Food systems are critical to economic activity because food provides the energy needed to live and be productive in whatever field one is involved in. However, most macroeconomists have long ignored the importance of food systems. They have long not placed the needed importance on food systems as a factor that promotes productivity of the human resource.
How has the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Pandemic Affected Food Systems Globally?
2020 will be a reckoning year for the global food systems. In just a few months, the Coronavirus pandemic has shut down almost half of the world as lockdowns and movement restrictions have been put in place as mitigation measures to combat the spread of the virus. Images of empty grocery shelves, miles-long queues, and panic buying have suddenly highlighted to us the importance of food systems and how imbalanced they are at the moment.
Panic buying of food, however, doesn’t merely reflect our behavior during a crisis. There is evidence that the world food supply chain that is highly centralized is likely to falter in times of emergency. In most countries, for example, it instantly became impossible to package or harvest food as most workers in the food industry fell sick or were blocked at borders. As a result, Crops that were in farms ready for harvest couldn’t be harvested on time and get them to the various consumers, piled up stocks of food expired because bars and restaurants were closed, and in various households, food stocks simply dried out. In emerging market nations, the UN’s FAO and the WFP predict that a “hunger crisis” and a doubling of starving people may soon eclipse the COVID-19 pandemic unless fast mitigation measures are put in place to avert this impending crisis.
Cracks in the world food system have long been identified. According to the latest statistics by the SFSN, already by 2018, almost 820 million people slept hungry and 1/3 of the world population lacked essential food nutrients needed for proper growth. In the same period, 600 million people globally were classified as obese while 2 billion people were overweight, due to imbalanced diets. Today, malnourished and immuno-depressed people globally are suffering greatly due to the lethal impact of the Coronavirus. In all these scenarios, the human toll is accompanied by huge economic costs.
The negative impacts of poor food systems go beyond failing to satisfy the food needs of the world. Food produced through monoculture cropping systems and overuse of chemicals degrades resources a lot faster than they can recover and accounts for 1/4 of all greenhouse gas emissions, with intensive livestock farming accounting for about 1/2 of that. According to research conducted by FAO, intensive industrial animal farming with large numbers of livestock in confined areas breeds dangerous viruses that sometimes mutate into dangerous pandemics like the swine flu. Intensive industrial animal farming with large numbers of livestock in confined areas may also facilitate the incubation of antibiotic-resistant “super germs” because such industries overuse antibiotics trying to promote faster growth and prevent diseases.
At the same time, uncontrolled disruption of pristine habitats to hunt and farm has allowed dangerous pathogens like HIV, Ebola, and SARS, to jump species, and infect ours.
How can we Improve Global Food Systems and Ensure They are Resilient to Future Pandemics?
After witnessing how vulnerable our food systems are in times of emergencies, rebuilding after the COVID-19 pandemic offers a great opportunity to improve and build back better food systems and making such a system resilient to future pandemics. We should ensure healthy nutrition for all and environmental sustainability. To make this happen, UN agencies like the FAO, the UNEP, the IPCC, the IFAD, and the WFP, collectively, propose four critical shifts in the food system:
• Encouraging healthier diets that curb the overconsumption of highly-processed foods in wealthier nations and increasing access to better nutrition in poorer nations.
• Creation of resilient food supply chains that can be able to withstand any future pandemics.
• Regenerative farming that does not increase environmental and land degradation.
• Integration of climate and environmental conservation in all farming methods.
Food systems are very vital for human, economic, environmental, and animal health. Ignoring this exposes the global economy to financial and ever-larger health shocks as the global population grows and climate changes. To avoid these, all countries should lay importance on food system reforms and integrating them into their recovery plans in a post-Coronavirus word. By doing this we can make some tangible inroads toward the Paris Climate Agreement and SDGs. Otherwise, we are prone to fall into a cycle of desperation whenever a crisis hits us.