Emerging from COVID-19 pandemic, the general expectation in the world was that the food security would take a positive turn. Ability to work from out of home again was expected to lead to a rise in food production resulting in a reduction in food insecurity. However, this was not to be the case.
The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2022 published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations this week indicates that the world hunger rose further in 2021 which has resulted in exacerbations in existing social and economic inequalities caused by unequal pattern of economic recovery, and other factors based on country contexts. Further, the Report provides that in 2021, between 702 and 828 million people were impacted by food insecurity. The number has risen approximately by 150 million since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it is projected that close to 670 million people will still be victims of food insecurity in 2030. This highlights the need to focus on food and nutritional security at local, national and global levels through processes that are inclusive, innovative, and with the ability to have transformative changes in food systems and scaling up resilience for all.
Affording a healthy diet
Food security goes hand in hand with affordability of food. Where affordability exists, achieving food security would be positively impacted. However, the FAO report provides that in 2020, close to 3.1 billion people found it difficult to afford a healthy diet. The number is over 100 million compared to 2019, which points to COVID-19 impacts such as the inflation in consumer food prices, and measures related to it.
Among those who suffer due to the inability to afford healthy food are high numbers of children under five years of age. The Report provides that at global level, 22% of children below five years were stunted, and the health and nutritional issues caused by lack of affordability of healthy diets. The number is higher in households in rural settings, with lower income and with parents who are without a formal education.
Additionally, the Report further provides that in 2019, around between the ages of 15 to 49, one out of three women in the world, amounting to 570 million in the world, were affected by anemia. And the numbers have not seen progress for close to a decade. Similar to the case of children under 5 years, those from rural settings, low-income households without formal education are more vulnerable to be part of these statistics.
To achieve food security, especially in countries of the developing world, it is important to ensure that all have access to healthy food, and that systems are in place for those rural settings as well as urban settings to be able to have equal access to healthy food options.
Transforming agri-food systems
To achieve food and nutritional security, an enhanced focus and prioritization of agri-food systems is needed. This would include different forms of actions and systems which would be inclusive, and participatory.
Available global data and the experiences across the world, indicate a need to revamp agri-food systems into more resilient, sustainable and inclusive ones. It is equally important, as pointed by the Report for governments and policy makers to examine the current support provided to food and agriculture. This would help identify aspects to be enhanced, needs for accessing finance for capacity building and creating an enabling environment for scaling up food production without negative impacts to the planet’s resources.
It is also important that finance and other resources are mobilised to enhance agri-food systems in countries, regions and communities that are most vulnerable to food insecurity. The average support for food and agriculture at global level, between 2013 – 2018 accounts close to USD 630 billion per year which target farmers. The support includes avenues such as trade and market policies and fiscal subsidies. However, there are gaps and challenges as indicated by the report. Among these being the support not reaching the farmers, causes environmental exploitation and also does not promote healthy and nutritional food production.
To achieve a sustainable, ethical and climate-resilience agri-food system that would have the ability to address issues related to food security, it is essential to focus on accessibility of resources, as well as the ethical and environmental-impacts of the investments made into food systems.
Resilient food systems
The report highlights the key role of climate change as a driver of food insecurity and malnutrition that interacts with other drivers such as economic shocks or the COVID-19 pandemic. Climate risks and impacts to food systems include extreme weather events—for example, floods, heavy rains, high winds, wildfires, or heat waves—as well as prolonged droughts and a multitude of slow-onset processes including sea level rise, salinization, soil depletion, loss of ecosystem services, increasing pests and diseases, and water scarcity.
To build resilient and sustainable food systems, it is therefore essential to manage climate- and non-climate-related risks in an effective and comprehensive way. Risk management interventions can include adaptative measures that reduce risks and increase resilience, such as drought-tolerant crop varieties, irrigation systems, enhanced land and water management, new cultivation methods, rural economic diversification, agroecological and regenerative practices, agroforestry, and ecosystem-based approaches. However, a comprehensive risk management framework comprises not only risk prevention and risk reduction but also risk transfer and risk retention instruments.
Well-designed insurance schemes can provide a risk transfer solution for food systems and help farmers to quickly recover from shocks. By providing compensation payouts in case of unexpected losses, insurance can help farmers bridge liquidity gaps, prevent them from falling into poverty, and reduce the strain on public resources in case of covariate shocks that affect entire communities or regions at the same time. In particular, index-based insurance—or combinations of indemnity- and index-based schemes—can facilitate timely payouts while also ensuring adequacy of compensation payments in relation to actual losses and damages. Additionally, among other risk transfer methods, the diversification of cultivation and employment opportunities could be seen as critical for reducing the reliance of rural farming communities on agriculture and strengthening their adaptive and coping capacities.
To manage climate risks and achieve resilience, it is important to understand the specific local context, engage different stakeholders, and collect evidence from the ground level. Linkages between rural areas and urban centers can be enhanced, supply chains optimized, and food waste and post-harvest losses reduced. Comprehensive risk management and transformative adaptation can bring these different measures together to protect farmers, their communities, and the rural economy while ensuring food and livelihood security.
Repurposing public support
Repurposing, and enhancing modes of public support where applied in an inclusive, evidence-based and country-owned taking into consideration country contexts could help increase access to food and scale up food security. This could also impact positively the affordability of food, with increased production of nutritional food.
The Report highlights the importance of avoiding potential inequality trade-offs in repurposing public support. It is important not have environments where farmers are not constrained by restrictions and limitations of resources to produce healthy food. The Report further points to trade-offs through mitigation actions and technology transfer in food systems, as well as reduction of overproduction and overconsumption of emission-intensive commodities.
In developing countries where the agriculture sector plays a key role in the country’s economy, it is vital to increase, as well as prioritize expenditure for the provision of services which provides support food and agriculture. The FAO report considers this to be a crucial aspect facilitating the bridging of productivity gaps in the production of nutritious foods, as well as enabling scaled up income leading to approved affordability of healthy diets.
In addition to focusing on repurposing public support, it is equally important to empower consumers to make informed choices towards healthy diets. This includes promotion of guidelines on healthy food, awareness of affordable and healthy food choices, as well as through complementing agri-food systems policies. This further includes focusing and improving social protection and health system policies, which will prevent any negative impacts of unintended consequences of repurposing public support.
The repurposing efforts need to also prioritise those who are most vulnerable, particularly women and children and ensure that inclusive processes are set up, which will contribute to efforts targeting food security benefiting all. This could be supported by strengthening institutions and mechanisms at local, national and global level, as well as identifying ways to engage and integrate efforts of all stakeholders into efforts of building a just and resilience food systems which contribute to food local and global food security.
Note: This article has been published on The Morning as part of the author’s weekly column.
Vositha is an attorney-at-law specialising in public international law, with a focus on international environmental law, UN human rights law, refugee law and EU law. She has over a decade of experience in working on climate change, at national and international level. Vositha is a member of the national expert committee on climate change adaptation of the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, national expert on vulnerability and adaptation measures for the Third National Communication of Sri Lanka to the UNFCCC for the Ministry of Mahaweli Development and Environment, and is a delegate focusing on compliance, adaptation, loss and damage, and gender for the Sri Lankan delegation to the UNFCCC since 2016. She is also a consultant to the UNFCCC national adaptation plans and policy unit, and worked as a country support consultant to the UNDP NAP Global Support Programme. Vositha has an LLM in public international law from University College London, and an LLB from University of London.