Making sense of food markets

My interests lie at the intersection of food policy, markets, and nutrition.  At Friedman, I am specializing in food policy and economics and looking at agricultural interventions and nutritional outcomes. This fall semester I had the privilege of putting together a directed study that allowed me to hone in on these interests Food Markets and Dietary Quality.

The overall goal of the study was to reveal what is known about how government policies and other interventions influence the structure and performance of market systems, with regard to nutrition, food security and poverty among rural and urban households in Africa and Latin America. My paper reviewed literature in agricultural economics, nutrition, and public health and to sought to understand how changes in government policy, institutions and technology in food markets influence dietary quality in low and middle-income countries (LMIC). The guiding research question was how government policies and other interventions influence the structure and performance of market systems. Market structure and performance are important for linking signals sent between producers and consumers. Government policies that change market structure and performance impact the decisions of consumers and producers and ultimately their income, nutrition, and well-being.

How do government policies and other interventions influence the structure and performance of market systems? The literature I consulted offered a range of examples of policy tools and interventions governments have at their disposal to positively or negatively affect market structure and ultimately market performance. It is evident that policy changes in food markets influence dietary quality in many ways. In LMIC policies around prices, including tariffs, transportation costs, storage practices and costs, price stabilization, and food quality impact trade, food availability, income, profits, and consumption patterns.

What can international organizations do to assist countries to add value to agricultural products through farmer training on agricultural marketing? Outcomes for society depend on the interactions between buyers and sellers, thus government policy that regulates market structure and performance, which provide the platform for those interactions, decisively impacts food markets and dietary quality.

Women hold up half the sky

This week I’m at the Micronutrient Forum’s meeting in  Mexico Positioning Women’s at the Centre of Sustainable Development. 

An array of rich information being presented. It is a multi-track style meeting which both gives lots of options but leaves one with difficult decisions about which session to attend or miss.

Two main takeaways from this meeting:

  • The keynote Gerda Verburg UN, SUN project did a great job at describing why the focus is on Women and why the absence of women-centred research in the realm of children’s nutrition has left a blind spot. She emphasized a saying the World Bank’s President Kim has grown fond of – if you measure it you can invest in it and most importantly government will invest in it.
  • Some interesting papers presented that I will track down and share on tortillas and beans interfering with iron absorption.

If there are two types of researchers, one who likes meetings and one who does not like meetings, I wouldn’t put myself in the former, but this meeting was well worth the five days away.

7 days in the field, 7 Chichewa words

One week in the books! Embarrassingly I’ve only picked up seven Chichewa words in this time. But have gained a lot of insight from visiting 14 villages in Blantyre Rural.

(Machinjiri, Malawi Photo by Gloria Guevara Alvarez)

I am traveling with four extremely talented Malawians who not only make the data collection possible but also getting through the long days with nonstop laughter. They’ve given me a Chichewa name – Pilireni, which I can actually pronounce quite well.

In Kuchombo a group of 4 to 7-year-old chatted me up, taught me my seven words and sang when I said them right. One girl was named Pilireni, so I told her that was my Chichewa name. It set off a giggle storm so I think they weren’t convinced.

In Situwadi and Jamali the EPA group introducing us to village chiefs, one of whom was a woman, shared with us a new initiative that promotes sweet potato flour. Women are taught how to use this flour in place of maize flour or how to mix the two and produce bread and other staple meal items. I’ll return after data collection to check this out!


(Kunthembwe, Malawi Photo by Gloria Guevara Guevara)

On Thursday we visited Kunthembwe. The head court official met us at the courthouse — reminiscent of ancient Greek courthouses. Shortly thereafter there was an impromptu dance party near the water pump when women stopped to say hello.

In addition to the warm reception in the villages, our survey respondent’s have been incredibly gracious with their time and confirmed the good news that the harvest was good this year. Nonetheless, households are still struggling to make ends meet and many are looking to extension services and storing technology like Purdue Improved Crop Storage (PICS) bags. Yet, many are unaware of the options available. Some of the villages visited in Blantyre Rural are but 30 minutes from the city so it is interesting how little information is reaching these areas. It will be interesting to see how villages much farther away in Nsanje fair with extension news.

