14 February 2017

The EIU/Barilla Food Sustainability Index: how to get from Index to Instigation?

Food systems are driving food availability, access, affordability and food choices across the globe.  We know that about 1 in 3 people are eating poorly.  We also know that these poor diets are the number one risk factor in the global burden of disease: ahead of the consumption of tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs and ahead of unsafe sex and poor sanitation and drinking water quality.

So the performance of food systems really matters. If they do not improve, we run the risk of moving to a world where 1 in 2 people have poor diets.  That is why I welcome the EIU/Barilla Food Sustainability Index (FSI) which ranks 25 countries comprising over 85% of global GDP.  The index covers appropriate areas: food loss and waste, sustainable agriculture and nutritional challenges.  These 3 areas are divided into 8 sub areas, 35 indicators and 58 sub-indicators.

As a researcher I would have liked it to be easier to find the methodology details.  For example, how were the indicators selected?  OK, by a group of listed experts—which includes some of my colleagues from GAIN---but why were these experts chosen?  They don’t seem very geographically diverse.  Another example of methodological fogginess: some of the sub indicators are very specific (e.g. the % of under 5’s who are stunted) but some of the others could be calculated in many ways (e.g. the quality of policies to address dietary patterns).  Also it is not clear how the indicators are combined—are all 58 sub indicators given equal weight or are all 35 indicators or are all 8 sub areas or are all 3 areas? You see what I mean—these different routes to an index have implications for the weighting of the 58 sub indicators.  Some of this fogginess can be dispersed by playing with the data and so I really commend EIU and Barilla for making the data available so we can all experiment with the sub indicators and see how different the rankings are by different ways of combining indicators. 

But while the above is not quite methodological quibbling, my three main suggestions for strengthening the index are, I think, more significant and are as follows. 

First, the index does not have enough indicators from the middle of the value chain.  There are plenty of indicators about agriculture and about nutrition and health outcomes but there are too few on food transformation, food marketing, food retailing and food advertising.  I suspect this is because the data are not so easy to dig up here, but some do exist (e.g. sales of processed foods) and they should be included.  They should be included because may of the nutrition and affordability problems are generated in the middle of the value chain and many of the solutions can be found here too.  My GAIN colleague Bonnie McClafferty makes the same point in her recent blog on the FSI. 

Second, the goals of the index are described as benchmarking performance of country food systems, measuring progress over time and offering best practices from national and city levels.   The index certainly does this, but it is not clear how the best practices are selected and whether they are backed up with some hard evidence that they actually work.  The index report needs something a bit more systematic—what works for each element of the food system and do these solutions need to all be working at the same time: where are the weakest links?  Additionally, if the index is to be used as an accountability and improvement tool, I would really like to see country scorecards with suggestions for priorities, country by country, with some kind of attempt to get a response from each country on what they will do differently in the future to try to improve their score.  With only 25 countries involved in the report, it should be possible to do this.

Third, few of the indicators relate to business structure, conduct and performance.  The food system is populated by businesses: small, medium and large.  They drive demand and supply.  Their conduct is shaped by consumer demand, government regulation and other companies’ competitive strategies.  So it is important to measure their behaviour. For example, what do we know about the compliance of businesses with the code of conduct on the marketing of breast milk substitutes or the percentage of companies (weighted by size) that have workplace policies for improved nutrition, or the percentage of companies (weighted by size) that have announced reductions in salt and sugar in their product formulations or have initiated schemes to minimise food loss and waste?

Finally, I congratulate EIU and Barilla for zeroing in on cities with their “City Monitor” pilot on urban food systems.  This is entirely appropriate for several reasons.  First, countries are actually characterised by several food systems, not one.  We tend to default to one because most data are not disaggregated below the national level, but a move to characterise cities is a good first step at unpacking a country’s food systems.  Second, the world is urbanising and, unfortunately, malnutrition is urbanising with it, so urgent analysis and action is required in these domains.  Third, cities may actually be able to be more decisive than national governments.  They may have more control and authority to act to change food systems.  Finally a focus on cities brings in new actors such as municipal leaders and those who tend to be more densely represented in urban spaces such as the tech sector, impact investors and social media aggregators.  These new actors bring new ideas, energy and relationships to the table.

The above issues are not easy to address and they are ones we are all struggling with.  The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), which I lead, is no different.  Our aim is to improve the availability, affordability and realisation of healthy diets for all people, especially the most vulnerable.  Because most people buy their food in the marketplace and because more and more of it is processed, this inevitably involves working with businesses that are responsible, ethical and have values consistent with GAIN’s. Where we see irresponsible behaviour by businesses and other stakeholders we call it out.  The index could do more of this at the country government level.  Let’s be clear: we don’t have time for anything that takes away from improvements in diets and nutrition if we are to end malnutrition in all its forms by 2030 as the SDGs challenge us to.  People’s diets, health, productivity, wellbeing, and sometimes their very survival depend on it.  

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