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How to ensure global food system resilience in the 21st Century (and beyond)
A personal reflection from a guest writer
This week we have a guest op-ed from Ed Davey, a friend who has been working on food systems issues for many years. It is a timely piece and I’m very grateful to Ed for agreeing to share his reflections on Thin Ink (and thus helping my wrist injury to heal).
By Edward Davey
The global food system is under great strain. Unfortunately, this strain is only likely to increase in the turbulent decades ahead, particularly in light of the science set out in the latest IPCC report released this week.
War and conflict play havoc with the global food system. We’ve seen this most starkly in the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led to severe impacts on global food supply and trade, but there are a multitude of other, less well-covered conflicts that have caused hunger and untold suffering. (including in Nigeria, Yemen, Burkina Faso, and Niger).
Indeed, war and conflict have always revealed the lack of resilience within our food systems: the 2022 Global Report on Food Crises showed that conflict and insecurity was the primary driver of crisis-level food insecurity for almost 139 million people.
A changing climate - marked by increased flooding, drought, and extremes of temperature – also poses a real threat to bread baskets, the lives of farmers working in difficult conditions, and the viability of many crops in different places. Risks of ‘multiple bread basket failures’ and ‘food system shocks’ remain acute today, and are likely to increase if global temperature rise continues unchecked. Nowhere is this more acute than in the Horn of Africa, where Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia have missed their fifth consecutive rainy season; a particularly dire situation for these countries, whose agricultural systems are rainfed.
Industrial farming practices – including intensive rearing of animals in confined conditions, often with extensive use of antibiotics – also poses real threats in terms of the rise of antimicrobial resistance and zoonotic disease.
Many nations in the global South are beset by a debt crisis, with major implications for their capacity to ensure access and the right to food, and the social safety nets required to support their citizens through a time of crisis.
The world relies on a small number of staple crops for the majority of its calories – these crops are themselves at risk due to conflict and climate, and many countries have made perilously little investment in other nutritious crops which would be beneficial for their people. We’ve often been told we need to shift our diets, but if we all consume a healthy and nutritious diet, the world would need to boost its current fruit and vegetable production three-fold.
Across the world, nations rely on global trade for access to much of the food they need. And yet, when conflicts or disasters hit, producer countries tend to curtail their exports to insulate their national populations from the suffering which ensues; this ends up heightening pressures on importing countries.
The concentration of power in the food system is itself a challenge to its resilience: a small number of corporations hold outsized power and influence across global supply chains, leading to often unjust outcomes in terms of workers’ rights, labour conditions, and ensuring a fair share of income and proceeds to smallholder farmers.
Cargill, Archer Daniels, Midland, Bunge and Louis Dreyfus control 90% of the global grain trade; Chemchina, Corteva, Bayer, and BASF, 66% of the world’s agri-chemical market. It is, however, also true that at times large companies with highly integrated supply chains can reorganize themselves to withstand shocks better, to the benefit of their producers; for example, by guaranteeing milk prices to farmers during periods of fluctuating markets; or through contract farming, making demand for crops more predictable.
This is not an exhaustive list of threats, but you get the idea. Worse, not only do these risks together pose a systemic threat to the resilience of the global food system; but they are also interconnected and mutually reinforcing.
So the question of what to do to ensure a resilient global food system now keeps me up at night more than at any point working on these issues over recent years.
What are the key players doing?
The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is the foremost global entity responsible for addressing and mitigating these risks. It has a lot of data at its disposal – including through its Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) – and the authority to work with countries on food systems resilience. At COP28 later this year, it will publish a report on investment priorities and opportunities to end hunger and achieve the Paris climate goal. I’m looking forward to this roadmap, and admire the knowledge and foresight of many of the FAO’s (and AMIS’) key officials working on food systems resilience. The FAO – and the rest of the Rome-Based Agencies, such as the World Food Programme and the International Fund for Agricultural Development — are the central global entities working on this issue.
The World Trade Organisation (WTO) also plays an important role, as the global arbiter of a rules-based global trade system which encourages countries to maintain open borders and trading relationships, and led by an inspiring multilateralist, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. But like many multilateral organisations, the WTO faces challenges in fulfilling its mandate, not least because some countries honour WTO rulings more ‘in the breach than in the observance’.
The Committee on Global Food Security (CFS) – set up in 1974 in response to a previous global food security crisis – has in principle the mandate to convene nations and experts to assess the resilience of the global food system, but has suffered from an insufficient budget and limited buy-in from some member states over recent years.