Departing for Chikwawa today and looking forward to the sunny and hot 31 C temps that await!


Pre-testing, milling and sunsets


The last few days have been spent translating, training and preparing for pre-testing. Our team is almost finalized and we’ll head to the field in three days.

I even have my Kitenge ready. Courtesy of UBALE.

For the weekend, I’ve made my way up to Zomba to take in the forest and the sunsets.

But just after one hour here I’m back to thinking about aflatoxin and storage!  I started up some unofficial farmer dialogue as I bumped into a miller on a hike up to the plateau.

This station posts prices for milling maize, groundnuts and cowpeas, though the sign actually reads Soya and not cowpeas. I was told around here Soya implies cowpeas–HMM.


I did manage to hike the rest of the weekend and enjoy the sunsets I came up here for:






UBALE Malawi Gawo Lachiwiri

UBALE Malawi Gawo Lachiwiri, or Part Two

As the Spring 2017 semester ends, I am getting ready to head back to Malawi this summer AND-I-AM-DELIRIOUS! Not just great work waiting for us but a great team at CRS, and great treats – it’s papaya season!

I will follow up on last year’s work on aflatoxin control and sorting practice through fieldwork that aims to describe knowledge and practices of individual farmers regarding their household’s food supply; and will focus on storage behavior one year after the PICS bags initiative was implemented by CRS.

Research question: how does knowledge of the effectiveness of PICS bags affect storage behavior.

Of particular interest this year are storage choices of households that use hermetic PICS bags. PICS can limit mold growth and could curtail the aflatoxin contamination observed in grain stores last year.  To get at what shapes these choices, we will carry out auctions that will help reveal the willingness to pay for PICS bags. It’s the first time I will work with the Becker–DeGroot–Marschak method (BDM) and looking forward to it.

Another FPAN graduate researcher, Kate Schneider, will also be in Malawi assessing the extent of program-related and objective (factual) nutrition, health and aflatoxin knowledge and practices held by mothers in households of children under two as well as that of all the actors involved in transmitting nutrition information at each level of program implementation. More about this area of research will be available on Prof William Master’s site.

BUT before fieldwork begins we have lots of logistics and technical pieces to firm up in Boston and Blantyre.

And packing, sigh.

Must have’s for this summer’s trip:

Translation – online-use-anytime English-Chichewa dictionary

Hiking shoes – there are excellent trails not far from Blantyre but I did more sliding than hiking around the rocky waterfall areas we visited last year. Staying out of the water (it’s cold) is definitely my preference.

Fleece – while a Malawi winter is not exactly a Boston winter, it is winter enough for this Mexican-sun-powered researcher. Not sure how I missed this last year but it is the first thing I’m packing.

Two weeks before departure!!




After visiting the CIMMYT headquarters office, laboratory and fields in Texcoco last week (see post here) it seems only fitting that today I bumped into an entire exhibition dedicated to the Mexican Milpa – a traditional Mexican cropping system.

The museum of popular culture (Museo Nacional de Cultural Populares) is hosting a temporary exhibition – Mexico, the origin of the Milpa. This wonderful exhibit gives visitors a feel for the benefits of a maize-bean-squash cropping system in exchange for 14 pesos (at 21 pesos to the dollar, that is less than one dollar!). Notably, this system is complementary both in terms of inputs (maize needs nitrogen and beans produce lots of nitrogen) and nutrition (beans and rice form complimentary proteins).

My favorite part of the exhibit was the detailed charts that show the different types of maize by Mexican region and the nutritional value of each.

My personal favorite is the cacahuacintle, which I happen to have had at a neighboring market in Tepotzotlán the day before :


The breakdown of nutritional value was also available for bean varieties.

So if you find yourself in Coyoacán, yes stop by Frida’s Casa Azul but also by the Museo Nacional de Cultural Populares!

