Learnings from COVID to build the food system

FFA2021 Annual Conference session 4 summary

Monday, Apr 26, 2021


During a session to discuss lessons from the pandemic, David Nabarro, Strategic Director, 4SD and Special Envoy on COVID-19 for the World Health Organization, explained how the global COVID-19 pandemic had exposed three vulnerabilities in food systems.

Restrictions on movement had increased poverty as the poor, in particular, found it harder to earn money. This meant many could not buy food and school closures deprived children of essential midday meals. Farmers have been unable to sell their produce as traditional outlets are closed. Supply chains, particularly long ones, have been severely disrupted.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and preparations advance for the UN Food Systems Summit, Dr Nabarro admitted he had been concerned about a potential clash between a focus on food and focus on health. However, listening to government ministers had convinced him “they see the challenges posed by COVID-19 and the issues around functioning of food systems to be densely interrelated”. In each case it is the poor who suffer the most and should be the priority target for help. The world had not applied this lesson to the pandemic; thus failing to take a global approach and sharing the limited amount of vaccines according to those most in need. The result has been “a huge race to try and get vaccines by a small number of countries and large inequity”.

With food systems, the Special Envoy believes there is greater understanding of the interconnectedness that “we are all part of one big family and the impact of food production systems, particularly negative impacts, aren’t just local, they can expand to be global”. The climate change impact of food affects the whole world. He rejected the suggestion that food production must increase to eradicate the hunger which up to 800 million people suffer daily. More than enough food is already being produced, with one third disappearing in waste. “Simply putting more food into the system will not necessarily increase their ability to eat.”

Analysis of hunger shows that often it is the result of conflict or climate change and requires locally specific action to tackle the underlying causes. In contrast, the broader question of food production systems and their impact on the planet, the environment and the atmosphere, should “be looked at as a challenge in its own right and factored into all decisions about the future of food systems”.
He called for ‘laser light’ focus on this system’s challenge to identify the reasons so many people go hungry and malnourished although there is plenty of food to go round. “Let’s get the reasons out into the open. Let’s deal with them place by place rigorously,” he urged, suggesting the results of today’s work would only become clear by 2030.

In this process, two lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic should be borne in mind. Equity is key and all the major issues for the future are interconnected. Failure to approach COVID-19 or global food security from a ‘one world perspective’ will perpetuate the huge differences in opportunities and wellbeing of people in different parts of the world.

“You cannot deal with big threats like climate change or the destruction of nature in a world where access to precious resources is so unevenly distributed between different groups of people,” he warned.

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