 2014-20 / / Shaping CIAT’s strategic initiative on sustainable food systems

Shaping CIAT’s strategic initiative on sustainable food systems

In its strategy for 2014-2020, CIAT has identified the need to develop and implement a strategic initiative aimed at making food systems sustainable in a rapidly urbanizing world.

On 9-11 June, about 30 international experts and local and national stakeholders from 10 countries met at CIAT headquarters in Cali, Colombia to analyze the current state of knowledge on the issues of food systems’ sustainability, and identify the most promising entry points for strategic research on that topic. In this Expert Consultation, co-organized by Michigan State University (MSU) and the Center for International Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), participants also discussed possible joint research questions and work programs, strategic partnerships, and possible project profiles under the strategic initiative.



The discussions evolved around five sub-themes proposed by CIAT, and highlighted the following current status of knowledge and information gaps:


Consumer diets and food preferences, especially in urban areas

Observations show that fat diets, obesity, overweight and underweight are concurrent problems. It is important to analyze obesity as a consequence of different food system factors and not exclusively related to types of food. All the components of a food system are intricate and can generate numerous problems. There are at least six drivers of unhealthy diets. 1- Population growth and migration. 2- Population density and impacts on urban agriculture. 3- Rural/urban population ratios. 4- Climate change and fresh water access. 5- Infrastructure; and 6- Formal and informal markets. Participants raised questions including: What potential exists within urbanizing regions to feed the population with ecological agriculture now and in 2050? What programs (or combinations of) are most effective to promote healthy and diverse diets at all socio-economic levels and cultural traditions? What kind of approaches/models can be applied for programs promoting child nutrition, healthy child development, and prevention of obesity and diabetes?


Distribution, transformation & processing

The modern revolution in value chains implies creation of new, longer and wider value added chains. On the one hand, these modern value added chains have the characteristic to be increasingly inserted in urban populations and less inserted in rural areas. There is also a quiet revolution characterized by an endogenous reproduction of domestic capital conducted by the small and medium scale first stage processing and wholesale or agricultural services. It is crucial to study informal markets because of their relative importance in terms of demand. The informal economy has the potential to incorporate the local culture and understand how local values are institutionalized. Recent changes in food transformation and distribution dynamics in an urbanizing world have also given more importance to the development of urban and peri-urban agriculture. Some of the questions addressed include: Can we define or develop a repeatable methodology to allow an analysis on food security in urbanizing regions across the globe? What decision-support tools would aid various sectors of society maintaining options for enabling universal food security within their region using analysis derived from this research? How does consumers’ perception of risk evolve as cities develop and urbanize?


Food waste

The literature shows that food waste is a type of food loss. Food losses take place at production, postharvest and processing stages of the food supply. Food wastes are food losses occurring at the end of the chain (retail and consumption). 32% of all food produce in the world was lost or wasted (in 2009). Controlling food waste and crop loss is a way to meet global food supply. Reducing growth on food production demand (influence diets) can contribute to the amount of calories needed to face projected demand in the year 2050. Observations of urban food waste made by FAO (2011) show that in per – capita terms more food is wasted in industrialized countries than in developing countries. Data shows that food waste behavior in industrialized countries is almost equal to the total net food production in Sub – Sahara Africa (230 million ton). Per capita food waste by consumers in Europe and North America is 95 – 115 kg/year, while in Sub – Saharan Africa this is 6 – 11 kg/year (more than ten times bigger). Other interesting observations show that food waste is greater in the country side than in the city in poorer countries than in rich countries. Questions and gaps identified include: 1- There is a lack of a broadly accepted typology and taxonomy for the sub components of food waste. 2- There is a lack of quantitative data on the quality aspects of food waste. 3- Our understanding of trends related to waste by countries depending on their level of development is very limited. 4- The mapping of food waste in value chains, especially in relation to loss vs waste and to the urban boundary, is poorly known. 5- There is a need to assess the costs of waste reduction strategies (ROI for interventions) and to classify those costs at micro, meso and macro levels. 6- We know too little on how waste is currently used.


Crop loss (Post-harvest loss)

Food loss can take place in the production and distribution parts of the food system chain. Post-harvest crop loss refers to the first stages of losses. In developing countries more than 40% of the food losses occur at post-harvest and processing levels, while in industrialized countries more than 40% of the food losses occur at retail and consumer levels (total global losses represent approximately 1.3 billion tons per year). Reducing post-harvest losses has positive impacts on the environment, the economy and farmers’ income and welfare. Some questions and gaps include: There is a need for a regulatory, and socio-economic and spatial dynamics appraisal of city access to food (i.e. mapping food systems within rural/urban boundaries). 1- We need to better understand postharvest losses within urban boundaries and the use of loss and waste. 2- We should look at opportunities to improve post-harvest in the urban context, taking into account the varying degrees of capacity, resources, and scales in the different aspects of the distribution system. How can post-harvest interventions be appropriately scaled and directed?


Food quality & safety

Consumers in emerging and developing economies will become increasingly aware of food safety issues and demand more food safety guarantees as their incomes rise. Assuring food safety in modernizing food systems involves significant costs that not all consumers are willing or able to pay. Consumer awareness of food safety problems in sub-Saharan Africa is low in comparison with Asia, where are better informed and willing to pay for increased food safety. The middle man plays an important role in capturing quality premium prices. In sub-Saharan Africa, food safety is critical for international trade but there is little research on domestic food safety and it generally focuses on urban consumers. Some questions and gaps in this subject include: More research is needed in developing countries on consumer demand for food safety, price transmission and producer behavior. In methodological terms there is lots of work done in applied economics in developing countries but not in the area of food safety. Field experiments are also necessary in this area.

The international group of experts reached consensus on the formulation of the following principal common goal and key research themes:

Overall goal: To build understanding and knowledge of sustainable and equitable food systems in a rapidly urbanizing world, recognizing the role of urban centers and their actors and resources to foster engagement and innovation.


  • There is a lack of understanding and methodology for assessing the ability of food producing regions to provide food to their respective cores, with important implications for farming structures, technologies and market linkages. Objective 1 – Better understand regional Food Systems potential
  • Food logistics and planning from farm to table are powerful tools to create sustainable and equitable access to food in varying market contexts. There are insufficient regulatory instruments and methods to create sustainable and equitable production and access to safe and healthy food systems through effective logistics and planning.  Objective 2 – Better understand governance, logistics and planning.
  • Understanding consumer preference, culture, history, and perception play critical roles in designing systems that produce, process, and distribute safe and nutritious food. Objective 3 – Study in-depth consumer behavior in urbanizing food chains.

Based on the discussions and the key research themes identified, CIAT and its partners foresee next steps as: further detail the relevant research questions and consolidate key partnerships around concrete research projects.