Mexico & Maize

Happy new year! I find myself in warm and sunny -unusually so- Mexico City this first week of 2017 connecting with partnering organizations on dissertation work.

Today I take a long drive outside of the city to Texcoco to CIMMYT’s headquarters.

First I sit in on Prof Keijiro Otsuka’s presentation on his new book (Otsuka, K., & Larson, D. F. (2016). In pursuit of an African green revolution: Views from rice and maize farmers’ fields. Tokyo: Springer.), which by the way is available at no cost online through university libraries. Take away – the African context is not the Asian context. This revolution must be different.

Then impromptu revelating sessions with gender and indigenous specialist at the center, Dr Badstue and Dr Camacho respectively, about hybrid seed adoption, women and indigenous communities in the South East of the country and the Yucatan Peninsula–all which will come in handy as I finalize my dissertation letter of intent.

CIMMYT has many interesting and cutting edge projects. I learn about their partnership  with MasAgro, which promotes sustainable intensification of maize, raising maize,  yields  and profitability in Mexico (including increase farmer income). Mostly this is done through promoting the use of improved seeds but also sustainable technologies and farming practices. This project definitely resonates with the line of research I’m pursuing for dissertation work so I’ll be back in May to iron out details about how to collaborate!

The center’s magazine EnlaCe offers updates on the various projects taking place all over Mexico including a lot of MasAgro focused pieces.

Before I go,  I visit their museum, an homage to maize on all walls.

IMG_9754 IMG_9755 IMG_9753

More museum pictures on CIMMYT’s Flicker account.

A big thank you to Dr Erenstein and Dr Rahut for hosting me! I look forward to spending more time at the center and working with the CIMMYT group.

Gender Bias in Africa, pro-boy or anti-girl?

This fall semester I worked on one non-maize non-Malawi or Mexico specific topic – gender bias in Africa. Robel Alemu and I looked at fraternal (dizygotic) twins where one twin is female and one twin is male, in order to examine differences in nutritional outcomes between them, which stem from gender bias.

Gender differentiation is a topic that pops up in the African context in many areas like education and agriculture (more on gender, agriculture, and maize to come!). In our work we are interested in nutritional outcomes, is there a statistically significant difference in the average anthropometric status (height-for-age (HAZ) or weight-for-age (WAZ)) of fraternal twins aged 0 to 59 months in Africa?

We used data from 1998-2014 Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS) from  30 countries to look at HAZ and WAZ. We’d have liked to look at mortality but that will come later.

What we found:

With the exception of a child’s age, other demographic and socio-economic predictors included in the model did not adequately explain the sex differential in mean HAZ. The sex differential in average HAZ was inversely correlated with a child’s age as the difference in mean HAZ between male and female twins declined by 0.05 for every additional year of a child’s age (p<0.05).

All predictors (Mother’s BMI, Mother’s education, wealth, area of residence, number of children, and age) of the individual male and female HAZ of children included in the regression model,  except area of residence (rural or urban) and number of children, were significantly associated with mean HAZ.

We find that malnutrition (stunting) increased with age among children under-five and was higher for those born from less educated mothers, with lower nutritional status (BMI) and living in a poorer household, holding all other factors constant. With low R-squared values recorded for the predictors, these factors only explain a small portion of the variability in HAZ.

Overall we found evidence of a pro girl bias with the mean HAZ for male twins significantly lower (-1.80) than that for female twins (1.61) at (P<0.05).

We are still reviewing literature that looks at biological, behavioral, pre-conception environment and other factors that may be responsible for the disparity in health outcomes among male and female children under the age of 5; and looking at  additional predictors of HAZ such as birth order, vaccinations, and birthweight, and also exploring interactions among predictors.

We are interested in understanding the determinants of sex differential in children’s health outcomes because of the essential role it plays in designing policies that will effectively address gender bias.

Looking forward to sharing our work later this semester!




Nutritional take I

When you think of nutrition what do you think of?

