19 October 2020 – The COVID-19 pandemic has made the world aware of how interconnected the food system is. Restrictions on movement have stalled the transfer of food from producers to consumers all along the food supply chain. The implications of the disruption to the food system remain vague. What we do know, however, is that we cannot afford to allow this health crisis to trigger a food crisis.
Food insecurity was a concern long before the COVID-19 pandemic, with almost 9 per cent of the world’s population reported as undernourished in 2019. The pandemic has merely made us more aware of the urgency of addressing people’s food needs. This awareness is evidenced by the increased focus on food security. For example, the African Union recently adopted the Declaration on Food Security and Nutrition During the COVID-19 Pandemic.
COVID-19 threatens people’s lives, livelihoods and ultimately, food security. However, it also offers opportunities to accelerate progress on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2, to achieve zero hunger, by reimagining a food system that is inclusive and prioritizes the availability of food for future generations. The United Nations Secretary-General’s Policy Brief on “The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition” points to several opportunities to lessen the impact of a food crisis during this pandemic. These opportunities are interlinked and speak to better data collection, building partnerships and strengthening the food system.
Data, partnerships and strengthened food systems
High-level commitments have been made to reduce hunger through agreements such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the SDGs. Progress, however, has been slow because the actions required to end hunger have not received the necessary priority; thus, the systems and institutions necessary for overcoming food insecurity and malnutrition have not been established. Similarly, gaps in data have made it challenging to understand who the food insecure are, where they live and the level of food insecurity they are experiencing. These data gaps have left many countries unable to respond effectively to the food needs of their citizens during this pandemic.
Data gaps are worsened by a lack of collaboration and coordination among food system actors. Several stakeholders, including humanitarian agencies, government, academic institutions and the private sector, collect data, but rarely are these data shared or consolidated into one central database that can be used to inform decision-making. The world is rapidly entering the fourth industrial revolution, offering opportunities to leverage information and communications technologies for improved data collection, monitoring and evaluation. Establishing partnerships and coordinating the functions of the multiple institutions involved in food security and nutrition activities are critical to mitigating a food crisis. It is also essential for avoiding duplication of efforts and resources.
Strengthening partnerships across the food system is essential to addressing the disruptions that have occurred. During this pandemic, restrictions on movement have led to significant food waste, resulting in income losses for primary producers such as farmers and fishers. At the same time, the most vulnerable—women and children—are facing hunger, potentially reversing the gains made in reducing malnutrition, particularly in children under the age of five. Improving systems that support the procurement of nutritious food from primary producers and ensuring its safe transportation from farms and delivery to the most vulnerable are critical steps in lessening the impact of a food crisis. This might include establishing infrastructure to store and transport food. Ultimately, it rests on improving the coordination and connectivity throughout the food system.
Understanding unique food systems
Reducing the impact of a food crisis will also require understanding that food systems are unique to specific contexts. For example, we have a broad understanding of the global food system, but limited information on the unique opportunities the African food system offers for averting a food crisis. The Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) project, a consortium led by the University of Pretoria, is an example of an inclusive research network that draws on partners from across several countries and continents to generate evidence to inform policy decisions for transforming the African food system. FSNet-Africa is a research excellence project funded by the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through the African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA)—United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) partnership.
The Secretary-General’s Policy Brief highlights that closing data gaps, building partnerships and strengthening the food system are vital to preventing a food crisis. This type of response, however, needs to continue even after the crisis. Millions of people have lost their sources of income. Social protection programmes, including life-saving food and cash-based assistance, are an immediate demand. Beyond those measures, however, systems need to be put in place to reverse the damage that COVID-19 has inflicted on the livelihoods of communities that were likely already facing financial constraints. This will require that national budgets are not only redirected to healthcare but that investments are also made across the entire food system.
The COVID-19 pandemic threatens global food security, but it also presents an opportunity to accelerate progress towards that objective. World Food Day is commemorated every year on 16 October. This year’s theme—“Our actions are our future”—reminds us that we need to take stock of the inroads we have made in advancing zero hunger and leverage these gains to secure our future food systems.
About the author:
Elizabeth Mkandawire is the Network and Research Manager for the Food Systems Research Network for Africa (FSNet-Africa) at the University of Pretoria.