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COVID-19: a crisis or opportunity for food system innovation

Updated: Nov 26

The release of an e-book by the International Food Policy Research Institute regarding the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security opens the door to conversations about how this crisis will affect global food systems moving forward.

Food system innovations are emerging in Asia to reach marginalised people affected during the pandemic © UN Women Asia and the Pacific

Whether you’re watching the evening news, scrolling through social media, or having conversations with family and friends; the topic of COVID-19 is inescapable. The effects of this pandemic have been far-reaching and monumental, and every industry has seen changes they never could have predicted. Agricultural practices and food systems are no exception.

The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has recently released an e-book, entitled COVID-19 and Global Food Security. The book highlights the impact of the virus on food security worldwide, evaluates community and governmental responses to the pandemic and provides suggestions for mitigating risks to food security, especially among vulnerable populations.

The statistics in the report reflect a story we’ve all become familiar with: over 2 million people infected, 200 million workers unemployed, and up to 140 million people facing a fall into extreme poverty. Most concerning is the impact that COVID-19 is having on developing and trade-dependent nations, such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. IFPRI predicts a 20% global increase in extreme poverty, while populations in sub-Saharan Africa can be expected to suffer a 23% increase, and South Asia could face a 15% increase. That represents 80 million and 42 million people moving below the poverty line in each region, respectively.

Supply chain disruptions are having serious repercussions on food systems and access to nutritious food globally. This is especially significant in poorer regions, where labour-intensive agricultural practices mean social distancing measures are often not a feasible option and public sector programmes, like food stamps, are disrupted. Authors of the book, Johan Swinnen and John McDermott, describe the situation as “a health crisis with multiple and widespread impacts on food systems, social systems, and economic development.” Trade restrictions, supply chain breakdowns and poverty-fuelled decreases in demand for fresh produce are all highlighted as serious concerns. The Executive Director of the World Food Programme, David Beasley, goes so far as to predict “multiple famines of biblical proportions,” if action is not taken. In short, we are facing a major food crisis.

Food security solutions

Now is not a time to lose hope, though. This report highlights numerous ways in which we can protect vulnerable groups, prevent further damage to food systems, and move our world through these unprecedented times. Food system innovations are already emerging worldwide: in India, the National Informatics Centre has created a mobile app to aid producers in finding transport for their goods and, in Ethiopia, a renovated bus has become a place for urban farmers to sell directly to the local population. Furthermore, new solutions abound in urban regions across the globe. Food delivery systems in Peru, community kitchens in Sierra Leone, food vouchers in Brazil… while the need for communities to pull together is greater than ever, so is the willingness to do so.

Fortunately, efforts are not limited to local people and organisations. As of 12 June 2020, 621 new social protection measures had been introduced by governments across 173 countries. These programmes include cash transfers, in-kind food and voucher schemes and financing strategies to support small and medium-sized enterprises working within food systems. In Sri Lanka, policies have been enacted to stabilise unpredictable food prices, with action taken to set the wholesale price of vegetables.

IFPRI highlights three ways in which these innovations are critical in maintaining food security. Firstly, new programmes and strategies are securing access to nutrition for those most in need, while demonstrating that these provisions are possible, now and in the years to come. This crisis has forced governments to take action and provide for their vulnerable populations. Additionally, many of the solutions listed above show that collaboration between local communities, organisations, corporations and governments is both attainable and crucial in efforts for improved nutrition worldwide. This cooperation is becoming more established every day, and these evolving relationships will hopefully last. Finally, with such desperate necessity for food system innovations across every sector, there is no better time to attempt new things. Conventional wisdom and established practices have been reduced or rendered useless amid the ‘new normal’, so the chance to try different techniques and strive for better outcomes has arrived and that opportunity is being seized!

Innovations within the private sector and governments have demonstrated an encouraging resilience in food systems globally. Continued investments by governments and development partners could enable these innovations to grow and allow individuals and organisations at every level of the food system, to not only effectively manage this critical situation now, but continue to thrive in the years to come.

Alice Mutimer

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