As a student at Friedman I spend a lot of time thinking about fields and subsistence farmers and lack of food security and how nutrition fits into this picture. I definitely summon more images of agriculture and markets than of specific vegetable and fruit intake amounts, generally speaking.

That is until now. Diane you’ve converted me!

On my trip to Malawi many dietary patterns, purchasing experiences and a nutrition course came together and now have me conjuring images of macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins and minerals.

I prefer to keep a vegan diet about 90% of the time with the exception being seafood on occasion. One of my travel partners here is a vegetarian and the other needs to keep a gluten free diet. Now, in Boston, and many many places, any of these eating patterns can easily be maintained in terms of products that fulfill the diet constraints and nutritional balance (enough protein, etc). In Blantyre it is slightly more complicated and outside of Blantyre extremely complicated.

It has been this search for food items to help keep these dietary patterns that has me thinking about our food preferences (key word preferences, since we have the choice to eliminate food sources from our diets and at times entire food groups), local diets and local choices and access to adequate nutrition.

The study of adequate nutritional intake is not new and the dilema over sufficient daily calories versus sufficient nutrient dense calories has been well documented by Friedman scholars and many others. But I have not thought about this in the context of Malawi before, so today in Blantyre what does a meal look like? and how close or far from a sufficiently nutrient dense meal is it?

Nsima, beans and pumpkin leaves is a staple in Blantyre and many places in Malawi with a slight variation found in Lilongwe and northern regions, rice, beans and pumpkin leaves.


At the market we saw pulses and some fruit and vegetables (bananas, papaya, tomatoes, various tubers) that could be added in one’s daily food consumption in addition to the sample meal I have chosen here. But who has access to purchase, how frequently and the contributions those items make to a nutritiously balanced diet will be covered in a subsequent post (that post will go into detail about crop diversification, drought that are in part behind the limited offereings).

Nsima and beans, both carbohydrates, form complimentary proteins and contribute to both one’s carbohydrate and protein daily intake. The pumpkin leaves (the pumpkin is a fruit and also a carbohydrate) carry great vitamins and minerals   (Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Calcium, and Iron). There is a bit of oil and salt in the meal that contribute a small amount to lipid intake and sodium intake. While the dish is delicious, it is largely carbohydrate based and lacks many important nutritional components (missing amino acids, monounsaturated fat, vitamins and minerals from shellfish, orange/yellow vegetables and fruits).

By pointing out the missing components I am not suggesting animal based products need to be the main food sources for obtaining the missing nutrients, in fact, in keeping a vegan diet I am well aware there are ways to source nutrients from enriched foods, complimentary foods, and supplements. However, the non animal products available in  Boston are not readily available here, and those that are my not be cost effective so I’m listing sample food sources that could be obtained generally here.

With a diet reliant on this staple meal 1 or 2 times a day (and for long periods of time) many important nutrients are missing that have health implications, for young children this means growth and development issues among other things.

Adopting the local diet has underscored to me the call from advocates and practitioners in public health, nutrition, policy and agriculture to look at food security in a holistic way that includes calories and nutrients. From the ag view, this also means drought and pest resistant crops (modified seeds) which are often misunderstood and mish-mashed with seed work Monsanto. (More to come on GE later!)

To understand this holistic dimension of dietary patterns in Blantyre we are informally talking to people around town to get a sense of how this staple meal fits in with daily consumption patterns and food diversity patters. This will provide additional insight to what we will see in the rural areas.

UPDATE: UBALE enumerators (who have been amazing) have indulged our questions and our habits! In the exchange a favorite snack of ours was shared, bananas and peanut butter, and has everyone on the protein bandwagon! Groundnuts are a very common crop here so the absence of spreading peanut butter surprised me but we are enjoying the love PB is getting and hope it sticks after we are gone.

Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices, Agricultural Inputs and Smallholders in Mexico

Is it dissertation time already?!

