The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022


4.3 The political economy and governance dynamics that influence repurposing policy support

The extent to which efforts to repurpose food and agricultural support will be successful will depend on the political economy, governance and the incentives of relevant stakeholders in a local, national and global context. Broadly speaking, the political economy refers to the social, economic, cultural and political factors that structure, sustain and transform constellations of public and private actors, and their interests and relations, over time. This includes institutional set-ups, “the rules of the game” that affect the everyday policymaking agenda and its structuring.327,328 Governance refers to formal and informal rules, organizations and processes through which public and private actors articulate their interests and make and implement decisions.329,330

The political economy affects the type of political and institutional reforms and the forms of governance that are needed to enable and facilitate the repurposing of food and agricultural policy support. At the same time, the political economy dynamics can hamper repurposing support efforts and outcomes for improved affordability of healthy diets.331 It is, therefore, critical to understand the political economy dynamics and factors at play and to take action and put in place mechanisms to ensure repurposing support efforts achieve their intended purpose.

Governance, institutions, interests and ideas are dynamic factors at play that influence food and agricultural policy support.332,333 There are three broad elements that need to be considered and effectively managed as part of repurposing food and agricultural policy support:

  1. political context, stakeholder perspectives and the will of governments;
  2. power relations, interests and the influence of different actors; and
  3. the governance mechanisms and regulatory frameworks needed for the facilitation and implementation of repurposing support efforts.

In addition, to ensure that the repurposed policy has achieved its intended purposes, monitoring and evaluation of the repurposed policy support is key. It promotes transparency and accountability throughout the process and can be a positive driver for sustaining policy reforms in the long term.

The dynamics and the mechanisms for managing these elements are presented in Figure 25 and are explored in detail in the following sections.

FIGURE 25Political economy and governance dynamics related to the repurposing of food and Agricultural Policy Support


Political context, stakeholder perspectives and the will of governments

The extent to which food and agricultural support can be repurposed depends on each country’s local context, including its political regime, interests, ideologies and incentives, among other factors. For instance, the degree of agricultural protection often depends on the level of political and economic competition within a country.334

Without political incentives and feasibility to support this process, any policy change will be challenging to implement and sustain in practice.335 Furthermore, in many country contexts, bottlenecks within governance structures can lead to a gap between policy expectations and outcomes.

Recent global discussions, such as those under the auspices of the United Nations Food Systems Summit and the COP26 on climate change in 2021, and the increased awareness of the importance of public health and environmental sustainability, provide a unique opportunity for greater feasibility of repurposing support.227 Recent discussions of agricultural policy reform in the European Union (“Farm to Fork” strategy) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (new agriculture bill) have stressed the importance of considering the health and environmental sustainability of food production as desirable public goods that are to be supported. A “public money for public goods” approach could render subsidies to nutritious foods that are important for public health and environmental sustainability politically more feasible than past production-centred approaches.227

Of course, the political context differs among countries. In HICs, food and agricultural support has become high compared to the relatively small proportions of the upstream agriculture sector in their GDP and employment rates. For example, the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy took up around 35 percent of the European Union’s budget in 2020.336 Many LICs often lack the financial capacity to provide food and agricultural support in the form of subsidies, thus, producer support in these countries often entails border and trade controls, which as explained in Chapter 3, do not require government outlays. On the contrary, reshaping border controls might come at the cost of lost trade-related revenues for governments. The differences in political priorities and challenges in each context are likely to affect whether governments will promote repurposing efforts and their extents.

There are diverging perspectives in prioritizing areas in the agrifood system that make repurposing difficult. For instance, while in Asia and the Pacific the nutritional quality of food is seen as an important issue, in East and Southern Africa the availability of food is viewed as a major challenge to the agrifood system.337 LICs and MICs are in a different stage of the nutrition transition than high-income countries – many LICs and MICs have been shifting from traditional diets towards diets containing highly processed foods fostered by global market integration and aggressive marketing, whereas in HICs, highly processed food consumption is consolidated as part of the population’s dietary patterns.196,338 These context differences and inequalities affect each government’s incentives, political decisions and the approaches needed to repurpose policies.

In addition, current budget constraints in many countries of the world make repurposing an important alternative to achieve these development objectives without compromising the economic recovery. Therefore, governments have an important role to play in communicating the win-win contents of the repurposing support efforts, which may provide an answer to the objectives and interests of all involved stakeholders.

Power relations, interests and the influence of different actors

Food and agricultural policy support is the result of a complex decision-making process that is embedded and influenced by a range of objectives and interests. These processes include the formation of coalitions, bargaining among interests, altering or preventing changes to decision-making rules, finding ways and means, or defeating policy choices by restricting the means available, enabling or preventing policy implementation, and ensuring voice or discriminating among actors and groups. Their success will thus depend on the relative power of different groups of stakeholders in favour of or against the reforms.

