People buying vegetables at a food market

Integrating the complexity of food systems into CGIAR research is a must. This can be done through better understanding of consumer behavior, trade-offs, the marginalized and informal markets.

CGIAR has systems thinking built into its DNA. The International Center for Tropical Agriculture, founded more than 50 years ago, initially improved crop varieties and got them to farmers. This focus on farm systems, however, missed the complexity and diversity of consumers and markets. To achieve healthy, sustainable and diverse food systems, we need to understand the interconnectedness of their many players, and how connections are formed, maintained and at risk of breaking.

This is not to say that the bedrock of CGIAR research – crop improvement, controlling pests and diseases and increasing yields – is no longer important. As climate change challenges food security – and hunger and poverty increases – this research is as urgent as ever.

The formation of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT in 2020 boosted CGIAR research to integrate all facets of food system thinking. Bioversity International brought in specialists on biodiversity, gender, and cultural norms, and a proven record on plant genetics research similar to CIAT. 

When I joined CIAT in 1999, I was part of a pioneering team focused on broad aspects of food systems. We saw that our crop commodity team, notably in cassava, integrated genebanks and genetics with post-harvest practices, processing and markets, helping create a multibillion-dollar industry in Southeast Asia. This inspired new research questions, especially on understanding consumer behavior.

Researcher shows cassava plants in a laboratory of Cassava Program of CIAT in Vietnam

A researcher inspects plants at a laboratory of the Alliance's Cassava Program in Vietnam. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/Trong Chinh

Cities matter

The majority of people live in cities now, many live close to cities, and farmers often have strong links to population centers. Unlike 50 years ago, the divide between rural and urban is now blurry. This is why much of our recent work focuses on some cities where we work, including Cali in Colombia, Nairobi in Kenya, and Hanoi in Vietnam.

In collaboration with the CGIAR Research Platform on Big Data in Agriculture and the General Statistics Office of Vietnam, we installed free Wi-Fi in food markets to conduct surveys on food flows in traditional markets. Our findings mapped the flow, availability and loss of food in these little-understood, but highly important, food sources. The project adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic and we collected real-time data on how the major shock impacted food sellers and buyers. 

In Nairobi, we joined Twiga, a produce wholesaler, and Big Data to understand how to make fresh fruits and vegetables affordable to poor consumers. The Alliance worked with Twiga  to collect data on food availability and match supply with demand. This helped lower prices during the pandemic, as newly jobless people were going hungry and dietary quality was threatened. (See the highlights section for our work in Cali.)

This work can lead to policy and partnership recommendations for vulnerable people in Nairobi. It is also contributing to food system profiles we are developing for Bangladesh, Honduras, Ethiopia and Vietnam ahead of the first UN Food Systems Summit in September.

Fresh vegetables displayed in a market

We work to understand marginalized and informal markets. Picture from Vietnam. Credit: Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT/Trong Chinh

The informal sector knowledge gap

If we want to deliver on increasingly demanding global nutrition outcomes and targets, we need to radically transform our food systems. Because of the pandemic’s major impact on poor consumers, roughly 900 million people are hungry today – a staggering increase that eroded decades of improvements in about a year.

A big blind spot is informality in both labor and food systems. Often dismissed as too complex to understand due to its perceived lack of structure, the informal sector sustains hundreds of millions. We need to better understand informality, particularly when the focus is helping the poor.

Our experiences in urban centers shows that there is still a huge gap in the understanding needed to end hunger and malnutrition. At the same time, we need to study natural resource management, trade-offs, inequality, and empowerment for the marginalized – especially for youth and women, who are major players in informal systems. We need more data too. Understanding the rural-urban continuum in food systems requires new tools, new specialists, and new partnerships that we’re only beginning to explore.

There has been a great evolution in our systems thinking, both at the Alliance and the CGIAR. But we still struggle, as researchers in general, to fully understand informal systems, which tend to be managed through social norms that are largely undocumented and have strong gender and youth dynamics. Without a multidimensional approach to studying food systems, it will be very difficult to move the needle in the direction of our desired outcomes.

View of a slum street in Nairobi

Collecting data in Nairobi on food availability during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Research Highlight

Eating your vegetables is easier said than done

The landmark EAT-Lancet report on food in the Anthropocene sets ambitious targets; putting it into action, however, will require policymakers to make sustainable food systems a top-level priority; a new article in Nature Food charts a path forward.

News release, Blog, Paper


More Research Highlights

New sustainable food policy in Cali, Colombia

An Alliance-led five-year study on food systems in Cali, Colombia led to the creation of the Food and Nutritional Security and Sovereignty policy, which aims to ensure the right to food for Cali’s inhabitants and strengthen the city-region food system. This evidence-based platform promoted the use of gender-disaggregated indicators for the formulation of Cali’s food policy to highlight the particular role of women food systems. The multistakeholder Cali “food lab” can be a model for other urban centers.

Read the book chapter here (page 55)Blog


A different kind of recipe book for nutritional underutilized crops

The Alliance published a database on underutilized crops in Brazil, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Turkey. The work includes an e-learning course in English, Portuguese and Turkish, and has nutritional information, common and local names of crops, traditional medicinal uses and links to recipes. This CGIAR innovation demonstrates the nutritional value of traditional species and provides evidence to inform policy.

Link to publication


Cacao and palm oil can be sustainable

Cacao and palm oil have a bad reputation for environmental destruction. But with the right policies and governance, these can be sustainable harvests. Informed by Alliance research, the government of Ucayali, Peru adopted strategies and policies to strengthen business models, reduce deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in these systems.

BlogReport (Spanish only)


Evidence-backed policies are needed to achieve zero hunger

In collaboration with UNICEF, Vietnam launched a Zero Hunger National Action Plan in 2018 that was informed by Alliance research and the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Health and Nutrition. This long-term commitment to improving national hunger and health through nutritious food continues to build momentum in Vietnam.

BlogFood Systems Profile


School gardens teach invaluable life-long lessons

Schools are valuable spaces where children can learn to grow food and develop life-long healthy eating habits – and improve their educational achievement. Co-authored by the Alliance’s Danny Hunter, this book assesses the role of agrobiodiversity in school gardens and provides guidelines on how to improve the uptake of school gardens.


Multimedia highlights

Hungry Cities: Inclusive food markets in Africa

An Alliance partnership with a Nairobi wholesaler helps improve access to affordable vegetables and fruit during the COVID-19 crisis.