Resilient food systems and COVID-19: lessons for a Just Transition

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed huge vulnerabilities and inequalities in food systems. They are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change: to droughts, floods, typhoons, sea-level rise – the current locust outbreak in East Africa. But they are also part of the problem, contributing about one third of global greenhouse gas emissions and being highly inequitable too. Krystyna Swiderska spells out what needs to change.

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22 May 2020

Krystyna Swiderska is a principal researcher in IIED's Natural Resources research group

A stallholder in front of a food stall

COVID-19 is disrupting food supply systems and livelihoods – people in the informal sector will be particularly affected (Photo: Brian Evans via FlickrCC BY-ND 2.0)

The COVID-19 pandemic is not only a health crisis but also an economic crisis and a food crisis, coming on top of the climate crisis. Like climate change, its effects will be most acutely felt by the poorest and most vulnerable countries and communities. 

COVID-19 makes a Just Transition to more resilient, equitable and low-carbon food systems all the more crucial and urgent. It is a wake-up call that has forced people to think differently and look for change. We must make the most of this opportunity. 

So what are the impacts and lessons from the pandemic that can inform a Just Transition in food systems?  

  1. Informal, low-paid and migrant workers are highly vulnerable to food insecurity: many have lost their jobs (PDF) and received no state support, leading quickly to hunger. Women largely work in the informal sector and so face massive income losses. Others continue to work in poor overcrowded conditions with high risk of contracting the disease.

    In many African countries, informal markets have been shut down, despite providing vital food for poor consumers and vital sales outlets for poor farmers and traders. This highlights the need for social protection for informal workers and poor producers.
     
  2. A ‘famine of biblical proportions’ may be in the making, according to the head of the World Food Programme
    COVID-19 could increase the number of acutely food-insecure people from 135 million to 265 million. Thirty million people could die in a matter of months, due to shortfalls in donor funding and food aid.

    Border closures could have grave food security consequences for vulnerable groups such as pastoralists. A global recession will disrupt food supply chains, according to the ‘Global Report on Food Crises 2020’. Food shortages, restrictions on movement and soaring unemployment could create the conditions for social and political unrest.
     
  3. A global recession is a serious threat for hundreds of millions of people already living on the cusp of hunger, malnutrition and extreme poverty: between 14 and 49 million people may be pushed into extreme poverty in 2020, according to various modest projections (World BankInternational Food Policy Research Institute). Some predict the number of people living in poverty could increase by 420-580 million (UNU-WIDER’s projections).

    The impacts will fall hardest on people already facing discrimination or marginalisation: migrant workers, displaced people, refugees and people forced off their land by industrial agriculture; women and girls who are often more vulnerable to economic shocks and bear the brunt of hunger in poor families; and indigenous peoples who may be highly vulnerable to COVID-19.
     
  4. Industrial farming systems are high risk – we need more resilient agroecological food systems: intensive livestock production amplifies the risk of diseases emerging and spreading. The probability of high impact outbreaks in animals increases as large numbers of animals are kept in small spaces and genetic diversity is narrowed. 

    Factory farms have been identified as a potential transmission point for COVID-19. The risk of zoonotic spill-over is amplified by human-wildlife interaction, made worse by habitat destruction due to commercial agriculture. The spread of pathogens is exacerbated by deforestation and climate change. 

    Farmers that depend on external seeds and fertilisers but can’t travel to markets because of lockdown face serious threats to food security and livelihoods. However, those that use local seeds and agroecological inputs are likely to be less affected. Diversified agroecological farming systems are also more resilient to climate shocks than monocultures, can provide nutritious diets and have lower carbon emissions. 

    Agroecology has been widely endorsed by scientists for delivering economic, environmental and social goals, including the World Bank-led global agriculture assessment (‘IAASTD’), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
     
  5. Globalised food systems are highly vulnerable to shocks: export bans could lead to food shortages in import-dependent countries and panic buying by importing countries could drive up global commodity prices. This could severely affect countries with food insecure populations and countries that are net importers of food. Following the pandemic shock, Bhutan has decided to transition to greater food self-sufficiency.

Steps towards a Just Transition

A crucial first step on the Just Transition pathway is to establish inclusive policy dialogues, bringing marginalised, poor and vulnerable groups into decision-making forums at all levels – local, national and global. In fact, there’s already been an upsurge in solidarity and rapid action by civil society and governments, often working together, to address food shortages – this needs to happen more.

Governments must reform agri-food policies to prioritise the needs of food-insecure, poor and vulnerable people and to address major inequalities in access to land for millions of smallholders across Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. And massive input subsidies need to be repurposed to support agroecological practices. 

Intensification is not necessarily the solution – less intensive production systems produce less waste, as do localised food systems, making it easier to ensure food reaches those in need.

Perhaps surprisingly, the best strategy to respond to this global pandemic may be to go local and less intensive, creating systems that not only serve the immediate crisis but also build resilience to ongoing and future shocks.


This blog is based on a presentation made at the ‘The International Dialogue on the Climate Emergency and the Future of Food’, organised by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food and Salzburg Global Seminar in May 2020, and also draws on the rich discussion during the event.

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