A plethora of NGOs, philanthropies and coalitions work on food system resilience in other ways: encouraging investment in drought-resistant crops in sub-Saharan Africa;
in promoting a greater diversity of nutritious crops around the world; or supporting ‘transformative adaptation’, just to name a few. In some cases, philanthropic groups such as the Gates Foundation have budgets which match or greatly exceed those of nation states.
In summary, there are a lot of players, with each playing an important role. And all these efforts are urgent and necessary; but together insufficient when it comes to addressing the scale of the challenges we now face. More needs to happen, faster, and at a higher level of governmental and non-governmental leadership than we’ve seen for at least some time (Gordon Brown’s work in response to the financial crisis in 2008/2009 is the most recent such example, in my view). Here are a few new ways forward:
A few new ways forward
Nation state leadership: until a few powerful and influential countries from the Global North and the Global South alike commit to elevate food system resilience to the highest level of political discourse and multilateral action, it is likely that the world will not act with the celerity and seriousness that the issue deserves. Some groups are currently working to create a high ambition coalition of countries committed to ambitious food systems reform, modelled on similar groupings on coal, oil and gas, and people, climate, and nature; let’s hope a few nations step forward soon (ideally in time for the UN Food Systems Summit stocktake in July 2023) to assume this leadership position, and use it to make the case for food systems resilience as one of the key issues they take forward.
Mitigate food system emissions: the global food system contributes as much as 37% of global GHG emissions. If we want to prevent the terrible impacts of a changing climate on food security, one way of doing this is by reducing emissions from our food systems as much as possible, whether from agricultural methane, fertiliser, biofuels, or the loss of nature linked to agricultural expansion. At the same time, we need to make sure these efforts aimed at mitigation do not cause negative trade-offs for resilience, livelihoods, the affordability of healthy diets, or the broader natural environment on which we depend. The FAO’s Roadmap to be published at COP28 will hopefully shed important light here on some of the ‘win-wins’ as well as trade-offs before us.
Where necessary, improve the existing institutional architecture: some of the global institutions responsible for resilience could do more to adopt a broader focus, and adopt risk proofing measures, anticipatory action, and a wider focus on the food system as a whole, rather than a few narrowly defined priority crops and indicators. Comprehensive risk management needs to become the norm across the relevant institutions, with encouraging examples to build on, such as the WFP’s R4 Rural Resilience Initiative, providing access to crop insurance, or the African Risk Capacity providing index-based weather insurance to alleviate pressure from drought emergencies threatening food security. The Rome-Based Agencies all do laudable work on resilience, in keeping with their respective constitutions and mandates, but there is surely a case for enhanced action as well as coordination. The UN family as a whole has the duty to do the same and at the highest levels. Those include New York and Washington. The latter is where the finance for food systems resilience largely sits.
Keep up pressure on international action in 2023: work through the G7, the G20, the IMF, World Bank, and MDBs, the Bridgetown Agenda, and the UNFCCC, to place food systems resilience on the table at every turn. UAE, the president of COP28, is expected to place a major focus on food systems; let this be the culmination of a year’s work to put in place better systems, structures, and funding.
Dramatically increase funding to make food systems resilient: there is an urgent need for more funding – both national and international – as well as more technical work on the kinds of data, risk assessments, and scenarios work that many resilience experts call for. For a challenge as existential and as consequential as food systems resilience, it is remarkable how little global funding and attention there is at present.
Conduct further work to understand the links between food systems resilience and trade: Food systems resilience must be elevated to the heart of WTO business, with a focused and dedicated track of work on food systems resilience, with support from key nations from north and south committed to leading such work in the WTO.
This is not an exhaustive list; and there is an equally urgent and compelling need to support and empower local communities and farmers to build resilience from the bottom up. Farmers need infrastructure, innovation, access to finance, and packages of support defined by a focus on resilience at every turn. They are best placed to deliver resilience in their own contexts; but these kinds of national as well as global reforms would assist and enable these efforts.
History will not look kindly on this generation of actors if it does not act with bravery and foresight to deliver a much more resilient, as well as just and moral, global food system, in short order. We owe it to ourselves – especially in light of this week’s IPCC – to raise our collective game, fast, while there is still time.
Three Good Reads
Since the latest IPCC report dropped this week, I’m sharing three good pieces that looked at what the report said, including about food systems.
To end this issue, here’s a graphic from the report.