From wet markets to empty markets, the functionality of food systems has shaped the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact, making it desperately clear that the status quo is unsustainable. Unsurprisingly, the inequities of the food system have been most acutely felt among the world’s poor and marginalized people.
The number of poor people globally is likely to increase 20 percent above pre-pandemic levels, according to the newly published 2021 Global Food Policy Report. For emerging markets on the verge of middle-income like Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the pandemic threatens to reverse so much of the recent economic progress, underpinned by agricultural growth.
One in three young people in Bangladesh say they experienced moderate or severe food insecurity during lockdown, and in Ethiopia, more than 75 percent of people say they have lost income.
Pre-pandemic, Bangladesh and Ethiopia were among the so-called new “tiger economies”, countries whose productivity was long held back by hunger, malnutrition and inequality, and where such factors have resurfaced since the start of the pandemic. For these economic tigers, their potential for both recovery and economic growth remains tied to agriculture, and fulfilling this potential will depend on science and innovation.
In agriculture, as with other sectors, the pandemic has fast-tracked the digital revolution. While technology has provided short-term solutions to reduce the impact of restrictions on movement and labor, governments can take this opportunity to embed innovations for the longer term.
For example, CGIAR has been working with the Ethiopian government to develop apps that share nutritional advice as part of the Digital Ethiopia 2025 national strategy. Poor health and poverty are often interlinked, and these apps aim to help create awareness about food safety, consumption patterns and nutrition – all of which underpin good health.
Similarly, in Bangladesh, a new digital disease monitoring app allows users to identify hotspots, not only of COVID-19 but also crop and fish diseases. This has the potential to reduce the extent of outbreaks and save harvests, further protecting livelihoods and food security, which have both been impacted by the pandemic.
Secondly, while resilient and sustainable agricultural systems will not necessarily prevent another pandemic, they will go a long way in helping countries recover from the impact, and better prepare for the next shock.
Having data to measure disruptions and volatility in the agri-food chain, both at a global level and a national level, can inform policies that protect future food supplies. In Bangladesh, for example, CGIAR is working with local partners to monitor food, labor, input, supplies and prices, to advise on appropriate policies, with an emphasis on minimizing the impact of COVID-19 and other shocks on the most vulnerable members of society.
As the economic consequences of the pandemic become clear, supporting governments to develop and implement post-pandemic Action Plans with agriculture at their core can help provide a roadmap for recovery and future resilience. Data collection and innovative ways of collecting it – such as the rise in farmer citizen scientists, who gather information within their communities – is vital to better understand the needs of those along the food chain and allow other countries to benefit from lessons learnt.
Finally, agriculture also offers a route to greater resilience against future health challenges in middle-income countries. As demonstrated by COVID-19, the crossovers between human, animal and environment health require an integrated One Health approach that tackles all three aspects together.
This is why CGIAR researchers from ILRI have launched the One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre in Africa (OHRECA), to leverage their expertise in animal health and cross-species disease to work alongside the Kenyan government and sequence the genome of SARS-CoV-2 circulating in Kenya.
But to fully develop a global One Health approach and support innovation in tackling hunger, malnutrition and climate change, governments and donors need to double their funding for agricultural research.
The recent announcement by the African Development Bank (AfDB) that it will continue to invest heavily in agricultural transformation is welcome news, and offers hope this will extend and build on the successes of the Technologies for African Agricultural Transformation (TAAT) program, led by CGIAR’s IITA. The TAAT program has already brought to bear dozens of innovations, including 52 new technologies in Ethiopia alone, prompting the proposal being considered by the AfDB Board to fund a new, three-year phase of the initiative.
The effects of this pandemic are felt widely but unevenly, yet around the world, the common thread is food and food systems. No country or region can progress alone. But by leveraging all our agricultural research and innovation to bake in greater resilience in our food systems going forwards, we can accelerate the recovery and future-proof our food security.
Loss of income, increased food insecurity and reduced access to nutritional diets make it clear that agricultural transformation is central to a better functioning food system. It’s time these tigers got their roar back.
Kundhavi Kadiresan, is Managing Director for Global Engagement and Innovation at the CGIAR System Organization