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To avert a Covid-triggered famine, our global food systems need to change

Only international co-operation to strengthen food security can save hundreds of millions of people from starvation as a result of the pandemic, write Ban Ki-moon and Dag-Inge Ulstein.

It has taken only a few weeks for this pandemic to expose the glaring weaknesses and inequalities of our global food system. The United Nations World Food Programme has raised the alarm [1]: more than a quarter of a billion people face the threat of starvation this year as a result of the multiple impacts of Covid-19, civil wars, crop failure and climate change. We have the resources, but do we have the political will to avert this looming catastrophe?

Covid-19 is accelerating the risk of a global hunger pandemic in two ways. With government-imposed lockdowns still in place, poor and unemployed families are running out of money to buy food, even where it is still available. Compounding their plight, the closure of schools is depriving 370 million children of their principal, and sometimes only, daily meal[2].

The virus has also severely disrupted the global trade in food. In Africa, where many borders have been closed, freight lines have been unable to move food, leaving stocks rotting in depots. Subsequent shortages have pushed up prices of staples such as rice[3]. And just as some countries sought to restrict exports of medical gear in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, major cereal exporters are now considering (or have already imposed) controls on food exports[4].

Trade restrictions threaten to make a horrendous food crisis much worse. We should not allow multilateral co-operation to break down in this way. Poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, already reeling from the collapse in employment, tax and export revenues, now face the challenge of feeding millions of hungry citizens. They need our help and our food surpluses.

But in addition to the urgent steps we should be taking today to avert the threat of famine, we should also be thinking about how to make our global food systems fairer and more resistant to future shocks.

Some steps are being taken to help the worst affected during this crisis. In Malawi, for example, the country’s high court forced the government to delay its national lockdown so help, including cash handouts worth about $50 a month per household, could be distributed to those most affected[5]. In Eritrea, seeds and small animals such as goats and sheep have been distributed to the most vulnerable to help maintain food production and stop people starving[6].

Measures like these are vital, but they are not enough. They must be the starting point for a wholesale transformation of our global food system.

We must make food systems more resilient so our most vulnerable people are better placed to cope with the next drought, flood or plague. What does resilience mean for these communities? It means investing in agricultural research to improve yields, develop drought-resistant crops, early warning systems, and promote sustainable farming methods – ones, for example, that use less water in water-stressed areas. It means guaranteeing small farmers a decent income. It means strengthening demand for locally-produced food by improving transport, refrigeration and local food processing capacity. And it means improving access to information and finance, so farmers can weather disruptions and continue to produce the food the world relies on.

Many excellent projects are already helping to make a difference. Farmers in the Maradi and Zinder[7] regions of Niger have led a reforestation drive that has improved water retention in the soil, boosted yields, and lifted communities out of poverty. The East African Community recently produced new guidelines aimed at making it easier to transport goods between its member countries. Elsewhere, guaranteed minimum prices, where governments act as buyers of last resort, help maintain incomes. The Ivory Coast and Ghana, for example, support their cocoa farmers in this way.

Such projects deliver benefits that multiply the initial investment many times over. In Rwanda, for example, Africa Improved Foods – a public-private partnership – buys corn and other crops from 24,000 smallholders and processes these into nutritious “super cereals”. For an initial $70m investment[8], AIF calculates its enhanced cereals have already benefited two million children, in addition to providing a stable income to its farmers, who are mostly women. An independent study conducted by the University of Chicago estimates that from 2016 to 2031, AIF will generate $758 million for the people of Rwanda[9].

We need to scale up projects like these to bring affordable, nutritious food to the reach of billions.

Modern society has never been more prosperous; we have never produced so much food. But just like wealth, our food is unevenly distributed – with devastating and preventable consequences. The world is rich enough that malnutrition should now be a thing of the past. Yet it isn’t. To create lasting food security, we need more collaboration between governments, the private sector, academic institutions and intergovernmental bodies. Working together we can help those not just left hungry today and tomorrow by Covid-19, but those who are vulnerable to hunger every day of their lives through no fault of their own. Making food insecurity a thing of the past is possible. We must do it now.

[1] Risk of hunger pandemic as Covid-19 set to almost double acute hunger by end of 2020

[2] Covid-19: Act now to avert ‘hunger catastrophe’ for millions missing out on school meals

[3] How Africa risks reeling from a health crisis to a food crisis

[4] Ensuring global food security in the time of Covid-19 

[5] Malawi's cash handouts and the row about a coronavirus lockdown

[6] Covid-19 response must target African ag and the rural poor

[7] P31 A Global Call for Leadership on Climate Resilience

[8] A for-profit project has improved nutrition in Rwanda - is it a model that can eliminate hunger across Africa?

[9] Nourishing New Beginnings in Rural Rwanda