Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, faces pressing problems in supplying its increasing population with affordable, safe and nutritious foods to meet their needs for a healthy and active life. In a unique food system approach, four institutes of Wageningen University & Research have integrated their expertise on diverse aspects that include consumer behaviour, rural economy, agricultural production, logistics, spatial planning and the environment, and impact assessments of interventions. This contributes to a joint effort with local policy makers and other stakeholders in Dhaka towards finding integrated solutions to ensure sustainable access to Dhaka's present and future food needs.
"A food system approach means that we consider all the factors that determine what the people living in Dhaka get on their plates," explains Marion Herens, who coordinates the Dhaka food system project at WUR. In the project WUR contributes to the implementation trajectories of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN, by building the knowledge base and capacity for food systems transformation in Dhaka.
Focus is on the whole of the Dhaka Metropolitan area, which comprises of four Cities clustered together: Dhaka North, Dhaka South, Narayangaj, and Gazipur. "At WUR, we have the combined expertise required to advise on the complex challenges of Dhaka's food system," says Herens. "Now, for the first time, we have combined these into an integrated approach to help empower stakeholders with knowledge in different key areas within the food system, and support the collaboration needed at different levels; with the local government and different stakeholders within the cities. We also will contribute to the capacity building and training needed for stakeholders to work on their own on real solutions."
The challenges of the Dhaka Metropolitan Area are complex, multiple, and urgent. It's population has grown rapidly to over 20 million. It will soon be the third largest metropolitan area in the world. One-fifth of Dhaka's population lives below the poverty line and receives inadequate nutrition. There is also a lack of availability and access to healthy food, and food safety issues pose a serious threat to public health.
"We are involving local policy makers from the start in the research and implementation of the project," says Herens. "This is important, because changes to the food system will only be accepted and successful when local stakeholders lead the change and take ownership." The project was commissioned by the Ministry that deals with local government, and the four city governments of Dhaka Metropolitan Area. Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation (WCDI) has broad knowledge and experience in multi stakeholder collaboration.
Firstly an inventory of stakeholders will be made, jointly with the FAO team in Dhaka. The aim is to form a new Dhaka food policy council, with stakeholders from local City governments, knowledge institutes, civil society and private sector. The council will advise the local governments on a future strategic Food Agenda towards 2041. In the process, stakeholders will receive training on how to organise such a new food council. "Policymakers and other stakeholders around the Dhaka food system are very knowledgeable. We want to help utilise that knowledge for a better food system," she added.
The project will equip policy makers with better knowledge, tools and skills to perform successful urban food policy planning. With interactive models, stakeholders will be able to work on future policy scenarios and decide on interventions.
These interactive models, policy options and possible interventions will be fuelled with knowledge from the various institutes at Wageningen University and Research. "Firstly, the current status of the food system will be spatially mapped, involving stakeholders from the start in that endeavour," says Peter Verweij of Wageningen Environmental Research (WENR). He travelled to Dhaka recently to gather with local researchers available data on a range of issues, for example the impact of climate change on soil fertility and food production. Such environmental data will be combined with social- and economic data from Wageningen Economic Research (WECR), to build interactive models that enable the creation of long-term scenarios that can inform and shape policy decisions.
Wageningen Economic Research will also contribute through consumer-behaviour studies that form the basis for future campaigns to raise awareness among consumers to better access healthy food. Experts at Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, who are specialised in food logistics and food loss, will screen the performance of food value chains around Dhaka, see where food losses occur and how food chains can be optimised to reduce losses.
"Scenarios can help. For example, food transport is unrefrigerated in Dhaka. Traffic jams can lead to food loss. Scenario studies using accurate data, help to know where and how to solve this with new infrastructure," says Peter Verweij. "Having such local spatial data and working on them with local stakeholders makes the food system approach very tangible." He very much appreciates the cooperation with colleagues within Wageningen University & Research. "Instead of just bringing in our own expertise, in this project, we really exchange insights and discuss them. Sometimes, that makes it more complex. However, in the end, it brings new perspectives and real integrated solutions," he remarks.
This view is shared by his colleague, Peter Ravensbergen, Business Developer Food Systems at Wageningen Economic Research. "We bring a complete picture to our client - the policy makers in Dhaka, instead of just part of it," he says. And he explains that improving a food system involves many aspects: "It is about behavioural change of consumers, about rural development and climate smart agricultural production, that fits with demand in the city, chains and logistics, as well as spatial planning up to the level of local neighbourhoods. Thinking in terms of food systems and integrating the knowledge that we have in all these fields is ground-breaking. This approach is unique in the world."
In the Dhaka food system project, interventions to improve the food system will be developed and tested. The new food council and local government will set the priorities. From the first meetings with stakeholders, it has emerged that food waste and waste-management is a top priority for the inhabitants of Dhaka. One intervention has already been tested: The installation of biogas installations to clean up and make use of the (food) waste that otherwise piles up in the streets.
"Based on this project, I see a lot of potential for us to contribute to the redesign of food systems elsewhere in the world," says Ravensbergen. "Climate change impact and the demand for healthy food in growing cities will demand the redesign of food systems and I anticipate that WUR can play a role in that in many more cases.". Ravensbergen believes that incorporating a City like Dhaka in this initiative could set an example for future projects.