By USP2030 Working Group on Social Protection and Food Systems Transformation

Sep 13, 2022

Food systems are under strain. One-tenth of the world’s population is undernourished and food needs are expected to nearly double by 2050 (Bendjebbar et al. 2019; WHO 2021). Africa and South Asia could experience a decrease in mean grain yields by up to 17 percent over the same period, which will further increase the level of hungry and poor people. Simultaneously, longer working hours, the increased availability and low cost of energy-dense foods, and urbanisation have driven demand for convenient and ultra-processed foods, while the availability and affordability of diverse, fresh, and nutrient-rich foods within food systems is much too low to provide healthy, nutritious diets for everyone.

Global trends have signalled the emergence of a triple burden of malnutrition: undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, and overweight/obesity. Global estimates suggest that 149 million children aged under 5 still suffer from stunting and almost 50 million from wasting; 340 million children suffer from the hidden hunger of deficiencies of vitamins and minerals; and rates of overweight are rising rapidly (UNICEF 2019).  Unhealthy diets and malnutrition are also major drivers of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), the main cause of global mortality. Furthermore, while agriculture accounts for four percent of global GDP, workers in the sector represent 65 percent of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (Castañeda et al. 2016; World Bank 2018). Food systems, the actors, and processes from farm to fork, therefore need to promote healthy, nutritious diets, enhance livelihood opportunities, and support environmental sustainability. The USP2030 working group on Social Protection and Food Systems Transformation aims to reach these goals by promoting links between food and social protection systems.

World crises are further burdening the food system. The COVID-19 pandemic led to spikes in demand from panic-buying, protectionist bans on grain exports, restrictions on movement, and interruptions in food supply chains (Echeverria 2020). Food systems are also contributing to, and will be affected by, future climate crises. Agriculture produces up to 35 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (FAO 2021). In turn, GHG emissions exacerbate climate change, which increases the risk of extreme weather effects, soil erosion, pests, disease, and livestock heat stress. Furthermore, the war in Ukraine has disrupted food systems as both Ukraine and Russia are major producers of wheat and fertiliser, while Russia is a major supplier of gas (needed for many agricultural processes) using some pipelines that run through Ukraine (Harvey 2022).  The crises have meant that food prices have reached a record high, jeopardising the availability of and access to nutritious foods (Reuters 2022).

Moreover, the world is also confronting human rights emergencies caused by conflicts – pushing already vulnerable households and communities to the brink. Food systems and social protection systems should be scaled-up across humanitarian-development contexts to fulfil their critical role in responding to immediate needs, addressing chronic vulnerabilities, and building resilient and peace.

We need sustainable food systems. A sustainable food system meets current global food security and nutrition (FSN) needs while guaranteeing positive future FSN outcomes (FAO 2018). We need these systems to protect people’s livelihoods. We need these systems to ensure no one is hungry or malnourished. We need these systems to protect our environment.

Social protection has the potential to support various critical elements of a sustainable food system and reduce inequalities.

First, social protection can support the economic sustainability of food systems by enhancing the productivity of farmers, increasing investments to help families diversify their livelihoods, and catalysing multiplier effects in local rural economies. For example, an unconditional cash transfer as part of Zambia’s flagship Child Grant Program allows smallholder farmers to overcome transaction costs (i.e. the cost of selling their crops) and increase their market participation by both buying more inputs (such as seeds and fertiliser) and selling more outputs (i.e. their crops) (Prifti et al. 2020).

Second, social protection can also improve the social impact of food systems by improving FSN outcomes, which in turn help address poverty and vulnerabilities in the long run. Evidence shows that cash transfers contribute to increase food security among families and integrated approaches which improve diets, practices, and services could lead to better nutrition outcomes (WFP 2021; UNICEF 2020; UNICEF 2019). For example, the Indian Public Distribution system provides food subsidies and increases the diversity of people’s diets (Shrinivas et al. 2018). Furthermore, the expansion of a programme which provided digital vouchers for nutritious foods in Ethiopia more than doubled the percentage of children who met minimum dietary diversity criteria despite the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic (WFP 2021).



Third, social protection may also improve the environmental sustainability of food systems by supporting resilience-building and adaption to climate change uncertainty. For example, World Food Programme-led Food for Assets programmes in Kenya enabled local communities to manage the 2011 drought (WFP 2013). Constructing water pans and wells maintained access to water and reduced women’s walking distances from 30km to 5km in Mandera, which freed up time for other productive activities to manage the uncertainties of drought.

