Why We Need Sustainable Food Systems in a Post-COVID-19 World
Heard of food systems? It’s about the governance and economics of food production, how this affects our natural resource use, as well as how food impacts each of us and our community as a whole.
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, food systems are at the crossroads of human well-being, economic development, and environmental state. Empty shelves in supermarkets of cities can be frightening. Not just in cities, rural areas also have experienced empty fields and barns or loss of perishable produce and accumulation of non-perishable produce.
On top of that, the world economy is exposed to health and financial shocks as climate changes and global population grow. On a recent World Food Day, the call was clearer than ever: we must improve the current food systems to drive economic growth sustainably and save the Earth from environmental collapse. Therefore, we need sustainable food systems.
The unhealthy state of food systems
There is evidence that food supply chains falter in the face of external shocks. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program anticipate that a ‘hunger pandemic’ may soon top the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down more than half the world in just a few weeks. More crises of the same or increased scale may happen again. Unfortunately, it is the poor and vulnerable who are affected the most. According to the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, in 2018, approximately 820 million people went to bed hungry. A third lacked essential nutrients.
What’s more, up to a third of the food we produced was wasted. Today, malnourished people around the world are suffering disproportionately the consequences of the virus. The human toll comes with huge economic costs, including lost incomes and the rise of unemployment rates.
The constraints of food systems go beyond failing to feed the world well. The way the world produces and consumes food has a direct impact on our health and the environment. For example, countries highly vulnerable to hunger have not shown remarkable change over the past many years due to the poor nutritional composition of the food supply.
Also, natural resource degradation causes a quarter of all human-made greenhouse gas emissions. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, industrial animal farming operations that rear animals in confined spaces breed lethal viruses like the H1N1 pandemic, also known as the 2009 swine flu.
Food systems in transition?
The climate crisis is already having an inevitable impact on food security and food systems around the globe. Agriculture is vulnerable to changes in agroclimatic zones and extreme weather events—such as droughts or floods—destroying crops and undermining the well-being of entire regions and countries. Avoiding further climate disasters requires fundamental changes in the ways we obtain our food.
However, shifts/changes should lead to climate resilience for ensuring the right to food for all and addressing the pre-existing inequalities rather than deepening them. This means understanding and executing ‘principles of just transition’ in the food systems – not only in terms of the outcomes but in processes and ways of thinking.
How does just transition in food systems work?
First, it should begin at the community level. In other words, it should ensure the inclusion of people directly involved in food production, such as farmers and agricultural workers in SMEs and those involved in industrial agriculture.
Second, the experiences and needs should be the basis for shaping a strategy for change through strong connections between vulnerable groups and policymakers, financial institutions, and supply chain businesses like retail corporations.
By doing the above, we may be able to challenge the ‘get big or get out’ logic that dominates food production. Let’s face it: for many, the only way to get fair income is to produce on a large scale, using chemicals and purchasing seeds from large corporations. Large agricultural complexes are replacing smallholder farmers.
Also, there is limited political space for farmers’ voices in the conversation at the level of political and economic changes. This is especially true for women farmers, who are even more at risk of not having their voices heard.
Industrial agriculture causes significant damage to the environment and is one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases (GHGs), especially when all processes and necessary resources are considered. Nature-based solutions, such as the shift to agroecology, moving towards healthier (e.g. ‘less but better’ meat) diets, more efficient and sustainable supply chains, and food waste reduction, as well as changes in mindsets on the consumers’ side, are significant. They are a crucial part of transformations required to allow food systems to work with the environment and not against it, for the people and not against them.
To this end, promoting agroecology is a priority for many development organizations, including Helvetas. This is how we can ensure that agriculture does not harm the environment and biodiversity and ceases to be a source of global threat - climate change.
Implications for our work
Helvetas is partnering with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) to facilitate an inclusive economic development program, RECONOMY, in 12 countries in Eastern Europe, South Caucuses, and the Western Balkans. The majority of countries that we work in have seen positive changes in agricultural development associated with their reforms during the transition period. However, the efforts to set up proper food systems especially in the face of COVID-19 shock are not sufficient.
The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to transform food systems and make them resilient to external shocks. This also means ensuring environmental sustainability. Farming methods differ from region to region.
While industrial farming methods are quite widely used in Eastern Europe, agriculture is less industrialized in South Caucasus. Farmers do not apply for pesticides and herbicides for production as simply cannot afford it compared to bigger producers. This creates the preconditions for simpler and more natural integration of nature-based solutions (e.g. agroecology) into existing practices and can have an impact on a significant part of the region's population.
For instance, in Georgia, 39% of all employees work in the agriculture sector, most of whom work in their small farms. Respectively, about 75% of those who work in agriculture are self-employed, while the share of agriculture in the GDP is around 8%.
An important factor for the region is also the European Green Deal and its impact on the economies of neighboring countries, including supply chains. ‘From Farm to Fork’ strategy is an integral part of the EU Green Deal: it addresses the challenges of sustainable food systems and recognizes the inextricable links between healthy people, healthy societies, and a healthy planet.
The EU is one of the largest importers of food. Access to European markets is an important stimulus for the economic development of the Eastern Partnership countries and the Western Balkans. The EU is interested in ensuring that the production of imported goods does not harm society and the environment in exporting countries.
Therefore, following the strategy, ‘efforts to tighten sustainability requirements in the EU food system should be accompanied by policies that help raise standards globally, to avoid the externalization and export of unsustainable practices.’ These measures will undoubtedly change the status quo in agriculture in the region and will stimulate positive changes and new opportunities. We need to support this process and ensure that the interests of vulnerable groups are considered in this transformation.
Promoting sustainable farming, facilitating market access, and leveling the regulatory playing field for smallholder, sustainable producers is imperative for inclusive economic development. This way we can improve the well-being of people and use land efficiently, and slash carbon emissions. This, in turn, can reduce healthcare costs, reduce inequality, and help us weather the next pandemic.