Repairing the Damage to Global Food Systems From COVID-19

Repairing the Damage to Global Food Systems From COVID-19
People line up for a free, cooked meal in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 29, 2021 (AP photo by Bruna Prado).
According to a United Nations report released last month, just under one-tenth of the global population was undernourished in 2020, up from 8.4 percent in 2019. Much of that spike was due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely strained global food systems that were already under pressure due to climate change, population growth, conflict and migration. On the Trend Lines podcast this week, Julie Howard, a senior adviser to the global food security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, joined WPR’s Elliot Waldman to discuss the U.N. report’s findings. Listen to the full conversation here: If you like what you hear, subscribe to Trend Lines:  Google Podcasts badge Apple Podcasts badge  Spotify Podcasts badge  The following is a partial transcript of the interview. It has been lightly edited for clarity. World Politics Review: Even before the major spike in world hunger in 2020 that was documented in the U.N.’s latest assessment, rates of food insecurity and undernourishment had actually been creeping up in the 2010s. What are some of the major long-term causes of this uptick? Julie Howard: That’s right. In 2014, what would have been kind of a decades-long downward trend in the number of hungry people began to tick up again. Some 768 million people faced hunger in 2020, which is an increase of about 118 million from 2019. So over the past 10 years, the frequency and intensity of conflict, climate variability and extremes, and economic downturns have increased significantly. And these are undermining food security and nutrition around the world. And last year, of course, these factors were all exacerbated by COVID-19, and they continue to be roiled by the pandemic. So when we think about these long-term drivers—conflict, climate variability, economic downturns—each of them is unique and they’re all external to food systems, but they interact to create multiple and compounding impacts at many different points within food systems. So the majority of undernourished people live in countries that are affected by several of these drivers. For example, the U.N. estimates that about 60 percent of the undernourished live in countries that are affected by conflict, but this is often linked to climate and economic factors. And these factors are further exacerbated by high levels of income inequality.

The evidence suggests that making staple foods relatively less expensive has inadvertently contributed to less diversity in agricultural systems and in food environments.

WPR: It’s not just hunger and undernourishment that are increasing. We’re also seeing a rise in adult obesity in every region of the world. That seems a little counterintuitive at first, so how do we reconcile those two trends? Julie Howard: It does seem counterintuitive. The facts are that one in every nine people in the world today is hungry and one in every three is overweight or obese. Underweight tends to be the persistent issue for the poorest countries, while overweight and obesity predominantly occur in wealthier countries. But it’s more complicated than that, because income inequality within countries and differences across regions and in rural and urban areas mean that more and more countries are experiencing what we call the “double burden” of malnutrition, where there’s undernutrition in some segments of the population, but in others, overweight, obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases, such as increasing rates of diabetes and heart disease. So, it really comes down to this: Poor diets are negatively affecting human health at both ends of the spectrum. A bit more on obesity, globally: Food consumption has been increasing more rapidly than population growth in recent decades. And this is in response to rising incomes, increasing agricultural production and trade, and changing food preferences. There’s been expanding demand for animal-sourced, processed and ready-to-eat foods, but overconsumption of these foods and sugar-sweetened beverages runs counter to the emerging evidence on what constitutes a healthy diet. In addition, public policies around the world for decades have largely focused on improving the productivity of major staple food and feed crops—things like rice, maize, wheat and cassava—as the foundation for national food security. But the evidence suggests that the goal of making staple foods relatively less expensive has inadvertently contributed to less diversity in agricultural systems and in food environments. So we’re not able to provide anymore an adequate variety of affordable, safe and nutrient-dense foods. So today, poor diets are the leading contributor to the global burden of disease, with negative health effects resulting from inadequate calories, hunger and overconsumption of calories. The relative costs of healthy nutrition-rich foods like fruits, vegetables and legumes are a factor. I estimate some 3 billion people in the world are too poor to afford even the cheapest nutritious diet. WPR: These issues are often discussed purely in terms of their direct health impacts on people, but they actually have other implications as well. You mentioned diabetes, and that’s a chronic condition that requires constant visits to health care facilities, and thus a greater strain on health care systems. We saw those strains play out during the pandemic. Julie Howard: Exactly. I think that the fear, Elliot, is that the coming health crisis is going to be the elephant that eats national budgets in the future, with more and more people needing care and needing medicines for these chronic conditions and unable to get it. WPR: The U.N. report that came out last month was pretty sober reading. And among the many depressing passages was the warning that the gender gap in food insecurity grew even larger in 2020. More women were food insecure than men already in 2019, but that difference was even wider at the end of the year. Can you talk about the gender dimensions of hunger? Why are women often more likely to be at risk and what are the consequences of that gender gap? Julie Howard: Yes, it is depressing. Women play critical roles in food systems. They’re producers, they’re laborers, they’re processors, they’re traders. Of course, they’re also consumers. They do this important work, but they face a lot of constraints and limitations that are in turn shaped and reinforced by social and structural inequalities in food systems. In the agriculture sector, for example, women often have unequal access and, in some cases, unequal rights to important resources like land and water, pasture, technologies like improved seeds and fertilizers, chemical inputs, information, and extension and advisory services. Their unequal access to these resources reduces their potential to be productive in agriculture. Now because of social norms and this different access to key resources, men and women have different capacities to mitigate risk and respond to economic shocks like COVID-19. The types of capacities needed to strengthen resilience are built by developing and leveraging resources and networks to help reduce risk and facilitate fast recovery. But there’s gender-differentiated access to these resources. Women often have fewer assets, and lack access to information services or credit, which affects their capacity to deal with and recover from shocks. 

