Longread

WUR in Ethiopia: on the way to a sustainable food pyramid for all

Although malnutrition has declined in Ethiopia over the past two decades, most people don't eat healthy. This is particularly due to the unavailability of nutritious food, such as vegetables and fruits. Wageningen University & Research collaborates with Ethiopian partners to develop a Food Systems Approach. This helps policymakers to gain insight into the multiple factors and interests that are involved in the food system, meaning that public health, the environment, and a fair distribution of income are taken into account as well.

Food Systems Approach

In the run-up to the United Nations Food Systems Summit this fall, we zoom in on countries in which Wageningen University & Research applies and develops the Food Systems Approach (see end of article) in collaboration with local governments, farmers, consumers, businesses and NGOs. The previous longread was about Vietnam. This edition: Ethiopia.

The percentage of children in Ethiopia suffering from malnutrition dropped from 58 per cent to 37 per cent between 2000 and 2019. Although this is certainly an improvement, most of the population eats too little or has a very one-sided diet. This leads to shortages of energy and micronutrients, such as vitamin B12, calcium and zinc. The road to a healthier eating pattern is challenging, says Dawit Alemu, manager of the BENEFIT Partnership (Bilateral Ethiopian-Netherlands Effort for Food, Income and Trade Partnership) in Addis Ababa. This five-year programme of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs in which Wageningen University & Research and Ethiopian partners (agricultural research institutes and universities) join forces, is coming to an end this summer.

Three Ethiopias

In Ethiopia availability of healthy foods varies greatly due to the different ecosystems in the country, the seasons and cultural restrictions, Alemu explains. ‘In fact, we can speak of three Ethiopias: highlands (high rainfall), lowlands (low rainfall) and the dry nomadic pastoral areas. And it is not just the dry areas that face water shortages climate change has reduced precipitation and made it more volatile. Farmlands suffer from droughts and floods, which is detrimental to the harvest.’

In addition, Ethiopia’s infrastructure is limited, which makes (cool) transportation of fresh foods difficult. On top of that, the country has a long history of political instability, which affects the sustainable design and implementation of policies.

Changing the food system, should also create jobs and lead to environmental sustainability

Changing the current Ethiopian food system is not only about making nutritious and safe foods widely available, Alemu notes. ‘At the same time, it’s important to generate job opportunities for decent household income through on-farm, off-farm and non-farm activities. At the same time, these changes need to be environmentally sustainable.’

In order to take all these factors into account, you need a broader scope. That’s where the Food System Approach comes in, which is increasingly used by scientists and policymakers worldwide. It focuses on 1. a healthy diet for all; 2. food safety; 3. fair distribution of the costs and benefits within the food chain (including for vulnerable groups such as youths, women, small-scale farmers and sellers); and 4. sustainable protection of biodiversity.

A farmer in Tigray, Ethiopia, grows lettuce and papaya: an example of diversification in farming that can contribute to healthier diets and a better income. Photo: Dawit Alemu
A farmer in Tigray, Ethiopia, grows lettuce and papaya: an example of diversification in farming that can contribute to healthier diets and a better income. Photo: Dawit Alemu

The Ethiopian Food Pyramid

According to Inge Brouwer, associate professor of Human Nutrition and Health in Wageningen, changing the Ethiopian food system mainly requires knowledge of what a healthy local eating pattern comprises. Brouwer: ‘Such a definition considers what foods are available and affordable as well as people’s eating habits. A large portion of the Ethiopian population is Orthodox Christian and refrains from eating animal products on Wednesdays and Fridays. Moreover, there are multiple periods of fasting.”

Brouwers’ group has been working together with Ethiopian partners like the Ethiopian Public Health Institute, several ministries, NGOs, and universities on defining the Ethiopian Food Pyramid over the past few years. ‘This is completely different from that of the guidelines the Netherlands Nutrition Centre provides. After all, most Ethiopians do not have access to fresh fish, nuts and a variety of fruits. An additional problem is that even when fresh and nutritious foods are available, the population in the cities increasingly chooses unhealthy, highly-processed food, which leads to health risks such as overweight and diabetes when eaten in excess.’

The Ethiopian Food Pyramid is completely different from that of the Netherlands Nutrition Centre

The defining of the Ethiopian Food Pyramid is currently in its final stages, though this is by no means the end of the process, says Brouwer. ‘Everything is connected. You can tell consumers they should eat healthier diets, but if the nutritious foods are unavailable, or if there is no incentive to cultivate them, it won’t happen.’

Healthy diet over production

However, nutritional needs for people must be the starting point, not production, according to Brouwer. She emphasises: ‘In the past, the focus in Ethiopia was on cultivating as many calories as possible: grain to maximise the number of mouths fed. Yet this leads to a very one-sided diet and malnutrition because people simply do not get the nutrients they need.’ Variation is essential, even when it comes to vegetables: ‘Solely eating onions and tomatoes provides insufficient vitamins, especially if they are overcooked. Leafy greens such as spinach and Ethiopian kale are more nutritious.’

Landscape in Wollo, Northern Ethiopia, where farming is impossible. Photo: Dawit Alemu
Landscape in Wollo, Northern Ethiopia, where farming is impossible. Photo: Dawit Alemu

Another problem preventing the production of fresh fruits and vegetables is the practice of monocultures by large businesses and smallholder farmers in many parts of Ethiopia. They grow a single crop such as wheat or sugar cane on extensive farmlands, mostly for the international market. Alemu: ‘The Food Systems Approach aims for a sustainable production system. This requires production diversification and crop rotation, as well as refraining from intensification through additional inputs. This will simultaneously contribute to a healthier diet and enhance the income of both smallholder and upscale farmers.’

Who should make this happen? Brouwer: ‘The central government in Addis Ababa is the foundation. It is ultimately up to the government to make policy decisions. No easy task, considering all the interests involved. After all, if you want to use the limited farmlands to grow vegetables and fruits, this means you need to get other parties on board, such as the large wheat producers, not to mention the traders, market vendors, and consumers. Providing subsidies and developing a distribution system that will help distribute the fresh produce across the country can facilitate this massive task.’

Food System Approach on the national agenda

Jennie van der Mheen is the manager of International Cooperation Africa at WUR and closely follows the national discussions on the Food Systems Approach in Ethiopia. These so-called dialogues are held in preparation of the UN Food Systems Summit this autumn. The goal is to develop a roadmap through which the Sustainable Development Goals (seventeen goals designed to make the world a better place by 2030) can be achieved, Van der Mheen states. ‘The transformation of the Ethiopian agro-food system must offer advantages on several fronts, including a healthy and safe eating pattern free of salmonella and listeria, which can cause sickness and are still a major issue there achieved with less use of fossil energy sources, and an income for vulnerable groups such as small-scale farmers and the youth.’

Every step, no matter how small, takes Ethiopia in the direction of a healthier diet.

‘The transformation of the Ethiopian agro-food system must offer advantages on several fronts, including a healthy and safe eating pattern — free of salmonella and listeria, which can cause sickness and are still a major issue there — achieved with less use of fossil energy sources, and an income for vulnerable groups — such as small-scale farmers and the youth.’

All in all, quite ambitious, Van der Mheen acknowledges. ‘It is an extremely complex issue: any decision you make immediately impacts another goal. To find a balance is a prolonged process. The upcoming UN Summit provides policymakers in Ethiopia with an impulse to get serious about applying the Food Systems Approach.’ Brouwer also foresees a long road ahead, yet remains confident: ‘Every step, no matter how small, takes Ethiopia in the direction of a healthier diet.’