Mastering the last mile to food security

By Alice Marks, @alicemarks0


IFPRI, Milo Mitchell

Is there light at the end of the tunnel for achieving food and nutrition security? According to Roberto Ridolfi, Director for Sustainable Growth and Development at the European Commission, there is not far left to go, but the journey still presents many obstacles to overcome. To him, the last mile is “the last inch between the fingers of the farmer and the seed in the soil.” On June 14th, the eve of the European Development Days, delegates congregated in Brussels at a workshop entitled Going the Last Mile: Accelerating Progress in Food Security and Nutrition. The evocative title conjured up different images for each speaker, which combine to create a path along this mile:

Step one: use the brain

For a long-distance runner, like Stineke Oenema from the United Nations Standing Committee on Nutrition, “the last mile of a marathon can be the hardest to complete”. The last mile is when the brain must be engaged to mentally, as well as physically, push towards the finish line. Similarly, now is the time to engage the knowledge of scientists, engineers, and experts in order to overcome the final barriers, such as lack of access to a varied diet or improved seeds, which allow food insecurity and malnutrition to persist.


Credit: Scott Wallace, World Bank

Indeed, in order to create sustainable agricultural growth research is desperately needed, for instance to generate improved varieties of crops. An excellent example of the impact that this can have was delivered by HarvestPlus Country Manager for Rwanda, Joseph Mulambu, who discussed their biofortified high-iron beans. Not only can a portion of the biofortified beans provide half of the daily requirement of iron, but the beans have been shown to be drought resistant, inferring an extra advantage to those who grow them. Using conventional breeding techniques, HarvestPlus scientists have contributed a crop that is nutritious and can reduce iron deficiency while at the same time improves farmer resilience to droughts, which are likely to become more severe and more frequent due to climate change. This is exactly the kind of innovation that helps the finish line come into view.

Step two: plan the route

To Bernard Rey from the European Commission, the last mile is that final winding rural road, often a dirt track that is difficult to traverse, that can create a physical hindrance to delivering technologies such as improved techniques and inputs, cell phone coverage, or electricity, to those who need it most. Talking at the event, he emphasised that “no matter what we do, we need to ensure that it reaches those people.” This will require an approach that is inclusive to even the most remote of rural communities. For example, Rwanda’s Farmer Promoter programme aims to provide training to one farmer from every village in the country at the start of each season. These farmers take the training back to their villages to share with their neighbours, each of whom can expect their incomes to rise by US$26 per year as a result – a small amount perhaps, but the reach and inclusiveness of the programme is remarkable.


Credit: IFPRI, Milo Mitchell

It will also be important to invest in infrastructure that can help to “connect the dots” and shorten the last mile, according to Brave Ndisale from the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). There are many NGO, government and private sector programmes happening all over the world that are impactful and successful. If these can be linked together and scaled up into resilient value chains then they can be mutually supportive of each other, with each link in the chain acting as either an input source or output market to its neighbours. However, lack of good roads and transport links remain barriers to moving the produce along the chain, deterring private businesses from making investments because they fear that their connection to either input sources or markets will be unreliable. Overcoming this barrier by investing in infrastructure will help to create economic growth, jobs and prosperity which will accelerate the march towards achieving food security for all.

Step three: account for adverse conditions

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Credit: IRRI

Climate change, conflict, and population growth: these themes arise repeatedly as factors that threaten to slow down progress along the last mile. A lack of investment in infrastructure may mean that the road is difficult to traverse, but if it is flooded it will become impossible to travel, and if there is conflict, perhaps the traveller won’t take the risk. A growing population could mean overcrowding and congestion, blocking the path to success by exacerbating pressure on resources that may already be diminished because of the changing climate, which will further heighten the risk of conflict. Clearly, the risk of such dangerous conditions must be reduced if the last mile is to be mastered.

If the last mile is to be achieved, resilience to these potential shocks and stresses needs to be embedded into policy. For example, the recent Montpellier Panel briefing paper, Set for Success: Climate-proofing the Malabo Declaration, highlights the urgent need for climate change, in particular, to be accounted for when developing policies for food security. As Danielle Resnick from IFPRI’s Development Strategies and Governance Division highlighted, the impact of malnourishment is insidious and can be less visible than other more acute short-term crises, such as a drought, flood or conflict. Consequently, when tough decisions need to be made about where to put funding, programs that build food and nutrition security can lose out. Therefore, improving resilience against shocks and stresses needs to be a central part of policy making if this last mile is to be travelled.

Step five: let’s go!


Credit: Niel Palmer, CIAT

Ultimately, a mile is a set length – 1,609 meters, or 5,280 feet. It isn’t a long way to go, but depending on how it’s travelled it could be quick and easy or slow and arduous. Through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the road map is laid out, but there are the additional challenges of climate change, conflict, population expansion, and existing malnutrition that can hinder progress. If we are to go the last mile and end food and nutrition insecurity despite these obstacles, let us call for governments to prioritise the use of scientific knowledge and evidence to help make better policies and investments that are effective, impactful, appropriate and scalable.


  1. Great post! As a sustainable agriculture PCV in Senegal, I see how each one of these issues effects food security in my community and throughout the country. Access is a huge issue here due to lack of infrastructure and income barriers. The last mile is a long one, but I am happy to be a part of it. Thanks for sharing!

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