'Radical transformation': COVID-19 shows urgency for food systems policy shifts

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A man sells fresh vegetables at a market in Abuja, Nigeria. Photo by: Milo Mitchell / ©IFPRI / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — A dramatic shift in global policy governing food systems is needed if the world is to sustainably feed a growing population during and after the COVID-19 pandemic and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, according to a new report by an independent arm of the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Opinion: Keep global food chains alive amid COVID-19 crisis

The COVID-19 outbreak has created logistical bottlenecks in food supply chains. So how can we ensure this health crisis does not turn into an avoidable food crisis? This op-ed discusses some ways to help minimize disruptions.

The Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts found that policymakers must adopt new food security and nutrition frameworks to ensure people have access to sufficient, nutritious food to eliminate hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

“We need to work towards a radical transformation of food systems as a whole. If you look in the past, a lot of reaction to past crises has been: ‘Let’s just produce more food,’” said Jennifer Clapp, a professor at the University of Waterloo and the team leader of the “Food Security and Nutrition: Building a Global Narrative Towards 2030” report. “What we’re saying is we need a transformation everywhere in food systems — from production to consumption and all places in between. And that ... sort of radical transformation has to mean doing things differently.”

The Committee on World Food Security, which is housed at FAO, created the High Level Panel of Experts 10 years ago to provide scientific data and research from a nonpolitical body. Composed of academics and researchers, the expert panel provides recommendations that are not binding and that member countries must ultimately decide whether to adopt.

In 2018, the Committee on World Food Security requested the report from the high-level panel in recognition of the fact that the world was not on track to meet the SDGs. The committee sought the research to better understand how policy needed to change to achieve success by 2030.

Four major policy shifts are needed to ensure a sustainable food system and the right to food, the report found. The first is shifting the food system from a focus on production to a focus on consumption, empowering those marginalized in the system and supporting diverse distribution efforts. There must also be recognition of the food system’s interconnectedness with other systems and sectors — such as the economy, health, and environment — to build resilience.

“That intersystem linkage is really, really important to consider,” Clapp said. “The impacts on the food system are filtering through directly from the health crisis but also indirectly through the economic fallout that is occurring because of the health crisis, and even ecosystems. The leading theory — at least right now — for the origin of COVID-19 is that it’s from wildlife sold at food markets, and this is connected to the ongoing degradation of ecosystems.”

The report also recommends policy shifts to address hunger and all forms of malnutrition, such as obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. The final policy recommendation is to make sure that solutions are context-specific, recognizing differences between rural and urban areas.

The four pillars of food security — availability, access, utilization, and stability — are no longer sufficient for a secure food system, the high-level panel found. Two additional pillars are needed: sustainability and agency, which is defined as the ability of people to engage with food systems on their own terms.

“What we’re saying is we need a transformation everywhere in food systems — from production to consumption and all places in between.”

— Jennifer Clapp, team leader, “Food Security and Nutrition: Building a Global Narrative Towards 2030”

“We’re saying we need to think of the entire food system from beginning to end, but also how food systems intersect ecological systems and human systems and health systems and energy systems, economic systems,” Clapp said. “It’s a complicated picture, but we need that nuance in order to better understand why we’re falling short.”

While the High Level Panel of Experts already had a draft of its report before COVID-19 became a pandemic, it soon became clear that the dramatic impact of the coronavirus would need to be taken into account. The expert group incorporated a separate issues paper about the pandemic into the report.

Research shows an important link between nutrition and COVID-19, as people with compromised nutrition are more vulnerable to the disease, Clapp said. It also highlights the importance of supply chains in the food system, as shutdowns of both global and local economies often made securing fresh food impossible. In some areas of the world, this led people to eat more processed food that is higher in fat and calories, she said.

“The issue with food security and food systems and COVID — it’s not that we’re lacking food, right? Past crises in 2008 and in the 1970s, there was concern there just wasn’t enough food and that’s why people were going hungry. But now it’s like massive amounts of food are being wasted, there’s disruptions in supply chains,” Clapp said. “It’s not just a production issue; it's a whole food system issue that we need more resilient food systems to weather this kind of unique crisis.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.