Global food systems are complex and have become increasingly so over recent decades. Continued population growth, higher consumption levels, inequality, ever increasing demand for processed food and the challenges of our changing climate are putting them under extreme stress. Although food systems developments and innovations have helped to address some of these challenges, unfortunately we have also created new problems and exacerbated some of these issues along the way.
Most African nations that used to depend predominantly on subsistence agriculture, or what is sometimes called traditional food supply chains, are now much more dependent on transitional food supply chains. That is, people are more dependent on markets and retailers than they were so supply chains have become longer, connecting up rural and urban areas.
Additionally, the prevalence of modern food supply chains is rapidly increasing. These are much longer and more capital intensive international supply chains that typically involve more processing activities. The move towards modern food supply chains is in some ways positive as these can be more efficient, provide good employment opportunities (automation notwithstanding), and bring us more of the foods we want to eat. But there are also disadvantages such as more food miles and the resulting climate impacts. Moreover, higher dependence on exports can also mean less resilience in local food systems, which is something that has become apparent during the COVID crisis. Modern food supply chains have also resulted in the proliferation of ultra-processed foods which are generally bad news for nutrition, associated with cheap ‘empty’ calories.
However, there is also a strong counter-movement with many people and organisations advocating for more organic and locally produced food, and for less dependence on harmful technologies. The agroecology and food sovereignty movements are great examples of this.
Impact of COVID on Global Food Systems
COVID has caused a lot of disruption to global food supply chains, particularly during the early stages of the pandemic. This has affected actors at every stage of the supply chain, right through from field to fork. At the farm level there have been issues such as reduced availability of inputs and restrictions on gatherings for farmer training and extension services. Many agri-businesses involved in processing had to temporarily shut down or reduce production due to a reduced workforce or the need to socially distance on the production floor. Transport and logistics have faced serious disruption with border closures and a reduction in freight resulting in increased levels of food waste, especially in fresh food supply chains.
And of course all this has contributed to the rising price of food with knock-on effects at household level. The impacts on global food security have been severe. The World Bank estimates that global food prices are 20% higher now than they were this time last year. Parallel to higher food prices are reduced incomes. People have lost work for many reasons, some losing formal employment and others unable to take up casual labour opportunities due to curfews and movement restrictions. As a result many people are consuming less food, and of a lower quality, which means they are often receiving inadequate nutrition. The immediate and long term effects of malnutrition can be severe, particularly for children.
Many producers have also lost their markets, particularly where they are dependent on the hospitality industry, and this has in some cases led to temporary gluts or cuts in production upstream.
The COVID crisis has highlighted many vulnerabilities within our food system and has encouraged us to think about how to protect businesses and nurture new opportunities in the wake of the pandemic. The needs differ for different value chain actors. For example, restrictions on movement can result in dire consequences for producers who are no longer able to access markets, particularly if they are dealing with perishable produce that can’t be easily stored. Good infrastructure can help to address this, such as establishing networks of collection centres that are within reach of producers and improving storage facilities. Warehouse receipt systems can also be helpful as farmers can drop their produce off without having to go to a crowded market.
In the short term there is a need for flexible support so that we don’t lose productive capacity and so that firms are equipped to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances. The response on this front has generally been very good. Many organisations and nations have found ways to provide information to producers and businesses on how to stay safe, as well as the market information they need in order to adapt to changing market conditions. Some have also been able to provide grants, and flexibility on loan repayments or deadlines for applying for subsidy payments.
Opportunities from the COVID pandemic
I live on the beautiful west coast of Scotland in a small fishing community. Most of the fish that lands here is chilled and frozen and then goes straight for export within hours of coming off the boat. During the pandemic when there was disruption to exports, some local people enjoyed being able to buy fish straight off the boat in a way that they wouldn’t usually be able to. Of course, there are places where you can buy local fish, but this change brought a renewed sense of connection between the community and local produce which served as a reminder on the importance of local food and its role in local culture.
I’ve heard similar things from consultees in Botswana whilst researching opportunities to help catalyse the development of selected agricultural value chains. Several people have mentioned how the pandemic has served to remind them of the importance of local food systems, giving them a new sense of purpose as they think about how to ensure they are not overly reliant on imports or complex supply chains.
In many places, farmers meet in large groups for field days and training workshops. However, support services to farmers have not been possible in some areas due to movement restrictions and social distancing requirements. This has meant that innovators have had to find ways to strengthen ICT and digital platforms to deliver these services. Although this was already happening in some areas, the pandemic has been a catalyst for the rapid move towards delivery of digital services to farmers.
