COVID-19 is wake up call for global food systems, say experts

Current industrial agriculture models drive habitat loss, create conditions for viruses to emerge and spread

By Vineet Kumar
Published: Monday 20 April 2020

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has exposed a crisis in the global food system, the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) — a panel of developmental economists, agronomists, nutritionists and sociologists from 18 countries — said in April 2020.

The vulnerability of food systems to climate and disease-related disruptions was clear long before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the panel.

Current industrial agriculture models drive habitat loss and create conditions for viruses to emerge and spread, the panel said, adding that the spread of viruses occurs through intensive livestock production and an increase in human-wildlife interaction.

Zoonotic spillovers — that caused COVID-19 — occur from complex dynamics linking human and natural ecosystems.

The spread of pathogens was exacerbated by climate change, land use change, biodiversity loss and the removal of essential protective barriers, the panel said, citing a WHO 2015 report, called ‘Connecting Global Priorities: Biodiversity and Human Health’.

Intensive livestock production amplified the risk of diseases as a large number of animals are confined in small spaces.

This confinement results in narrowed generic diversity, fast animal turnover and habitat fragmentation through expansion of livestock production.

More than 70 per cent of infectious diseases that emerged in humans since the 1940s could be traced back to animals, with the Ebola disease, HIV/AIDS, the West Nile fever, Lyme disease and SARS, all rooted in environmental change and ecosystem disturbances, said IPES-Food.

Vulnerabilities of existing food systems

Approximately 820 million were under-nourished and two billion suffered from food insecurity before the pandemic, with an ensuing global recession set to hit the most vulnerable the hardest.

More than 50 per cent of farmers and rural workers live below the poverty line in different countries across the global south, the panel observed.

“Children are one school meal away from hunger, countries are one export ban away from food shortages and farms are one travel ban away from critical labor shortages”, said Olivier De Schutter, the co-chair of IPES-Food and UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights.

The crisis is also being used by powerful actors to accelerate unsustainable, business-as-usual approached to food systems, the panel warned.

It should, instead be used for the foundation of a diversified and resilient agro-ecological food system, it said, adding that a paradigm shift was more urgent than ever.

The panel recommended the paradigm shift to diversified resilient agro-ecological food systems.

The way forward

Agro-ecology uses natural synergies and is based on land sharing instead of clearing landscapes for uniform farming systems.

IPES-Food said agro-ecology had the unique capacity to reconcile economic, environmental and social dimensions of sustainability.

This was recognised by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and landmark reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the World Bank, the panel said.

The territorial approach advocated by several agro-ecologists provides an opportunity for food producers and conservationists to allow the production of healthy food and to protect important wildlife habitats.

Agro-ecological food systems increase disease resistance by relocalising and decentralising breeding of plants and livestock to harness diversity.

It can also rebuild local food cultures and local community structures — critical during vulnerable times — by enhancing access to fresh food, ensuring greater monetary values for farmers and reducing vulnerabilities to disruptions in international markets.

Efforts must also be made to reform international food system governance, the panel said.  

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