The data gaps on policy support that relates to food processing, distribution and provision often hinder the analysis of how the structure of support itself may be contributing to existing power structures along supply chains. In addition, different sectors within a country or region often have different priorities and potential trade-offs. These differences between the aims of different sectors could turn into a lack of policy coherence that is needed to make efficient use of available resources339,340 and achieve affordable healthy diets for all while at the same time ensuring sustainable use of natural resources and resilience to climate change.

For example, a study in the Pacific Islands shows that there are opposing views on policy framing when addressing diet-related NCDs due to conflicts of interest. Though governments have identified policy intervention options, implementation has been slow due to diverging perceptions and priorities. For instance, there are disagreements between the need to prioritize public health and decrease imports of highly processed foods versus support for increased trade,341 underlying the need for policy coherence across sectors.

Repurposing support efforts towards an increase in the production and trade of nutritious foods can be challenged by the agrifood industry’s dominance at the food supply chain level. Companies and corporations play a significant role in producing, processing and distributing food commodities. For example, in the mid-2000s, it was estimated that four large companies dominated 70 to 90 percent of the global grain trade. This concentration was observed jointly with an increasing trend in the production of major agricultural inputs for the food industry, such as raw sugar and vegetable oil crops.196 In fact, food industry actors often influence and interfere in public policymaking or bias the science that underpins this process,342 as they lobby policymakers, make political donations, frame policy debates, adopt self-regulation to pre-empt and delay government action (policy substitution), implement public relations campaigns, and so forth.343

For example, the amount of money that the United States of America’s beverage industry has spent on lobbying activities increased to USD 60 million in 2009, the same year when a federal soda tax was proposed. The figure has stayed continuously high ever since.344 In South Africa, there is evidence that the private sector influences legal challenges or trade-related complaints relating to nutrition and alcohol regulation policies.345

Similarly in other countries, governments’ efforts to introduce regulatory measures could face challenges on the grounds that the proposed measures could conflict with binding trade commitments. For example, 245 interventions were made at WTO by exporting Member States between 1995 and 2019 for the marketing of breastmilk substitutes.346,347 In other cases, sometimes the food industry partnered with other public agencies, as in the case of Colombia during the discussion of the food labelling regulation, when some ministries and agencies argued in alignment with the industry’s position during the discussion of the initiative in the congress.348 Such challenges contribute to policy inertia and generate a “regulatory chill” that impedes national governments from taking action to repurpose food and agricultural policies.347,349

The influence of food industries extends to global governance, for example, the setting of international food standards by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Section 4.2). Food industry actors exerted influence on the Codex process on the front-of-pack nutrition labelling350 and on setting the Codex standard for follow-up formula.347 Food industry responses to WHO consultations on diet-related NCD policies have tended to promote voluntary or non-statutory approaches instead of legislative measures.351

Retail is another sector in which power can be exerted and could affect the repurposing support efforts. In many countries, highly concentrated power in the retail sector is growing rapidly in the form of large chains of supermarkets and grocery stores.352 These developments are also driven by other structural factors such as income growth, urbanization and foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows.353

A review of studies regarding supermarket power in Australia observed that supermarkets exerted power by setting the terms of trade for suppliers, shaping societal values regarding food through discursive power, lobbying and establishing relationships with policymakers. This can affect several fields such as the governance of the agrifood system, the availability and affordability of healthy diets, public health and nutrition outcomes.354 Supermarket concentration within limited geographical areas could also enable the creation of food deserts, isolating populations who reside outside the retailers’ locations and limiting their access to nutritious foods.355

At the same time, supermarket chains have the power to enforce certain food quality and safety standards on their supply.352 In many LICs and MICs, the modern retail sector could become an important driver of changes within the agrifood system and could contribute to making healthy diets more affordable and accessible.356 The engagement and actions of the private sector includes also small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and the provision of incentives to these actors can be key to supporting repurposing support efforts. SMEs can be empowered and mobilized to the transformation and repurposing support efforts by “equilibrating” the unequal relations of the observed powers (see Box 18) if the political climate facilitates responsible business practices along the entire value chain.357,358

BOX 18Value chain development as an effective tool to transform unequal power distribution

Value chain development can be an effective tool to transform the unequal power distribution currently observed between small-scale producers, processors, sellers and other stakeholders within agricultural value chains.

