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  • Kathryn Merckel

Food System Integration: Critical Opportunities to Boost Sustainable Market Systems Development

Food systems lenses are emerging as an increasingly important element to integrate into MSD program strategies and tactics. However, as with climate change, inequality, and other slower-moving risks, poor and limited access to nutritious foods may not have as strong an influence on market systems as they should, given their potentially detrimental effects. This is especially important considering change over time. For example, as an agriculture market system becomes more commercially oriented, changes in the system will occur. But how change will happen is highly dependent on what is most influential. This blog speaks to the importance of integrating and amplifying nutrition into MSD programming and gives tips on making signals such as nutrition more influential. A central element of MSS2022 is how to better integrate slower moving risks, like nutrition, into market systems approaches. This consideration includes how to catalyze such risks to be more influential on the evolution of agricultural market systems.

Market and Food Systems Development: Similar Actors, Different Goals

Food systems and agricultural market systems are deeply integrated, overlapping, and responsive to each other. Food systems contribute an estimated 10 percent of the global economy. And, in low- and middle-income countries, food systems account for 40 to 80 percent of total employment, especially among women, who produce up to 80 percent of the food in developing countries, despite pervasive pay gaps for their labor. Some aspects of the food system, such as public sector programs, traditional food culture, gardening, and foraging, exist outside of the market system. But many global development programs seeking market systems outcomes — especially within agricultural market systems — are already working within the food system.

Although market systems development practitioners work to catalyze competitive and inclusive market growth and economic opportunities, they often fail to account for a key outcome of food systems: the availability, accessibility, and affordability of safe and desirable nutritious food in the local food environment. Just as market systems development is not inherently inclusive, food systems development does not inherently lead to improved nutrition. The growing global conversation on food systems transformation is a call to understand how neglecting these dietary outcomes can undermine the long-term resilience and sustainability of market systems growth.

Market and Food System Interdependencies Pose Threats, Opportunities

Market failures are both a cause and result of poor nutrition. Malnutrition causes an estimated $850 billion in lost adult productivity annually, not factoring in the opportunity costs of malnourishment in childhood. Malnutrition is at odds with resilience, leading to exacerbation in conflict, vulnerability to climate disasters,and the deterioration of natural resources as coping strategies.Women are impacted disproportionately.

Interventions within the food systems that focus solely on economic outcomes may have negative impacts on the capacity of the local food environment to support nutritious diets. Shifting from diversified sustenance agriculture to intensified commercial cereal production or facilitating export of nutrient-rich horticulture from rural areas to regional and urban markets may have positive impacts on income, but decrease local access to nutritious foods.

At a minimum, market systems activities must do no harm. But treating food systems outcomes as a secondary objective is short-sighted. This is especially true considering how much of the global market is controlled by food system actors and how much food markets are growing. With demand for healthy and diversified diets growing globally, integrating a nutritious food systems approach is prescient.

Integration is the Way Forward: Nutrition-Sensitive Market Systems

1. Support nutrition-sensitive business models.

Encouraging the adoption of nutrition-sensitive business model innovations, which include profit-oriented plans and processes that contribute to improving nutrition broadly, have been shown to improve the performance of private sector businesses through increased consumer demand, reduced food waste, and enhanced social image. For example, while implementing the USAID-funded Feed the Future Tanzania NAFAKA II Activity, ACDI/VOCA helped 93 small-scale millers fortify maize flour and learn market diversification strategies. As a result, the millers found universally increased willingness-to-pay from consumers.

2. Encourage investment in nutritious value chains.

Selecting which value chains to invest in should balance opportunity for increased incomes and impact on nutrition for both producers and consumers. Slowly, policy and donor funding priorities are shifting away from staple crops toward pulses, horticulture, and livestock, easing the production transition for these nutritious commodities and better reflecting the reality of growing demand for diverse diets. The USAID-funded Feed the Future Bangladesh Livestock Production for Improved Nutrition Activity, implemented by ACDI/VOCA, found this balance in the dairy value chain. Greater milk productivity increased the availability and accessibility of milk for household consumption and led to a 40-point increase in households that regularly consumed dairy products between 2015 and 2020.

3. Facilitate strategic public-private partnerships.

Facilitating partnerships between the private sector and institutions, such as crop research centers, public media, and government safety net programs, allows businesses to stay within their commercial scope while still contributing to joint efforts to positively impact diets among a broad population, inclusive of vulnerable and poor households that may not always be reached by profit-oriented private sector initiatives. For example, in implementation of the USAID-funded Feed the Future Bangladesh Rice and Diversified Crops Activity, ACDI/VOCA found that government media programs promoting zinc-biofortified rice were key to generating consumer demand, which, in turn, made private-sector investment in increasing the supply financially feasible.

A Tool for Development Practitioners

Market systems activities that fail to account for food systems outcomes—both positive and negative—at best may be undermining their long-term success and at worst harming vulnerable groups. To guide development practitioners in selecting proven strategies for integrating nutrition outcomes into market systems development activities, ACDI/VOCA and its affiliate organization Tanager developed the Nutrition-Sensitive Intervention Selection Tool.

This decision-making framework guides users to opportunities tailored to their specified levels of intervention. Thoughtful application of these suggested interventions can help ensure integration of food systems jumpstarts a virtuous cycle, in which good nutrition and strong markets work in tandem to catalyze holistic, sustainable economic growth.

Join us from May 9 - 19 for the Market Systems Symposium, where we will discuss more on food systems approaches to market systems development. ACDI/VOCA will be leading a training, plenary session, and tool clinics that dive deeper into this topic and our approaches. We hope that you will join the conversation!


Kathryn Merckel is an associate director of nutrition and food systems and supports the integration of nutrition into projects across ACDI/VOCA and its affiliate, Tanager. Kathryn works with project field offices to develop context-sensitive approaches to improving nutrition and health across market systems activities. She has developed nutrition training materials, nutrition monitoring and survey instruments, and private sector intervention approaches to promote social marketing and nutrition-sensitive business models. Prior to joining ACDI/VOCA in 2020, Kathryn completed a PhD in nutrition at Cornell University with the Tata-Cornell Institute for Agriculture and Nutrition, where her research focused on the introduction of biofortified crops to North India using nutrition- and gender-sensitive social marketing strategies. Kathryn has regional experience in South Asia, particularly India, as well as East Africa where she served as a Boren Scholar in Tanzania working with farmer cooperatives to build institutional capacity around nutrition and health.

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