There is a need to reshape the global food system so that it becomes not only more productive, but also more resilient, more environmentally sustainable and more healthy.

That’s some of the explanation for this continuing widening of the gap between men and women. Women also have fewer adaptation options than men because social norms often restrict their freedom of movement and access to transportation. They also have limited time, major responsibilities for home and child care. Something we often don’t think about, but which we’ve seen in recent years, is the important role that digital technologies can play in providing access to context-specific climate information and agricultural recommendations. And digital financial services are increasingly widespread. This is a very welcome development, but we sometimes overlook the fact that women and men often have very different access to digital devices, as well as very different information needs. But on the positive side, we’re now understanding more about how to address some of these issues. Women’s participation in collaborative farming schemes or group networks can help them get broader access to resources and expand their social networks. This can strengthen their capacity to respond to shocks like COVID-19 and climate resilience. For example, Mali has shown that women’s participation in community groups and their enhanced access to credit has increased their ability to adopt climate-smart agriculture practices and technologies. WPR: The U.N. report also touches on the difficulty of identifying entry points for interventions to address the multiple drivers of food insecurity that you spoke about earlier in our conversation, whether it’s conflict or whether it’s climate-related factors. All of these things tend to interact with each other, and that makes it really hard to know where to even begin tackling the problem. The report recommends taking a “food systems” lens. What does that term mean in this context, and why is it so important when trying to get a handle on this problem? Julie Howard: Food systems encompass the whole array of activities, actors and organizations that are involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food. The frameworks that we’re using now to describe food systems are also explicitly recognizing the relationship of the food system to human health, as we’ve been discussing, but also to environmental sustainability and economic development. The frameworks then try to map the roles and interactions of key actors within this complex system—within the agriculture part of that system, but also the relationships to health, environmental sustainability and economic development. Why is this important? Well, for the past 60 years, agriculture innovation has fed the world and served as an engine of inclusive economic growth. High-yielding staple crop varieties, fertilizers and new agronomic approaches are the foundations for U.S. production of agriculture, and their spread has enabled really dramatic increases in agricultural productivity and the reduction of rural poverty around the world. But today, there are increasing doubts about whether this model, the productivity-centered, agriculture-focused model, is going to be adequate to nourish 10 billion people in the world by 2050 without destroying the planet. Three points here are worth mentioning. First, in the U.S. and globally, public policies focused on improving the productivity of major staple food and feed crops made these products more abundant and less expensive. But the research now suggests that the unintended impact of this, as I mentioned before, has been a less diverse food environment that’s unable to provide an adequate variety of affordable, safe and nutrient-dense foods like fruits and vegetables, legumes and, for lower-income groups, available and affordable dairy, meats and seafoods. And poor diets are now a leading contributor to disease and early mortality. Second, climate change is dramatically affecting agricultural systems around the world, raising temperatures, reducing yields, shifting rainfall patterns and increasing the frequency of droughts and flooding. Climate changes are also exacerbating societal tensions and fueling displacement and migration. And agriculture itself is a major factor in climate change, responsible for nearly a quarter of global annual greenhouse gas emissions. Third, agriculture’s consumption of natural resources is also unsustainable. The inefficient application of inorganic fertilizers, a key factor in agricultural productivity gains, has led to runoff of excess nitrate and phosphate and increasing red tides and dead zones in rivers and oceans. Over half of the 120 billion tons of nitrogen fertilizers used for agriculture each year is thought to end up in waterways. So expanding land use for agriculture, deteriorating soil quality, loss of biodiversity and contamination of waterways and air are already pushing agriculture’s consumption of natural resources past the limits of planetary sustainability. All of these factors suggest the need for a big conceptual shift away from the laser-like focus on agriculture, and especially agricultural production, to reshaping the global food system so that it becomes not only more productive, but also more resilient, more environmentally sustainable and more healthy.

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