Support markets to deliver nutrient-dense food to the poor
A diverse diet is the key to good nutrition. However, in South Asia, diets have been traditionally cereal-heavy; in Bangladesh, about 70 percent of daily energy intake per person comes from cereals. Our diets need to be diversified urgently, and two categories of "nutrient-dense" food are particularly important: fruits and vegetables; and food from animal sources, i.e. eggs, milk and meat. The vitamins and minerals in these food groups are critical to many aspects of our well-being, such as cognitive development, good eyesight, adequate socio-emotional abilities, and healthy immune systems. Fruits and vegetables also offer protection against heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Animal source foods are important in preventing childhood stunting and the lifelong disadvantage that stunting brings. In Bangladesh, over 50 percent of children and women of reproductive age are affected by micronutrient deficiency—a lack of vitamins and minerals. Around 36 percent of children under the age of five are stunted, 14 percent are wasted (parts of or full body emaciated), and 33 percent are underweight. Meanwhile, 22 percent of children in Bangladesh are born with a low birth weight. While providing nutrient supplements or fortifying foods addresses specific deficiencies, dietary diversification, with particular reference to nutrient-dense foods, holds the key to holistic progress.
However, South Asia has a long way to go in this regard. For example, in Bangladesh, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), the average fruit and vegetable intake was only 203.8 grams per person per day in 2018, compared to the World Health Organization (WHO) benchmark of 400 grams per person per day. The shares of vegetable expenditure and fruit expenditure in the total food expenditure are only 9.24 percent and 3.77 percent, respectively. While overconsumption of some animal source foods has potentially negative implications for health and the environment, Bangladesh is currently among the consumers of the least amount of meat and milk in the world on average—despite being ranked 12th for livestock production. Even these averages do not paint the full picture, and there are significant segments of the population—often the poorest—who consume much less.
How can this situation be improved? We would argue that the key solution lies in understanding the markets for nutrient-dense foods and supporting these markets to deliver these foods affordably and equitably. In South Asia, we have good experience in improving the consumption of producers—e.g. via home gardens. This is very important, but to spread the benefits of nutrient-dense foods to the wider population, including the poorest and the landless, we need the market mechanism to make these foods widely available and more affordable for all.
Often, when thinking about markets, the tendency is to focus on the upstream parts of the value chains—e.g. connecting farmers to markets, improving farm storage, etc. These are vital first steps in encouraging nutrient-dense food production, getting more produce on to the market, and eventually lowering prices for consumers. How can we ensure that the market system puts these nutrient-dense foods within the reach of the poor and the nutritionally vulnerable? This is not an easy challenge. In a research project called Market Intervention for Nutritional Improvement (MINI), we have been investigating this question in Jashore, Bangladesh and Bihar, India. One implication of our findings is that some value chain "upgrades" that connect farmers to wider markets have the consequence of pushing produce into premium market channels that serve the better-off in cities such as Dhaka, Khulna, Faridpur, etc. There is not much incentive for supplying to smaller, less lucrative markets in small towns and rural areas, where many poor live.
These smaller, more neglected markets are often characterised by poor transport connectivity, inadequate market facilities and infrastructure and poor integration into information systems on prices, arrivals, etc. A big challenge with major categories of nutrient-dense foods is that they are marked by high perishability and spoilage, and are prone to food safety hazards. These problems are multiplied in small markets, where there is typically no cold storage and little infrastructure or information available to safely handle food. All of this reduces the incentive for produce to flow towards these markets.
So we need a strategy that applies a consumption and equity lens to markets for nutrient-dense foods, focusing on neglected markets and the downstream areas of value chains. This could include developing market information systems that include small markets, investing in small-scale, inexpensive market-side cold storage at small markets, upgrading market facilities more generally, and designing market-based food safety interventions that are appropriate for these markets. At the same time, it is important that behavioural change and other consumer-focused strategies are used to boost the demand for nutrient-dense foods among the populations served by these markets.
Fundamentally, the need of the hour is to think of markets for nutrient-dense foods not only from a farmer perspective as we are used to, but also from a consumption, nutrition and equity perspective. When these markets are supported by appropriate policies, they are capable of delivering nutritious foods at scale in an affordable and efficient way.
In the United Nations Food Systems Summit, held on September 23, 2021, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina provided five directives, including nutrition, resilience, and an inclusive food system. For achieving those directives, inclusive markets that better balance the interests of producers and consumers, including the poorest, are a must-have.
Dr Bhavani Shankar is an economist researching food system and nutrition linkages at the University of Sheffield in the UK.
Dr Mohammad Jahangir Alam is a professor at the Department of Agribusiness and Marketing in Bangladesh Agricultural University (BAU).