Impact of the pandemic on food sustainability

Published : 27 Jul 2021 08:59 PM | Updated : 28 Jul 2021 01:00 AM

On 29 June this year,  the Group of 20 (G20) Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Inter­national Cooperation met in Matera, Italy. Their discussion revolved around the topic of food sustainability and its ongoing impacts under COVID-19.

Assistant Director General Mario Lubetkin of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) while noting advances made in Europe, the United States and some other countries in reducing the dramatic impact of COVID-19 in key sectors of the economy and population has also pointed out that this has not happened in some parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East where the devastating effects of the pandemic appear to be continuing to severely affect their socio-economic sectors. One sector in particular, the food and agriculture sector continues to suffer from its deep impact.

The FAO, after intensive research has suggested that over 100 million more people could fall into hunger because of COVID-19, further increasing the existing current figure of 690 million hungry people. This has led the FAO to suggest that all of the members of this institution need to identify ways and means to address the potential worsening of poverty and hunger due to the effects of the pandemic.

It may be recalled that in 2015, it was decided that 17 Sustainable Development Goals need to be met by 2030. Two of these goals were aimed at eliminating poverty and hunger. However many countries now realize that if action is not agreed upon and then implemented by everyone for recovering from the effects of the pandemic, many of us risk not being able to reach our goals by that time. As such the FAO has underlined that a coalition with a common vision consisting of different public and private actors need to take into account the aspects of food sustainability, health, the environment and the economy.

Mario Lubetkin has correctly pointed out that we need to work towards getting out of the current risky and fragmented reality. This will need protection of biodiversity, promotion initiatives of young people and women in rural areas, avoiding food loss (that continues to exceed 14 percent of what is being produced), and generating new food sustainability scenarios, among many other aspects.

Analysts consequently believe that currently, more than before, time has come to join forces, analyze the complexity of the situation, and identify experiences that have had tangible and positive results throughout this period. In this context, one also needs to refer to what Pope Francis has recently suggested- that it is necessary to “redesign an economy suitable for men, which is not limited to profit but connected” to the common good, an ethics-friendly economy, respectful of the environment.

Analysts like Katarzyna Dembska associated with environmental economics generally agree that “land-use change, land-use intensification and climate change have contributed to desertification and land degradation”. At the same time, it is usually felt that “many land-related responses that contribute to climate change adaptation and mitigation can also combat desertification and land degradation, as well as enhance food security”. Examples in this regard include “sustainable food production, improved and sustainable forest management, soil organic carbon management, ecosystem conservation and land restoration, reduced deforestation and degradation, and reduced food loss and waste”. 

Several institutions associated with food and agriculture – like the WFP and the IFAD- also believe that integrated crop and livestock systems are an example of sustainable food production that increases efficiency and environmental sustainability with a truly circular approach. As an example of this belief, they uphold the fact that manure increases crop production and crop residues and by-products feed animals, improving their productivity. In this context, rice-fish integrated systems, as practiced in some Asian countries- both in South Asia and in the Far East, are examples of how such integrated systems work and can contribute to increased food security. Sustainable land management practices consequently lead to a possible a zero-expansion policy which does not require land-use change, especially of new agricultural land.

At this juncture one also needs to refer to another dimension- the linkage between diets and climate change. Marta Antonelli, another expert of agriculture and food related systems, has also made some interesting observations. Attention has been drawn to the fact that “food systems, from farm to fork to disposal, account for 21-37 percent of anthropogenic GHG emissions and the adoption of plant-based healthy and sustainable diets is a powerful leverage for climate change mitigation, as well as to promote health, longevity and wellbeing”.  Vegetables, fruits and whole grains apparently need to be eaten daily and legumes and fish should be the preferred sources of protein. In this context, after the worldwide spread of the Pandemic, physicians are suggesting that these facts should be spread by establishing compulsory food education in schools; including sustainability concerns. In that case, such dietary guidelines will, in all likelihood, ensure an enabling food environment that will make it easier for all of us  to adopt healthy and sustainable diets.

Marta Antonelli, as part of the much discussed matrix, has also drawn attention to ‘The Farm to Fork Strategy’ that was introduced by the European Commission in May 2020. This was an attempt aimed at creating a more integrated food strategy within the European Union (EU). It presented for the first time a comprehensive approach covering every step in the food supply chain in Europe. It also recognized the large contribution that food system transformation might provide to achieve the decarburization target set forth by the European Green Deal which seeks to address both environmental and public health concerns. This was done in a way that there would be inter-active involvement of farmers, manufacturers, retailers and consumers. It was expected that such a process might act as a game-changer in the EU.

It would be pertinent at this point to remember that the global community is trying to prepare itself for the upcoming 2021 UN Food Systems Summit that will be convened in September, 2021. It is understood that the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) will try to specially focus on reporting standards pertaining to agriculture, aquaculture, and fishing because these sectors provide not only basic and essential societal needs: food, but also raw materials, such as fibers and fuels.

Monitoring the evolving dynamics of this paradigm will hopefully deliver necessary disclosures regarding biodiversity and natural resources, measures to mitigate climate change, as well as how to adapt farming and fishing practices in ways that minimizes their negative impacts. The United Nations believes that this approach will ensure access to safe and nutritious food for all; shifting to sustainable consumption patterns; boosting nature-positive production; advancing equitable livelihoods; and building resilience to vulnerabilities, shocks, and stress.

Socio-agro-economists are hoping that introduction of some of these factors if carried out with care and accountability and in a transparent manner will definitely ease the facilitation process. They are reminding us that there might be variance with regard to approaches undertaken in different parts of the world. However, the United Nations and its institutions- the FAO, the WFP and IFAD will need to work together for expanding global fusion in the required approach.

We have to remember some elementary aspects. All of us need to understand that food security recognizes the sectors’ central role in food production. This should guide organizations towards describing commitments to ensure that their operations contribute not only to stability of food supply and access to food but also how they work with other organizations. Similarly, land and resource rights will need to ensure that companies report how they respect individuals’ and communities’ land rights including those of indigenous people. However, at the same time care has to be taken to prepare soil health guides and monitoring reports about soil management plans and the application of fertilizers. There will also be need to focus on pesticides use and how relevant organizations are managing the use of chemical or biological substances for controlling pests or regulating plant growth.

In addition, in the recovery time ahead of us, the pertinent authorities should address the approach to animal health planning and use of welfare certification schemes or audits, as well as disclosing the use of any medicinal or hormone treatments. These are all important elements.

Lastly, the changing matrix will also need to carefully address whether companies are providing workers and producers -supplying to them- with adequate funds so that they can have a decent standard of living and a proper living wage.

Before concluding, it needs to be pointed out that perhaps more than any other sector, agriculture, aquaculture, and fishing organizations have wide-ranging impacts that touch all of the 17 SDGs but some more than others. These are- multiple linkages between topics and goals on ending poverty (Goal 1); ending hunger (Goal 2); ensuring the availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation (Goal 6); promoting decent work for all (Goal 8); reducing inequalities (Goal 10); ensuring sustainable consumption and production (Goal 12); taking climate action (Goal 13); protecting life below water (Goal 14) and life on land (Goal 15); ensuring peace and justice (Goal 16); and building partnerships (Goal 17).

All of us have to believe that we can garner the correct approach so that the objectives associated with food security can be achieved not only in the developed world but also in the marginalized least developed and developing countries.

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.