Some of the most useful reforms for building more robust food systems are less controversial, and certainly less glamorous. In many poorer countries, simply building better roads and markets may make the biggest difference to local food systems.
Even during the pandemic, food moved to consumers remarkably well, considering what poorer countries were working with, says Thomas Reardon, an agricultural economist at Michigan State University who spent decades working in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “The people in the supply chains were heroes. They were doing incredible work. What needs fixing is the physical infrastructure and policies. Policies that triple-tax them as they cross borders. Wholesale markets that were built in the ’70s and hadn’t been repaired. Lack of electricity.”
When Reardon worked in Burkina Faso, for example, his top priority was culverts to keep roads from washing out in storms. “It sounds absurd,” he says, “but that’s where we were.” Such improvements could go a long way toward keeping food shipments moving at times of crisis.
That’s not the only lesson the current pandemic holds for the global food system, however. After all, the virus that causes Covid-19 most likely emerged from interactions between wild animals and people. Such interactions tend to be most common at the agricultural frontier, where native forests are being cleared for farmland. And SARS-CoV-2 is far from the only germ to make the leap from forest to city, says Chris Barrett, an agricultural economist at Cornell University.
Indeed, when Barrett and his colleagues dug through the scientific literature on emerging diseases and agriculture, they found that agriculture — including its expansion into former forest — was at least partly responsible for at least half of all infectious diseases that have jumped from animals to humans since the 1940s. That proportion is likely to increase still further if the agricultural frontier continues to expand, so halting the encroachment of agricultural land into the wild is an important part of preventing the next pandemic, Barrett says.
Many human pathogens originate in wild animals living near the boundary between farm and forest. To minimize the chance of future pandemics, experts say, society should avoid further expansion of agricultural land into native forest.
Already, governments are starting to pay attention to the need to do things differently at the agricultural frontier. “We’re starting to see those connections made,” says Jamie Morrison, the director of the Food Systems and Food Safety Division of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. “That has been a positive, I think, coming out of the last year.”
If adding more farmland is off the table, then farmers will need to get more food from the existing land base. “Even more than before, we need yield-increasing technologies,” says Qaim. Organic farming, which generally avoids synthetic chemical inputs, and which many educated Westerners see as the best way forward, offers lower yields on average, so it is unlikely to meet the need on its own, Qaim and his colleague Eva-Marie Meemken argue in the 2018 Annual Review of Resource Economics.
Better farming practices, especially more targeted use of fertilizers and pesticides, may be able to achieve peak yields with fewer chemicals, easing some of the pressure to expand farmland. But other measures will also be necessary. If people eat less meat and dairy, they will reduce the need for farmland to grow animal feed, which now accounts for 33 percent of global cropland. Minimizing food waste — currently nearly another third of global food production — would also ease the pressure. But genetic modification should also be on the table, says David Zilberman, an agricultural economist at the University of California, Berkeley, because it offers the fastest, most targeted way to add new traits to crop plants and farm animals that can help them adapt to changing conditions.
Momentum for change
Many agricultural experts have been calling for reforms since long before the pandemic, of course. But their push is now gaining momentum because of what may be Covid-19’s most important effect on the world’s food system: an impetus for reform, both in government policies and in business practices. “I think the biggest opportunity is in people’s minds,” says Swinnen. “Even if the food was still on the table, there was a threat that it may not be so.”
That has accelerated several trends that were already underway in the food sector (see “Food tech trends” below). The FAO’s Morrison also sees a growing willingness by national governments to discuss food system transformation in the run-up to the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021, where member nations will try to explore ways to make the global food system more equitable and sustainable.
“People are increasingly aware that we need to be better prepared next time, and that preparation requires investment,” says Barrett. “We shouldn’t waste a crisis. Ten years from now, we will look back and see that the pandemic had a horrific impact in the short term, but it may have accelerated us toward a more humane system than we otherwise would have had.”
Covid-19 has highlighted one more food-related problem today, perhaps the biggest of all — though it falls outside the food supply chain proper. Last year’s lockdowns left hundreds of millions of people suddenly unemployed or underemployed and without cash to buy the food that was still in the market. Cue the long lines at food pantries. (Feeding America, the largest anti-hunger association in the US, reported a nearly 60 percent increase in food bank users during the pandemic.) “The takeaway is how fragile many people’s access to a healthy diet is,” says Barrett. “They’re just a couple of paychecks away from hoping people will give them a box of free food. And that’s kinda scary.”
“We shouldn’t waste a crisis. Ten years from now, we will look back and see that the pandemic had a horrific impact in the short term, but it may have accelerated us toward a more humane system than we otherwise would have had.”
Things could have been much worse, if not for rapidly expanding social safety nets that helped replace lost income so that poor people — who bore a disproportionate share of the economic costs of lockdowns — could still eat. By May of 2020, the World Bank reported that 190 countries around the world had upgraded social safety nets or planned to do so, largely by cash transfers to people in need. “There’s really a very significant growth in social security programs around the world,” says Swinnen. “And that’s great.”
But it hasn’t been enough. Globally, the UN estimated in July 2020 that more than 130 million additional people could go hungry as a result of the pandemic, largely because of income losses or disruption of markets, which would be an increase of nearly 20 percent. For children, even a short period of poor nutrition can lead to stunted growth and consequences that last a lifetime. One recent study, not yet peer-reviewed, estimates that Covid-19 is likely to lead to an additional 2.6 million stunted children and 168,000 additional child deaths, largely in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Whether the next food crisis comes from another pandemic, drought or disease, one of the big lessons from the current pandemic is that to keep people from going hungry, governments will not only need to ensure that food supplies continue when times are bad. They also must ensure that poor people have enough money to buy that food. “If there’s a single take-home message, it’s the importance of safety nets,” says Barrett.
Even the current pandemic could have more hunger in store, since many households have depleted their financial reserves coping with the crisis so far. If another wave of Covid-19 leads to new lockdowns, things could get even worse, says Benton. “It’s not over yet.”