I have officially been working on my doctoral degree for one semester. Unofficially, I have been focused on many areas of my dissertation topic agricultural links to nutrition, smallholders and emerging economies since 2009. And today! I have received funding to carry out some of this research.

The Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología CONACYT – (The Mexican National Council for Science and Technology) has graciously funded work around Knowledge, Attitudes and Practices, Agricultural Inputs and Smallholders in Mexico.

In addition to being excited to begin this project, I am honored to be able to collaborate with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and The Population Council on this work. More to come soon on the projects at these organizations that will provide the foundation for the formative research to be conducted.

Here is where I am now with this project and some background information about where I plan to go with this topic:

Current Stage

Formative Research

Through formative research including collaborations with organizations based in Mexico, the research question, hypotheses and aims will be further defined. I will work closely with the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and The Population Council and the work of these organization will inform this research. I am also formalizing collaborations with the Instituto Nacional de Salud Pública (INSP) and International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

These organizations were chosen based on their expertise in one or more of the aims outlined above and/or their work on important development indicators to this thesis:

  1. Agriculture – 85% of corn produced in Mexico came from smallholders in 2015 (Red en Defensa del Maiz); and 50% of farms are small farms (FAO 2015).
  2. Nutrition – 13.6% stunting prevalence for children under the age of 5 (World Bank 2012)
  3. Food security – 53.2% of the population at or below the national poverty line (World Bank 2012); 5% of the population is under nourished (FAO 2012); 15 million indigenous people, 77% of whom are under the poverty line (CONEVAL 2012)


Thesis research area of focus

Agriculture, food systems and nutrition, with an emphasis on vulnerable populations (indigenous peoples, women, subsistence farmers) in Mexico.

Establishing research question and methodology

The Food Policy and Applied Nutrition (FPAN) coursework I am pursuing, concentrates on food policy and economics. My coursework includes Economics for Food Policy Analysis, Agriculture Science Policy, and both qualitative and quantitative analysis courses. This work is helping me hone in on the skills necessary to address the three key areas of this thesis: agriculture, food security, and nutrition. In particular, the FPAN specialization in food policy and economics, allows me to view issues like agricultural inputs and technology, and nutritional outcomes through an economic lens.

The FPAN coursework offers exposure to several areas of the literature pertinent for this thesis. In the letter of intent I will further define the specific area of the literature on which I will focus and the calls for follow up studies in the research areas of this thesis. At this stage literature consulted includes the agriculture to nutrition literature under the FAO, WHO, and UNICEF. Main ideas in this literature area include:

  • Growing more food and its relationship to food security
  • Eating more calories and its relationship to better nutrition
  • Agricultural and/or micro nutrient interventions and their relationship to improved nutrition
  • Dietary intake and disease
  • Nutrition outcomes from agriculture


Conceptual pathway

As I explore the links between agriculture and nutrition, I am focusing on pathways that treat agriculture as a vehicle to improved nutrition and that look at how agriculture can directly and/or indirectly impact health. At this formative stage I am using IFPRI’s[1] pathway from agriculture to nutrition that include agriculture, food and health. 

Preliminary hypothesis and aims

Testable hypotheses

  1. Appropriate knowledge of agricultural inputs/technology, local adoption of practices, and benefits to economic and health wellbeing can be achieved with agriculture extension interventions.


  • Explore agricultural inputs used by smallholders with different crops and how use of inputs varies by crop and the role of agricultural extension in the selection of inputs
  • Examine food security of smallholders in relation to their agricultural technology choices and productivity/production/output
  • Examine relationships between use of agricultural inputs, agricultural outputs, food security and whether these are affected by gender


  1. Appropriate knowledge of differences among inputs and benefits can achieve an increased presence and use of (local Mexican) hybrid seeds


  • Explore how the relationships in hypothesis 1 are affected by the choice to use local Mexican hybrid (improved) seed varieties as opposed to using imported hybrids on the one hand, or local unimproved seed varieties on the other.


This research in Mexico will have broader implications for other countries interested in the impact and pathways for agricultural extension to improve production and food security.