It is time for a new normal for resilience of food systems

Excerpts from World Food Prize Foundation’s Digital Dialogue

Strong international coordination for trade of food grains, nutrition for vulnerable groups (young children, pregnant women), and greater support to smallholder farmers will be key factors to overcome the worldwide crisis brought on by the current COVID-19 pandemic. These were some of the viewpoints by four experts in global food systems in an online discussion hosted by the World Food Prize Foundation.

The expert panel included Dr David Nabarro, Special Envoy of WHO Director General on COVID-19 and 2018 World Food Prize Laureate; Dr Catherine Bertini, Distinguished Fellow, Chicago Council on Global Affairs and 2003 World Food Prize Laureate; and Dr Shenggen Fan, Chair Professor, China Agricultural University, World Food Prize Foundation Council of Advisors. The Dialogue, centered around disruptions by the COVID-19 pandemic and their solutions, was moderated by Dr Barbara Stinson, President, World Food Prize Foundation.

We bring you excerpts of some of the main points of the conversation.

Dr Stinson: What are the biggest threats to food systems right now?

Dr Nabarro: The current restrictions on movement are seriously impeding food production and distribution, leading to increased food and nutrition insecurity. To deal with this we need international coordination, otherwise the resilience of food systems will be severely undermined.

Dr Fan: This is the biggest crisis to food systems that I’ve seen in my 37 years of work. According to some UN estimates, the number of poor and hungry people in the world could double in 2020. Spring planting of crops has to be ensured to prevent the entire year’s food production from being jeopardized.

Dr Stinson: What are the immediate actions we should take?

Dr Bertini: The first 1000 days of a child are very important for her lifelong health and wellbeing. We need to, therefore, focus on providing nutrition to pregnant women and young children on an urgent basis. Manufacture and distribution of food for these sections should be taken care of immediately. Also, several women are having to take on extra burdens of home care, child care and professional work as essential service providers. We need to ensure the safety and wellbeing of women, specifically.

Dr Fan: Cooperation across all levels of governance – international, national, provincial/state, and community – is needed right now. We all have to work together in this as this is everyone’s responsibility.

Dr Nabarro: The effect of this outbreak will last for the next 2-3 years. So first, we need to focus on the vulnerable sections – daily wagers, women and children, differently abled people – who are particularly at greater risk at such a time. Smallholder farmers need support to reach local markets. We need to figure out imaginative solutions based on scientific evidence.

Dr Stinson: What could the rest of the world learn from China’s experience to deal with the key challenges in food systems due to COVID-19?

Dr Fan: Firstly, there should be no bans on any food exports by any nation; global trade should be allowed to continue – global institutions and coalitions of nations should ensure this. Secondly, every country should have two months’ supply of food as strategic reserves, in view of future emergencies or disasters. Also, scientific evidence in the form of data is very essential and useful. Researchers should come together to collect and analyze event-related data.

Dr Bertini: Food assistance is not just about food distribution anymore; there are food vouchers etc. now, which are better options, provided there IS available food. So we need to look at building capacities to make food available to those who most need it… maybe create local opportunities to access food and supply it to where it’s needed.

Dr Stinson: What are the critical weak points exposed by the virus outbreak and what opportunities can arise out of this crisis?

Dr Nabarro: This is the time for world leaders to reach out and reassure global communities with messages of hope, support and assistance. Solidarity between nations is very critical at this time.

Dr Fan: Eastern Africa was already under threat by desert locusts destroying standing crops worth millions. COVID-19 will add to their food supply challenges. This is the time when international aid needs to focus on this region specifically.

Dr Bertini: Every individual and community need to check with their surroundings and work out opportunities to contribute. Apart from food, there are ways to help out with medical supplies, transport facilities, logistics etc.

Audience question: What is your vision for a ‘new normal’ for the future, once the pandemic is under control?

Dr Bertini: Going forward, I’d like to see a greater connection between farmers and consumers, so that consumers understand better what, when and how farmers produce food; and farmers could understand their (potential) market needs.

Dr Fan: Trade will become more inclusive and resilient. Also, we should hope to find a better balance between our food needs and nature, ensuring proper regulation in food supply systems to monitor food safety, especially in wild foods.

Dr Nabarro: Ensuring health and wellbeing is the primary purpose of food systems. Smallholder farmers are at the heart of the food systems, and their resilience is very important. We need to ensure that farmers are at the hub of food systems of the future.

We also need to find ways to reduce agriculture- and livestock-related emissions in order to reduce their impact on climate change.

In conclusion, the panelists agreed that a deep rethinking on the idea of food systems was the need of the hour, particularly keeping farmers, women and nature in mind. Dr Nabarro added that since women leaders have shown exceptional direction in handling this crisis, any redesign of food systems should feature women in the center of it.

The Digital Dialogue was held on 16 April 10 am ET.  Over 600 people including, scientists, analysts, policy makers, students, medical professionals and academicians joined the Dialogue from remote locations virtually.

About the author:

Rajani Kumar
Sr Communication Officer, ICRISAT

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