Food Systems Decision Support tool

Food and nutrition security is an important policy objective in low- and middle-income countries. For policymakers, businesses, farmers and other important actors in the food system, a variety of complex factors are at work, all of which have an influence on the achievement of that objective. These factors play out at different levels, from the macro economy and national policy down to local-level actors with, at times, conflicting interests. Certain risks and barriers can arise out of this, which in turn can prevent policy interventions from achieving their objectives.

Over the past few years, food systems have become more central in the discourse around food and nutrition security. This had shifted the focus from improving farmer productivity to more attention for consumer demand, the importance of nutrition in achieving positive health outcomes, and the relationship between agriculture and the environment. However, the growing number of scientific analyses of food system dynamics did not yet translate into effective policy interventions that contribute to better food and nutrition security. The Food System Decision Support tool, developed by Wageningen Economic Research and KIT Royal Tropical Institute, aims to turn those scientific food systems insights into practical recommendations for food and nutrition security policy.

The Food system design tool is a step-by-step approach to translating insights in food systems into practical policy solutions.
Just Dengerink, Food systems decision support tool expert

The 7 steps of the Food System Decision Support tool

1. Identify policy objectives for food and nutrition security

The first step is to map out the policymaker's tasks and objectives in order to determine the scope of the food system analysis.  

This determines the focus of the food system analysis and therefore the geographical and/or functional boundaries of the system.

  • Result: definition of the geographical and/or functional boundaries of the relevant food system

2. Map the food system

In this step, information is collected about the key activities within the food system. There’s also an examination of the drivers of the food system and how the system influences the environment and society.

This framework results in a checklist of subjects to address. There’s an examination of the weaknesses of the food system. This step also identifies any factors that hinder the achievement of food and nutrition security.

  • Result: an overview of indicators for food and nutrition security, activities within the food system, drivers, trends and interactions

3. Draw causal processes

In this step, causal diagrams are used to map the key relationships between the various elements of the food system.

The diagrams are drawn with the help of experts and stakeholders, or are based on advanced modelling methods such as a causal loop diagrams, agent-based modelling and cognitive mapping.

The diagrams reveal where particular factors exert their influence, and whether changing one factor leads to changes in another.

  • Result: an insight into the underlying causes of food system processes, and their influence on food and nutrition security.

4. Label system behaviour

If food systems are to contribute to better outcomes, any problematic system behaviour needs to be identified.

The key types of system behaviour – known as archetypes – are a useful tool for determining which feedback mechanisms are causing systemic problems within a food system.

Understanding that dynamic will shed light on the actions needed to change the system.

  • Result: an insight into the system behaviour that sustains a particular problem related to food and nutrition security

5. Identify leverage points

Once it's clear which feedback mechanisms play a part in sustaining problematic systemic behaviour, leverage points can be identified in order to change the system.

A leverage point is a place in a system where a small adjustment to a single factor or process can trigger significant changes in the food system. This can relate to improvements in information flow, strengthening or weakening certain feedback loops, or introducing new stimuli to influence the behaviour of system actors.

  • Result: an insight into leverage points for targeted attempts to change the system

6. Define spheres of influence

We don’t yet know enough about the behaviour of key system actors to confirm specific points of action. To establish good policy and appropriate programmes related to food and nutrition security, we need to understand the dynamics of the power and influence of key actors.

A stakeholder analysis provides insights into the interests, tasks, relationships and power of different actors. To start with, we need clarity on the stakeholders’ positions on the playing field, and on who is able to carry out specific interventions.

With that understanding, we can establish strategies for involving different actors, to clarify the sphere of influence for the policymaker or implementing actor.

  • Result: an insight into the spheres of influence of different key actors in order to implement specific interventions

7. Develop a food and nutrition security programme strategy

The final step links together policy objectives, leverage points, spheres of influence and policy instruments to create a set of recommendations for improving food and nutrition security.

Possible interventions are formulated for leverage points that lie within the policy objectives and sphere of influence of the policymaker or implementing actor.

The recommendations also prioritise the intervention options, taking into account any anticipated short- and long-term system changes.

  • Result: prioritisation of strategic interventions for large-scale improvements to food and nutrition security