Small-scale producers in LICs and MICs often face high transaction costs when accessing markets to sell their products.359,360,361 Market imperfections and frictions related to limited access to credit, insurance and information might further constrain access to markets. Implementing policies to address these constraints has been politically difficult, as small-scale producers often face several obstacles to engage in collective action, including to add their demands in the political agenda. These constraints are often greater for women, youth and Indigenous Peoples. Access to the markets for small-scale producers is typically provided by mid-stream SMEs involved in processing, packaging, transport and final sales. This type of value chain has been estimated to provide more than half of the food consumed in Africa.362

Well-designed investments can reduce transaction costs as well as market imperfections and frictions by improving access to market information, providing access to credit and productivity-enhancing inputs, and potentially increasing small-scale producers and downstream SMEs’ bargaining power in front of traders and off-takers. In particular, agricultural value chain investments operating through producer organizations or agricultural cooperatives have been shown to be an effective means to engage small-scale producers and SMEs in value chains and to improve their market access. Such investments can also help in “levelling the playing field” for populations such as women, youth and Indigenous Peoples, who face even more constraints in accessing the agricultural value chain in equal conditions. Greater market access among small-scale producers, particularly in rural areas, can contribute to a higher degree of competition in local markets and higher prices received by producers.

Notable success stories of value chain development have emerged even in difficult settings in Latin America and the Pacific Islands, where access to the market might be particularly challenging in remote and mountainous areas. In Peru, the Strengthening Local Development in the Highlands and High Rainforest Areas Project provided small-scale producers with access to financial and nonfinancial services, including technical assistance, market linkages and leadership skills to develop business plans. Small-scale producer’s market participation in crop and animal source foods increased by 7 and 13 percent, while women’s participation in local groups and decision-making of income by 27 and 45 percent.363 In Argentina, the Inclusive Rural Development Programme provided funding to producer organizations and Indigenous Peoples to engage in product development projects and to invest in community needs. Project participants were able to increase values of crop and livestock production by 92 percent and 72 percent driven by financial services provided to producer organizations to allow investments in heavy agricultural machinery for improving production practices, resulting in a 15 percent increase in household income. Further, female participation in leadership positions of producer organizations increased by 10 percent.364

In Papua New Guinea, the Productive Partnerships in Agriculture Project focused on forging direct linkages between producers and off-takers. It supported cocoa and coffee producers by providing market linkages with agribusiness enterprises and training in more efficient, market-responsive and sustainable production practices between 2012 and 2019.365 Asset ownership by women increased by 3 percent and decision-making by women in crop production increased by 4 percent. In the Solomon Islands, the Rural Development Programme – Phase II focused on agribusiness partnerships. It engaged cocoa and coconut producers to sell their commodities in value chains by linking them with enterprises through agribusiness partnerships between 2015 and 2021. The project resulted in higher cocoa prices paid to producers and higher volumes of cocoa sold, as well as more workers hired by agribusinesses supported by the project.366 These increases are mainly driven by an increase in the total value of production (38 percent increase), and in particular in crop production (62 percent increase). Further, female participation in decision-making on self-employment income use increased by 6 percent.

Civil society groups are important for agrifood systems367 and levelling the playing field for them can also play a significant role in addressing the equity aspect of policy support. For example, farmer cooperatives could allow small-scale producers to strengthen their bargaining position in front of other agrifood systems stakeholders.368 In Guatemala, a farmers’ organizations network improved the agency capacities of producers of the rural municipality of Huehuetenango and allowed them to implement innovative climate-resilient development plans at the local level.369 Consumer associative initiatives, such as community organizations or producer-consumer partnerships, are currently important actors in the transformation of local agrifood systems370 and can also influence and support policy reform processes.

The governance mechanisms and regulatory frameworks needed for the facilitation and implementation of repurposing support efforts

Vested interests may hamper efforts to repurpose food and agricultural policy support when not managed properly. To this aim, the presence of strong public institutions,371 and particularly participatory governance mechanisms, free from conflict of interest, can positively influence policy reform processes as they create a positive enabling environment for reforms, as well as increase their efficiency and effectiveness. Similarly, policy reform processes can create and reinforce governance mechanisms and improve the capacities and social capital of involved stakeholders, creating a two-way relationship in which the institutions, and the reforms themselves, are promoted and reinforced.372

Multistakeholder and multisectoral platforms are common and interesting examples of governance mechanisms. They can be successful when there are: i) active and long-term engagement from the government, ii) public resources to facilitate the process, iii) a neutral facilitator to serve as checks and balances and iv) the implementation of strict accountability mechanisms. The facilitation of the coordination among involved stakeholders and groups and ensuring that all voices are heard in transparent decision-making processes can facilitate and ease the pressure from powerful actors.327,373,374

