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The effects of food systems interventions on food security and nutrition outcomes in low- and middle-income countries

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There is a significant global focus on improving food systems to address malnutrition and food insecurity in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). However, the complicated and disorganised nature of the evidence base makes navigating it a challenge for policy makers, donors and practitioners. To address this, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie), with support from Innovative Methods and Metrics for Agriculture and Nutrition Actions, was commissioned by Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit to develop an evidence gap map (EGM) on the literature relating to food systems interventions to food security and nutrition outcomes in LMICs.  

An interdisciplinary approach was used to identify a total of 178 systematic reviews and 1,838 impact evaluations. The majority of the impact evaluations were conducted in sub-Saharan Africa (33%), South Asia (20%) and East Asia and the Pacific (17%) with over half focusing on rural areas. The most common interventions had over 100 impact evaluations each and at least 20 systematic reviews. These predominantly focused on direct food provision or targeted consumer behaviours by providing supplements, fortification, classes, peer support and counselling.  

The literature predominantly focused on randomised trials (approximately three quarters of all impact evaluations) at local and sub-national levels. Mixed methods approaches were less commonly used and interventions at national and transnational levels were lacking, despite their wide reach. There was also a lack of qualitative data to inform the context-specific impacts of interventions. Few studies conducted cost analyses which are important in understanding how to best allocate resources. Several interventions were under researched, with no impact evaluations identified for advertising regulations, food waste education programmes or food packaging. While women play a major role within food systems, limited evidence was available for interventions to support their decision-making and for those that measured outcomes related to their empowerment. The majority of studies examined either final or intermediate outcomes with only one fifth exploring outcomes along the causal chain.   

While this EGM was primarily developed as a tool to identify relevant literature, it also provided some useful recommendations for future research to fill the identified evidence gaps. For example, for widely implemented interventions, such as those related to labelling and advertising regulations and governmental price manipulations, evaluations are needed to explore their potential for negative consequences and ensure the efficient use of funds. More research into the effects of interventions on different populations should also be explored. Furthermore, qualitative research or impact evaluations that examine the intermediate steps in the theory of change, together with the final intervention outcomes, are needed to develop more effective interventions.

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The effects of food systems interventions on food security and nutrition outcomes in low- and middle-income countries. Field Exchange 65, May 2021. p100. www.ennonline.net/fex/65/3iefoodsystemsevidence

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