Fixing the global food system after coronavirus

Fixing the global food system after coronavirus

The Chair of CoSAI, Dr Ruben Echeverria, has authored an Op-Ed published in The Hill (Washington DC).

From panic-buying in Europe, to bans on rice exports in Asia and rising food prices in Africa, the fragility of our global food system has been exposed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Heightened demand, disruption and uncertainty threaten to produce a new global food crisis on the back of the outbreak, which could see further price hikes, food losses and shortages as well as rising malnutrition and global health issues in the months ahead.

Yet, out of the urgency and necessity created by the shock of COVID-19, we have also seen how rapidly innovative measures can be deployed to minimize the impact of the virus on food security.

This has included establishing “green channels” in China to prioritize vital, nutritious fresh produce, while across Europe countries have waived travel restrictions for seasonal workers who are essential to maintaining a consistent food supply. In India, e-commerce and agribusiness have been exempted from restrictions to protect consumers and food markets.

The COVID-19 pandemic is demonstrating that we have the ways and means of transforming food supply chains very quickly when forced by circumstances.

The challenge, however, is that even after the pandemic subsides, the strain on the global food system will continue as a result of a growing population with evolving needs in a changing environment.

The solution, then, is to find ways to sustainably intensify the production of safe and nutritious food over the long term. This not only ensures the world can withstand shocks like a disease outbreak, but also that it can meet exponential demand without further compromising natural resources.

In other words, to achieve the kind of systematic transformation the world needs to tackle global hunger; we cannot rely on discrete technological advances or temporary, piecemeal political support.

Instead, we must develop the very mechanisms through which the entire system can evolve and adopt new innovations, whether institutional, practical, technical, financial or political.

The first step is to understand the patterns of global investment in innovation to date, as well as the innovations already available and the barriers to their uptake.

forthcoming study launched by the newly-formed Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification, for which I serve as chairman, sets out to shed light on recent public and private investment in agricultural innovation, as well as estimate how much of this investment is likely to promote sustainable agriculture intensification.

The commission will then work to identify the incentives and approaches needed to accelerate widespread development and uptake of innovation. According to new research, progress towards sustainable intensification is behind schedule for meeting our global goals by 2050, making it critical that we find ways to get this back on track.

One example of such incentives is advanced market commitments (AMC), which allow governments or funders to underwrite a market for new products before they are developed. AMC have been a successful strategy in supporting the development of vaccines, which are costly scientific endeavors with no guarantee of success.

A $1.5 billion pilot AMC for a pneumococcal vaccine for low-income countries led to the development of three vaccines, providing immunizations for more than 150 million children and saving an estimated 700,000 lives.

Similar novel approaches could be adopted to speed up sustainable intensification of agriculture, incentivizing the development of technologies and innovation that increase productivity as well as efficiency. 

From there, we can establish the best channels through which to deliver innovations and help ensure the appropriate tools and services reach the right people.

For example, the expansion of mobile phone usage across sub-Saharan Africa could be better harnessed to provide more bespoke, individualized support for farmers, rather than using traditional in-person extension services.

Policies that continue to help promote innovation, instead of holding it back, will also be important. This includes reducing the risk of unintended consequences, such as widespread subsidies for irrigation water, which mean farmers have little incentive to use water-saving technologies.

We have seen how quickly policies can change when an urgent need exists, and it is vital that we maintain both the sense of urgency and the momentum for change when it comes to addressing the persistent hunger and climate crisis.

Nowhere has been left untouched by the impact of coronavirus. It has exposed deep underlying problems in our food system, as it relates to both the environment and inequality.

The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification, comprising commissioners from across the global south, intends to gather the insights needed to drive the agenda for more innovative, sustainable and intensified agriculture.

In doing so, we stand to recover much-needed balance in our food systems, ecosystems and in the human condition worldwide.

Dr. Ruben Echeverría is the chair of the Commission on Sustainable Agriculture Intensification.