At the global level, an interesting multilateral example is the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement, a global platform with 65 member countries working in collaboration to end all forms of malnutrition with an external independent evaluation to assess SUN’s efforts. The multilateral SUN Movement is supported by civil society networks of more than 4 000 organizations, a business network including SMEs, large enterprises, a SUN donor network and a UN Network for SUN. With the platform, member states can align actions around common results with sectors and stakeholders working at the subnational level.375

There have been criticisms, however, that the involvement of multinational companies in the SUN business network undermines the network’s efforts, for example, by contributing to the increased influence of the private sector on policymaking and redefining legal concepts to accommodate the multi-stakeholder model.376

On a national and local level, instruments that support policy repurposing should be coordinated between several ministries or departmental agencies. For example, the Childhood Obesity Plan in England consists of several components, the implementation of each of which involved coordination across different departments. To support the development of healthy food environments in the National Planning Policy Framework, the coordination involved the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) to develop health policies and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) to specify the decisions to support the access to nutritious foods. In addition, the Nutrient Profiling Model was set up with the leadership of the national public health body at the time, Public Health England (PHE).377

Another well-known multisectoral case was Brazil’s former National Food Security and Nutrition Council (CONSEA), an advisory body to the Brazilian presidency composed of representatives of the government and civil society, which during its years of existence (1993–2019) served as a space of dialogue and articulation among different stakeholders, and turned into a key facilitator for the formulation of policies as the National Policy and Plan for Food Security and Nutrition, the Food Acquisition Programme, the National School Food Programme and Brazil’s Dietary Guidelines.378

Nevertheless, while participatory governance mechanisms are key to developing and implementing policy reforms, they are not “silver bullets” for implementing them. It has been observed in some cases when implementing regulations in the food industry to promote healthy diets, that the power of the most important industry stakeholders has been enhanced in the context of multistakeholder governance arrangements, including public-private partnerships. This is the result of expanded corporate influence in policy decision-making. For example, by procuring in-house expertise, food companies have expanded their capacity to engage in these activities and thereby influence food policy and regulation-setting processes. As a result, some structural policy changes have been omitted from the policy agenda.196 It is important to safeguard against conflicts of interest in policy development and decision-making, and tools are available to help countries prevent and manage such conflicts of interest.an

On the other hand, participatory governance arrangements can give voice and influence to the often marginalized groups of the population, such as people in rural areas, to raise awareness and sensitize everyone involved and build coalitions in favour of more inclusive repurposing support efforts. Strengthening collective action, capacities, voice and bargaining power of rural populations, including smallholder farmers, can contribute to policy reforms and facilitate their formulation and implementation, as well as strengthen the legitimacy of the reforms among all stakeholders.303 In addition, identifying key stakeholders in favour of the policy reform that may act as “champions of change” in coordination with the leading government agency can facilitate the dialogue among actors.371 For example, countries such as Brazil, Peru, Thailand and Viet Nam have national nutrition leaders, which ensure strong coordination among actors in government, civil society and the private sector. In addition, they are responsible for taking action and being subjected to accountability during the policy repurposing process.379

Finally, governments should carefully identify the trade-offs of the repurposing of food and agricultural policy support and anticipate the challenges that may arise during implementation, including scenarios based on evidence and potential. Governance mechanisms allow for different actors to consider the trade-offs of the policy changes and correctly address them.380 To this aim, as analysed in the previous section, governments should implement mitigation policies directed at the “losers” of the policy reform, or those who are more vulnerable to being negatively affected by it. At the same time, repurposing policy support may threaten power interest groups, who may resist the reform or prevent its implementation. As noted before, the impacts of current policy support on the availability and cost of nutritious foods and the affordability of healthy diets are complex and, thus, need to be determined through a systemic approach that relies on historical data and/or model-based scenarios.

Developing and validating model-based scenarios should not be purely desk work. The engagement of key stakeholders is essential, not only for transparency and accountability but also to improve the modelling itself given data uncertainties. In integrated climate impact assessments, for example, researchers have interacted with stakeholders such as farmers to explore and design alternative sets of plausible future scenarios and climate change adaptation packages for integrated modelling, to improve the accuracy and transparency of the results, compared to similar exercises without farmers’ engagement.381

However, model-based scenarios need to be designed and validated by government experts using official data. Several recent studies showcase this practice, in which the government advises how much it is willing to invest and finance agriculture to enable recovery. Modelers then use that information to determine the agricultural sectors that must be prioritized given the results on GDP growth, agrifood output growth, household welfare and rural poverty reduction223,233 in order to increase access to affordable healthy diets and achieve nutritional objectives. The key issue is to rely on multisectoral and multilateral policy dialogues with all relevant stakeholders informed by evidence on the potential impacts of alternative policy support options.

