Farmers in Ukamo village, Ethiopia
Policy Analysis

How Can We Transform Food Systems to Meet Food, Nutrition, and Climate Needs?

This article outlines three key policy measures that can help governments meet the food and nutritional needs of their people in the context of a changing climate.

By Livia Bizikova on November 27, 2023

The need for food systems transformation (FST) is gaining recognition across the world. In July, the UN Food Systems Summit +2 Stocktaking Moment served as the first global follow-up to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, which was intended to accelerate FST as a driver of the global 2030 Agenda. The United Arab Emirates has also signalled its intent to place FST front and centre at the 28th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 28), highlighting the linkages between climate adaptation, food security, and nutritional outcomes. 

In this article, we present three key policy measures that can help transform food systems to better meet global food and nutritional needs while also responding to climate adaptation. It is based on a series of recent policy reviews in Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. 

Reducing post-harvest losses

Many regions are facing an increased risk of post-harvest losses due to increased exposure of agricultural seed materials and harvested products to higher temperatures and rainfall, which favours the growth of toxins and moulds. Policy measures to reduce post-harvest losses—such as supporting the development of granaries, diverse storage options, access to storage, insecticides, and fungicides—play an important role in advancing FST while also strengthening climate resilience, food security, and nutrition. 

Loss-reduction options provide better protection of seeds and harvests from pests and diseases, including moulds and aflatoxin, as well as opportunities to protect valuable harvested products and preserve the quality and shelf life of production—thereby increasing incomes and strengthening food security and nutrition. Reducing post-harvest losses for local production also contributes to food security and nutrition by increasing access to staples as well as nutrition-dense foods.

Many countries recognize the importance of post-harvest losses in their FST pathways—for example, in policy documents such as Tanzania’s National Postharvest Management Strategy (2019–2029) or Uganda’s Nutrition Action Plan II (2020/21–2024/25). However, production reduction efforts and post-harvest loss financing are directed mainly to staple crops, such as maize and wheat, in the analyzed countries, while high-value, high-nutrition crops have not received as much attention. For example, in Kenya, only 10% of post-harvest loss studies focus on fruits and vegetables, and 10% focus on pulses. But fruit and vegetable production also face increasing vulnerability to climate change due to heat and pests. Therefore, one important priority to strengthen linkages between FST policy and climate adaptation would be to reinforce the limited efforts so far by governments and donors to reduce post-harvest losses for high-value, high-nutrition food crops. 

Scaling up the biofortification of staple crops

It is also critical to consider the biofortification of staples such as maize and climate-resilient crops such as millet as part of national strategies to address nutritional outcomes. Biofortification refers to improving the nutrient content of crops. It is one of two mechanisms for food enrichment; the other involves adding nutrients at the food production stage to staple crop inputs.

Biofortification is considered a cost-effective nutrition intervention because it augments the three crucial nutrients (iron, zinc, and vitamin A) that are constrained in the diets of populations across Africa. Biofortified varieties of many staple crops already exist but may not be readily available. The need for biofortification incentives has been recognized as an important contribution to addressing food security and nutrition policies, especially in the short term, such as in the Kenya National Nutrition Action Plan (2018-2022) or the Zimbabwe National Nutrition Strategy (2014–2018)

However, regional assessments show that countries often fail to ensure the quality biofortified foods that provide desired levels of nutrients due to the scarcity of improved seeds, post-harvest loss challenges, and a lack of financial inputs to support existing programs and national coordinating bodies. This result implies that a second policy priority to address nutrition challenges is to provide support for governments in their effort to promote the production and consumption of biofortified foods, especially for the most vulnerable groups with low-nutrient diets.  

Improving food safety

Another key area of intervention to reduce post-harvest losses of staple crops is to ensure food safety. It is projected that climate change will exacerbate existing food safety challenges, especially in countries and regions most susceptible to current hazards due to increased moulds and damage to infrastructure. For example, there were cases of aflatoxin poisoning due to poor post-harvest practices in Kenya in 2011 and 2023, particularly in maize value chains, and food aid and emergency reserves can be susceptible to spoilage

The links between food safety, nutrition, and post-harvest losses are well recognized in national policies—for example, in Malawi’s Food and Nutrition Policy (2013) and the Food and Nutrition Policy of Ethiopia (2018). These policies stress the need to improve the safety and quality of food through improved measures to reduce post-harvest losses and the adoption of food safety standards backed by regular inspections. A third priority area is therefore to support international and regional efforts and governments to develop, adopt, and enforce food safety standards, including building the technical and enforcement capacity of food safety agencies. 

Our analysis shows that countries in Eastern and Southern Africa face similar challenges with regard to FST—including limited resources for dealing with complex problems, the need for regional cooperation to address specific post-harvest loss options, and capacity gaps in fortification and food safety efforts. It also shows that tackling post-harvest losses, including for high-value, high-nutrition crops; scaling up biofortification; and improving food safety are promising solutions to strengthening food security and nutrition that also build the resilience of local food systems to climate change and its impacts.

The author would like to thank Steffany Bermúdez, Cristina Larrea, Claire McConnell, and Sean Woolfrey for their valuable comments.