21 January 2017

Food Systems Take Over the Davos Fringe

Last week I was at the WEF meetings at Davos with colleagues from GAIN.  We were not at the WEF meetings proper (admission is very very expensive) but at the "fringe" meetings, mainly in the World Food Programme tent (thank you WFP!).  Like most festivals, the most informal, creative and interesting events were at the fringe, even if the biggest players were not around.  (At least this is what we tell ourselves!)

I was really stuck by three things:

1.  Food Systems are now a key framing for nutrition.  One of the participants said that "in the past at these meetings, agriculture was over there and nutrition was over there, but now they seem more connected". One example was the WFP hashtag: "healthy not hungry"which says we have to go way beyond ending hunger--we have to promote health.  This means focusing more on the quality of diet and that means focusing on food systems which drive healthy and unhealthy diets.  And of course engaging with food systems means engaging with businesses.

2.  The Davos crowd is not your typical food and nutrition crowd.  Lots of CEOs, tech people, social impact investors, financiers and socially motivated celebs.  I particularly enjoyed listening to the influential chefs like Sam Kass,  Manal Alalem and Jamie Oliver. These folks understand food cultures, how to connect to people's everyday feelings about food and how to make healthy diets desirable. They can help us combine left brain thinking (logic, data and rationality) with right brain thinking (emotion, aspiration, creativity). The challenge is to make it affordable and the impact investors have not yet figured out how to make an investment return on reaching D and E consumers (business speak for low income households).  Of course, this is one of GAIN's key missions--making safe and nutritious food affordable and attractive for vulnerable populations.

3. The strong focus on the creation of demand for healthy diets. For example, the term from "farm to fork" was flipped around by Fokko Wientjes of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development/DSM in his presentation of the FReSH initiative.  This is totally appropriate.  Without demand driving change, no healthy diets can be sustainable.

Businesses are brilliant shapers of demand, often for unhealthy foods, and we must find ways of engaging them in bending demand towards health.  It will be difficult though.  High income consumers in San Francisco might be increasing their demand for healthy food, but they can afford to.  How can we do this for consumers in low and middle income contexts?  Starting with the supply side is like pushing a wet noodle uphill: it ain't gonna happen.

My personal highlight of the 2 days was meeting Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the Grameen Bank (see pic).  What he did for the access of low income households to loans and savings services, is what GAIN wants to do for their access to safe and nutritious foods.

Not easy, but a vision worth striving for.


  1. Agreed! Demand needs to drive supply and Demand needs to provide oversight to the whole system to make sure it is best for our society, including our environment. Supply generally doesn't do that on their own, although I am pleased to see the number of Ethical businesses growing. (I don't have a figure, just seems like I see better packing, labelling, transparency and healthy options, I might live in a bubble in Lilongwe, Malawi :))