Monitoring and evaluation of the repurposed policy support

Repurposing food and agricultural policy support does not end after policy formulation and implementation. The assessment of agrifood systems interventions has been increasingly recognized as a key element for the success of transformation processes;382 it ensures accountability and points to the need to adapt.383 For instance, in 2011 the New York City Council in the United States of America established the obligation to monitor and report the initiatives related to the Food Local Law.384 To this aim, the Food Metrics report has been published since 2012, following five policy goals with a total of 37 indicators, providing useful information to monitor the progress of the city’s agrifood policies for both policymakers and citizens.385

Commitments made by governments and other stakeholders during the high-level discussions on agrifood systems and nutrition can be used to monitor and support the implementation of repurposing support strategies. Following the Food Systems Summit, convened by the UN Secretary General in September 2021, 110 countries have published details of their strategy towards food system transformation within national shaping pathways, 92 percent of which featured healthy diets from sustainable agrifood systems as a priority topic.386

This priority issue was also taken up by Coalition of Action on Healthy Diets from Sustainable Food Systems For All which unites global actors and countries to align, mobilize and support action towards this shared vision.387 At the Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2021, 181 stakeholders in 78 countries made 396 new nutrition commitments.388 Going forward, the development of solid databases that inform us about system transformation action including food and agricultural support in regions around the world will be essential to see if commitments have translated into policy actions. Closing the data and research gaps in the areas of the current policy support estimates and the evidence of the impact of food and agricultural support1 is crucial to enable a monitoring framework to better track the progress of these commitments and to ensure accountability. For example, WHO’s Global database on the Implementation of Nutrition Actions (GINA) monitors and publishes updates on policy actions on nutrition.238

Developing the needed database infrastructure will require collaborating with relevant stakeholders in international organizations, governments and research think tanks. The data collection process of tracking repurposed policies should be institutionalized389 with defined objectives.

To start with, it is key to promote the adoption of a set of consistent definitions that are internationally recognized to allow precise measurement of support to food and agriculture. This should go along with the strengthening of the database developed by the Consortium for Measuring the Policy Environment for Agriculture (or Ag-Incentives Consortium, which was introduced in Chapter 3) in several ways: i) first by closing the data gap on policy support estimates by improving data on consumer subsidies, collecting data on subsidies and expenditures targeting climate-smart practices, as well as natural resource conservation and resilience to have a better picture of the public expenditures and investments that are the most conducive to agrifood systems transformation; and ii) second, by expanding the country coverage of policy support estimates to countries, which have a specific profile of policy support and/or regional agrifood systems challenges.

Other databases and networks can be important for monitoring and evaluation purposes. The International Network for Food and Obesity/Non-communicable Diseases Research, Monitoring and Action Support (INFORMAS) is a global platform set up to monitor and benchmark food environments, government policies and private sector actions across countries.390

Having comparable indicators of the effectiveness of repurposing support efforts on the different actors and stakeholders that are involved throughout the value chain also increases transparency and enables comparisons of reforms across countries.391 On the community level, tracking can take the forms of participatory monitoring, evaluation, reflection and learning (PMERL). This method enables the voices of the more disadvantaged groups in communities to be heard to take part in the process.392 Policies that promote open data access enable transparency and accountability when evaluating the performance and impact of repurposed policies and reduce the potential of dominant agrifood industries’ influence over the reshaping policy process.393

For example, the Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators (ASTI) has an online interactive data platform that tracks key data and information on agricultural R&D across LICs and MICs. This tool provides transparent and accessible mechanisms to track the impacts of repurposed measures.389 Finally, communicating the impacts of the repurposed changes to agricultural producers and consumers and relevant stakeholders throughout the value chain is important to ensure that the changes have support and can be sustained. This can be done by developing a shared understanding and knowledge through networks and communications among the stakeholder groups. This is seen as an important aspect in the process of development and spreading change in the agrifood system.367

Data development and maintenance will be key for monitoring and evaluation purposes. Furthermore, model-based scrutiny helps to identify whether the repurposed support has the intended consequences. In this regard, model-based monitoring should show whether the cost of nutritious foods and unaffordability of healthy diets were reduced during implementation, in a sustainable and inclusive manner. Synergies with other development planning processes and related investments, particularly SDGs (e.g. 1, 2, 3, 5, 10, 12 and 13) should also become evident. The evidence generated should be the basis through which evaluation helps identify potential areas for improvement delivered to governments.

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