New Study Identifies Innovations to Improve Nutrition in Just 5 Years

Malnutrition is a global epidemic, and two organizations have gathered a group of global experts to come up with solutions in the food supply chain that can improve nutrition in emerging economies in just 5 years.

Across the world, one in three people suffers from some form of malnutrition: wasting, stunting, vitamin and mineral deficiency, and overweight or obesity. This double burden of malnutrition, a paradox of people who are undernourished and those who experience an excess of food, has posed a challenge for those involved in health and food chain organizations. Food Tank spoke with representatives from the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the Global Knowledge Initiative (GKI), who are executing a thorough study to determine what food supply chain innovations will be most effective for improving nutrition over the course of five years.

GAIN is a Swiss-based foundation launched at the United Nations in 2002 to tackle the human suffering caused by malnutrition. Working with both governments and businesses, GAIN aims to transform food systems so that they deliver more nutritious food for all people, especially the most vulnerable. GAIN achieves most of its goals through alliances and partnerships with other organizations with experience or expertise in relevant topics or regions to ensure affordable, safe, and nutritious foods for all. Recognizing that the future drivers of the food system will demand re-imagination for nutrition, pulling in novel solutions, and partners that respond to a rapidly transforming environment, GAIN has partnered with GKI as a part of this journey. GKI is a non-profit organization helping solve global issues by bringing together the most intelligent minds and using effective project organization.

GAIN and GKI are working together on this project to come up with innovative ideas to significantly improve supply chain flow, from food design to supply chain technology to material science and beyond, in emerging economies over a five-year span. Emerging markets in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia were chosen because these regions are where malnutrition is most severe. GAIN and GKI have gathered a panel of food system experts to provide the most qualified input. Panelists include food experts from the regions targeted in the study (East Africa, West Africa, and Southeast Asia), professionals from the U.S. or Europe who have done extensive work in these regions, and academics who do research in these regions or are from these regions.

GAIN and GKI have been partners since 2016, originally teaming up to create the Postharvest Loss Alliance for Nutrition (PLAN) in Africa. This alliance was created to address the loss and waste of nutrient-dense perishable foods in Nigeria and other developing regions. In July 2018, they began executing the study on supply chain innovations in emerging economies. The panel experts are asked to focus on innovations in supply chains for three food groups that all have different inventory management, supply chain logistics, and transportation norms, food safety, and shelf stability practices: leafy greens, dairy, and beans.

Food Tank spoke with representatives Chase Keenan (GKI), Gurnimrat Sidhu (GKI), and Orion Kobayashi (GAIN) to hear about this study they’ve embarked on and what they hope to achieve with their research.

Food Tank [FT]: Why is this study important?

Chase Keenan [CK]: In the last 50 years or so, there’s been this increasing reliance on staple crops and decreasing level of dietary diversity…. The last 100 or so years have spent a lot of time advancing very few crops that do very little to provide holistic nutrition. There are opportunities in [technological] advances being made to orient our food systems towards people and towards the dietary needs that we evolved for. If we want to have a society that is both sustainable and also providing for the projected 9.8 billion people that will be on planet earth in 2050, then the food system really needs to change.

Gurnimrat Sidhu [GS]: We’re planning for the long term by focusing on the short term…. Outside of the explicit goals of our study, [our study and methods] can be applied to attack major issues across the world…. I hope [our study] will be refreshing to people and that it will elicit a lot of enthusiasm. The way we plan to write about our results and frame them is going to be something that is maybe not surprising to the nutrition sector but it’s a drum that hasn’t been beaten.

Orion Kobayashi [OK]: We want to draw attention to business entrepreneurs so they can get funding or so new opportunities could come out of that. This report could be an inspiration for people across the sector working in nutrition and economic development, but internally, we want to take some of these findings and think about how we can make our programming and projects more adaptable, more targeted to the needs that are emerging really quickly, and be more innovative.

FT: What methodology did you choose for this study?

CK: A panel of experts will collectively decide which innovation has the most potential to have the best nutritional outcome over the next five years if we invest in them, if we adapt them to the right context, and if we do all these things to support the innovations and help them succeed in the context of emerging economies…This study asks: what innovations are best poised to improve nutrition outcomes? How can we use innovation to improve people-oriented outcomes versus food or resource-oriented outcomes?

GS: It’s really important to get the considerations of a diverse set of experts. Those experts will range from people in the field of nutrition, food systems, economics, and anything else as related to the topic that we’re looking at. In engaging people all over the world, one of the prime research methodologies is the Delphi technique. It allows for the engagement of upwards of 40 experts to provide anonymous responses, learn from one another, and iterate, which allows us to go from almost a blank space to really [narrowed down ideas] based on [a collective] opinion of [the experts]. We really are trying to whittle it down and we are trying to do so in a highly informed and vigorous way, and this technique lends itself to that.

OK: What’s been great about our methodology is the demographics that have made it really strong… Our panel experts have 46 percent representation from women and 70 percent representation from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. In that sense, it’s not like saying what is Silicon Valley saying and how can that benefit the world, but it’s saying what’s going on in Lagos and Nairobi and Bangalore where there is an entrepreneur network that is innovating and putting ideas together and solving a lot of these solutions too.

FT: What do you hope to achieve at the end of this study?

CK: Ideally, anybody who picks up the report will be able to identify an opportunity to help bring these innovations to new markets and to make change happen.

GS: I hope people put their pens down and pay attention and that they understand we are at a critical crossroads right now. If we do want to rethink food systems, if we do want to achieve sustainable development goals by 2030, we need to be doing things now with the resources that we have now and we can’t only think long term. So my hope is that that clicks for people, and a step above that, creating action, having people that actually act on that who are empowered to do so.

FT: What are some barriers or challenges you predict when you release the results of this study?

CK: The success of the innovations will depend on whether it’s being applied in the right ways and in the right place…. Any time you introduce something new, there’s going to be sociocultural considerations of how it will be perceived. And when it comes to food, it’s not just how will the innovation and technology be perceived, but how is what it’s doing to the food going to be perceived.

GS: Creating partnerships and collaboration is something that the food and nutrition system is really poised to do, but I think figuring out where the money is for these specific investments will be challenging based on our research on food and agriculture. There are some innovations that people are really excited about, and there are accelerators and a whole slew of things out there. As with anything else in terms of market demand and what seems more attractive to people, that’s very much how things get selected. And so when we have our list of innovations…. I think creating hype around that is going to be key in terms of shedding light on the importance of what the experts have clearly defined as a major leverage point in food systems. Creating or shifting investment from other spaces to the [food] space is going to be a challenge.

OK: The challenge will be making sure that the innovation actually meets the needs of real consumers and customer behavior, and doesn’t just project western norms…. There’s not some silver bullet of saying like ‘everybody gets a 3-D food printer’. Especially in these countries where you have to make it affordable, replicable, and scalable, its more like saying how do you make a solar unit cheaper, so you can scale that more rapidly and build an entire cold chain.