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Diversity crucial for ‘resilient’ food systems as billions to brace for hunger: FAO

A man arranges harvested paddy on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, 19 November, 2021. India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on 19 November the withdrawal of his controversial agriculture reform that sparked months-long protests from farmers across the country, who feared it would put their jobs at risk. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

Countries must diversify their food sources in order to survive the shocks from pandemics and the worsening impacts of climate change, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) flagship report released on Tuesday. 

The pandemic has put food systems to the test, exposing how fragile they are as millions go hungry and many more are at risk. The State of Food and Agriculture, published every one to two years since 1947, highlights the need for countries to mix and match food sources as well as the producers, suppliers and other actors in their supply chains in order to build resilience and make sure that their food systems are able to absorb shocks such as pandemics, droughts and conflict.

“Building absorptive capacity requires the signing and investing in diversified responses,” noted Maximo Torero Cullen, chief economist at FAO. “It also depends on institutions that coordinate them and the robustness of infrastructure on which they rely.”

Why it matters. Still reeling from Covid-19’s health impacts, countries are also experiencing an economic fallout. Lockdowns and sanitary measures put in place to curb the spread of the deadly virus have inadvertently forced businesses to close down, disrupted transportation of goods and caused many workers to lose their jobs.

“The pandemic highlighted both the resilience and the weakness of our agrifood systems,” said FAO director general QU Dongyu, launching the report at a virtual event.

While no country went without food, vulnerable populations faced the rise of food prices while grappling with losing their jobs or their crops. Poverty levels have soared, with some three billion people not being able to afford to eat healthy today, the report said.

The world was not on track to meet the goal of eradicating hunger by 2030 well before Covid-19 struck and could be headed for an even worse scenario as one billion people sit on the verge of hunger if they were to lose one third of their income, the report warns.

Building resilience. From production and transportation to reaching people’s plates, food systems are linked in such a way that one disruption at any of the stages can send shockwaves through the whole system, for instance driving up costs or making food supply scarce.

The UN agency warns that there is an increasing risk of shocks from more frequent and severe floods and droughts, expanding conflict and health emergencies such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report offers a number of new indicators on the diversity of food products as well as pathways through which they are distributed so that policymakers can prepare their countries for the future.

The report argues that absorbing shocks is easier for countries that have a diverse mix of product sources, for example combining local production with imports and exports.

Diversifying crops and other food commodities produced locally as well as imported can also help increase resilience as it gives a wider offer of nutritious food for populations, according to the report.

Food supply chains should also be “diverse, redundant and well-connected”, according to the findings. If for instance only one enterprise manages the distribution of food for a whole region or country, its bankruptcy could trigger a food crisis.

The more diversified the composition of both production and market, the easier it is to absorb a fallout, Torero Cullen explained.

The expert called for policymakers to use the report for “guidance on how countries can prepare policies and interventions to assure resilient agrifood systems for our future”.