In a country like Botswana with an estimated population of 2.3 million people widely dispersed across a large land area, the delivery of extension services to farmers is a huge challenge. Using digital platforms can make it more efficient to deliver support and advice relating to good agricultural practices, pest identification, what inputs to use etc, and can make these services much more accessible to more people. Of course there are still challenges – not everybody has a smart phone or is confident with this kind of technology, but there is lots of potential for innovation and this is one example of how the pandemic has made people re-assess food systems, question the way things work, and consider whether there are better ways of operating.
What lessons can we take away from this experience?
The COVID crisis has shown how vulnerable our food systems are, but there are positives that can come from this is if we take it as a wake-up call and ask ourselves what we want from our food systems. Sometimes big, slick and efficient isn’t all it seems. We need to find the right balance between independence and inter-dependence, revitalising local food systems to work better for local people, and to be more resilient to external shocks. This is also an opportunity to think about how food trade impacts upon planetary health, as well as our own, and the interactions between the two.
Of course that’s not to undermine the importance of global food trade, which is important to many economies, and to many people’s livelihoods. I know that people all over the world enjoy the salmon and whiskey that’s produced in my local area, and I am a keen consumer of the kind of produce that comes from agribusinesses including those we’ve worked with in countries like Kenya, such as green beans and avocadoes. We know from experience the positive livelihoods impacts that can accrue to smallholder farmers who are integrated into value chains, perhaps through an out-grower system that provides them with a secure market so they know that they will have an income to support their family, send their kids to school and so on. Horticulture exports are worth around $1.5 billion to Kenya annually.
But we also need to think in terms of resilience. So for example, during the pandemic many thousands of tonnes of fresh produce were dumped because cheap freight was no longer available. Kenya’s horticulture sector relies on cheap freight exports whereby passenger flights that come into the country full go back full of freight. This is cost-effective for the airlines because it means that even if the flights aren’t full of passengers the excess weight allowance can be filled with freight, and it also makes the rates more favourable to exporters. But when COVID hit and passenger flights all but stopped this system broke down. The Fresh Produce Exporters Association of Kenya estimated that at one point the horticulture sector was losing 3.5 million dollars a day. Though some of this produce was redirected to local markets, there was no demand for much of it since production is geared towards serving foreign markets.
Finding the right balance is no simple task. In Malawi, for example, export crops such as tea take up thousands of hectares of land area. Major exporters have to balance every day the social implications of large scale farming with food security and nutrition for workers. Small scale out-growers with land may have more control over their food production but lower formal incomes and fewer claims to social protections. Numerous living wage and living income initiatives are trying to get this right, and food security and nutrition is now central to those discussions. We are pleased to be advising on these.
What can we do to support recovery and improve resilience in global food systems in order to “build back better”?
Current work looking at agro-processing and industry in Southern and East Africa suggests that there is likely to be increased focus on shorter supply chains, increased national production capacity, and ownership, investment and value chain structures will likely need to change to reflect that. This has opportunities as well as risks.
One of the most reassuring things is to remember that this is a global issue, and we just a few among many who are working to help address food systems challenges. Such complex problems require a lot of ingenuity to solve, and there is a limit to how far you can get when thinking about this in isolation. We need to hear voices from different corners of the globe, realms of experience, and positions within the value chain. It’s important to keep tuned into that broader conversation as we think about what role we can play in the shift towards more resilient and sustainable food systems. One recent development is the Committee on Food Security’s voluntary guidelines for food systems and nutrition which aim to help re-orient and transform the global food system to be more resilient and sustainable, published earlier this month.
Isla is a social scientist specialising in corporate responsibility & sustainability, cross-sector development partnerships, and food security. She holds a PhD and MSc in Corporate Social Responsibility from Nottingham University Business School and a BA in Development Studies from the University of Sussex. Her doctoral research explored how organisations from different sectors communicate about the issue of global food security and the implications this has for our response to pressing food systems challenges. Isla’s research is informed by practical experience with community development projects in Southern Africa. Her consulting work includes research, analysis, and project management in the areas of inclusive business development, community engagement, and food security & nutrition. You are welcome to get in touch with Isla on email@example.com with any comments or enquiries.
FAO (2021) Q&A: COVID-19 pandemic – impact on food and agriculture: [Online] Available at: http://www.fao.org/2019-ncov/q-and-a/impact-on-food-and-agriculture/en/ [Accessed 20 February 2021].
 OECD (2020) Covid-19 and Global Food Systems: [Online] Available at: http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/covid-19-and-global-food-systems-aeb1434b/ [Accessed 12 February 2021].
 Roussi, A. (2020) Kenya farmers face uncertain future as Covid-19 cuts exports to EU, Financial Times [Online] Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/05284de8-c19f-46de-9fe7-482689be364b [Accessed 12 February 2021].
 Swinnen, J. & McDermott, J. (2020) Covid-19 & Global Food Security, International Food Policy Research Institute.