Similarly, sustainable food systems are vital to achieve social protection’s goals of meeting people’s needs, managing risks, and tackling various and often intersecting inequalities. When people cannot meet their FSN needs through food systems, they experience macro- and micro-nutrient deficiencies, which adversely affects their physical and cognitive development (Siddiqui et al. 2020). This reduction of human capital affects people’s ability to meet other essential needs, manage risks and shocks throughout their lives, and exacerbates inequalities by entrenching intergenerational disparities.

The interdependence of food system and social protection goals and outcomes therefore necessitates a systems approach. International and national coalitions are needed to link together social protection and food systems to improve diets, nutrition, health, and livelihoods. This approach is necessarily multi-sectoral, bringing together different actors across and beyond WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene), health, education, social protection, and food systems to foster complementarities and synergies (UNICEF 2020).

These multi-sectoral coalitions would strengthen five essential building blocks of national social protection systems: policy and legislation; governance, capacity, and coordination; delivery platforms and infrastructure; planning and financing; and evidence generation and dissemination. The coalitions and linkages between social protection and food systems will safeguard, promote, and transform lives and livelihoods as depicted in Figure 1.


Figure 1 – Leveraging social protection for poverty reduction, food security and decent work.
Source: USP2030 Working Group on social Protection and Food Systems Transformation, 2021


A key pathway to forging this systems approach is through the progressive realisation of universal social protection: ‘a nationally defined system of policies and programmes that provide equitable access to all people and protect them throughout their lives against poverty and risks to their livelihoods and well-being’ (USP 2030 2021). Concretely, this realisation means enhancing the coverage, adequacy, comprehensiveness, quality, and responsiveness of social protection systems, as reflected in Figure 2.

Improving coverage extends social protection to those not previously covered. Improving adequacy increases the level of protection these systems provide. Improving comprehensiveness ensures that people are protected against all life cycle risks and links social protection benefits to other essential sectors and services. Improving quality ensures that social protection maintains the representation, participation, and dignity of all people. Improving responsiveness develops the capacity of systems to respond to people’s changing needs, risks, and vulnerabilities.

Figure 2 – Five dimensions of progress towards universal social protection.
Source: USP2030 Working Group on social Protection and Food Systems Transformation, 2021.


Together, these five dimensions of progress are valuable in themselves to improve social inclusion, people’s livelihoods, guarantee equity, and improve the durability and sustainability of social protection systems. Enhancing social protection is also a powerful tool to foster linkages with food systems and improve FSN outcomes. Inclusive social protection systems can prioritise those who are least able to meet their FSN needs. Adequate social protection can ensure that transfers enable people to afford a healthy, nutritious diet. Comprehensive social protection can link to health and education services to improve people’s utilisation of food, fill any nutrient gaps that remain, and prioritise those who are most vulnerable to the remaining nutrient intake gap to further promote FSN outcomes. Quality social protection can implement feedback and accountability mechanisms to continuously improve social protection’s ability to improve FSN outcomes. Responsive social protection can agilely meet people’s changing FSN needs in times of crisis. Inclusive, adequate, comprehensive, quality, and responsive universal social protection can revitalise food systems and bring transformative change well beyond poverty reduction alone.

Fostering links between social protection and food systems creates opportunities, complementarities, and synergies. However, these links are neither intrinsic nor given. Farmers might be concerned about the lack of demand for nutritious foods. Benefits might be insufficient to meet FSN needs. Processed and unhealthy foods and drinks are cheaper than healthy foods and more readily available. Also, people’s FSN outcomes might not improve even if social protection benefits allow them to buy more nutritious food if food preparation or storage practices increase disease risks. The systems-building coalition to link social protection systems with food systems needs to deliberately and purposefully help farmers manage the risk of growing nutritious foods, support the food supply chain to encourage healthy food choices and food fortification, and integrate multi-sectoral initiatives with high quality social change programmes to guarantee positive FSN outcomes.

Nationally led and domestically financed universal social protection systems which offer adequate protection throughout people’s life cycles can foster vital links to sustainable food systems. Working towards a multi-sectoral coalition is important because everyone has the right to social security and adequate food, and both ‘No Poverty’ and ‘Zero Hunger’ are mutually reinforcing goals within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (United Nations Economic and Social Council 1999, 2008, 2015). The realization of one right can help realize the other and advance the sustainable development agenda: ensuring healthy, nutritious diets will improve human capital, while promoting sustainable and resilient livelihoods will improve people’s capabilities to improve FSN outcomes. While challenges remain, the USP2030 working group on Social Protection and Food Systems Transformation endeavours to overcome these barriers by expanding the evidence base, capitalising on advances made during the COVID-19 response, and co-ordinating with other national and global coalitions to energise the linkages between national social protection and food systems.


This is the fifth blog post in the USP2030 blog series. It was first published on 22 March 2022 on