Can COVID-19 create momentum for sustainable and resilient food systems?

Photo courtesy by Paulina Molina, ECDPM


COVID-19 can be a turning point towards building more resilient and sustainable societies. At this moment, global and national economies have come to an abrupt standstill. Suddenly, economic growth is not sacred anymore. To protect the weakest members of our societies, we are willing to make enormous sacrifices. Reconciling other values with economic growth is also needed if we want to meet the sustainable development goals on achieving zero hunger and greater environmental sustainability. Our research in Arusha shows how a food systems approach can help understand dynamics and identify points for change towards more sustainable and resilient food systems.

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    Seize the opportunity to build sustainable and resilient food systems

    The impact of COVID-19 is revealing the fragility of many systems, including the global food system that connects Europe to Sub-Saharan Africa – but also more local food systems in European and African countries, albeit differently. Global supply chains are being disrupted, while more local food systems are struggling with the restrictions on the movement of people and access to labour. Experts predict that the impact of COVID-19 on food security will be harder in those countries where food and health systems are already struggling, and for poor people in richer countries. These worries add to those, supported by scientific consensus, that malnutrition and, increasingly, also obesity and diet-related diseases – negative consequences of today’s food systems – are the biggest risk for people’s health.

    To what extent our current food systems have contributed to the emergence and spread of the novel coronavirus is subject of debate, and the pathways to solutions to this crisis are complex and political. It is becoming clear that there needs to be a global solution. Fittingly, a global summit convening all the planet’s key players on sustainable food systems had been scheduled for 2021.

    Also at the national level, governments in developed and developing countries need to find pragmatic approaches to address the coronavirus crisis while taking serious steps towards more sustainable food systems. There is a strong call for leaders to find a joint response, to invest in innovative solutions that can increase the resilience of economies and food systems to face the current pandemic in the short-term and provide for the well-being of their populations and ecosystems in the long-term.

    This seems difficult because private companies and politicians are often driven by short-term interests and act according to the mantra of ‘grow-first-fix-later’. The economic recovery plans that are being put in place are important to cushion the biggest shocks brought about by COVID-19, but they should also be used to make smart choices geared towards the right direction of a transition to a cleaner and more resilient food system.

    An opportunity for Europe for more coherent food policies?


    The Farm to Fork strategy, part of the Green Deal, is the European Commission’s strategic, long-term vision towards more resilient and sustainable food systems in Europe. The strategy was due to be adopted by EU Commissioners on 25 March, but because of the pandemic, that has been delayed until 29 April. The European People’s Party in the European Parliament called for a further postponement under the pretext of ‘protecting’ European farmers that are already facing the Corona-crisis from ‘more rules and restrictions from Brussels’.

    Only a few months ago, farmers in the Netherlands and Germany protested heavily against stricter environmental restrictions. Family farmers all over Europe are increasingly feeling squeezed between stricter standards and regulations for quality and safety, and increasing pressure from supermarkets to produce for lower prices, threatened by imports from producers outside the EU who don’t need to abide by the same rules. According to several experts, Europe needs a far more transformative and systemic approach than the one proposed by the (leaked) Farm to Fork strategy. The emergency situation of COVID-19 shouldn’t be used as an excuse to call off this initiative, but it should rather be seen as a wake-up call to systematically address the urgent challenges at hand, to tackle the trade-offs between the different objectives of food-related policies, and coordinate action between the EU, its member states and other key stakeholders like businesses and civil society groups.

    As political discussions in Europe about if and what measures to take towards more sustainable and resilient food systems heat up, two things become clear. First, there is a need for more evidence and dialogue around trade-offs between different policy objectives that impact food systems. Second, governments can’t do this alone: public and private investments need to be aligned and societal support is fundamental.

    Our two-year research in Arusha has shown that looking at food systems more systematically can open up paths towards more resilience and sustainability, and offer approaches and tools that can be relevant for Europe.

    Towards more resilient and sustainable food systems: The example of Arusha


    Our report is based on two years of research in Tanzania, in close collaboration with local and national government, national and international researchers, NGOs and farmers’ organisations like Slow Food Tanzania and MVIWATA, among many others. We have adapted and applied a food systems approach to understanding dynamics and trade-offs within the system, identify entry points for change as well as potential synergies. This approach can help answer important questions: what are the costs of a transition to a more sustainable food system? Who are the winners and losers? We used the food system approach to understand the interests and incentives that drive Arusha’s food system actors, to inform decision-makers and help to make more realistic choices related to food, nutrition and agricultural development in Arusha.

    The report also highlights another important element for creating resilient systems: diversification, in particular through the integration of indigenous vegetables in the food system. Better integrating indigenous vegetables into fields and people’s diets is part of a broader diversification strategy that can make food systems more sustainable and resilient to the effects of climate change and other shocks. Moreover, more diversity on the plot makes farmers less vulnerable to pests and soils healthier, which helps to face adverse weather conditions like prolonged drought. Dietary diversity is a key aspect of combating malnutrition and boosting the immune system, vital to fighting health threats such as COVID-19. Diversity in income sources is also an important building block for resilient households.

    So, why are indigenous vegetables still largely neglected by Tanzanian policymakers, development partners and researchers despite their potential? The importance of small-scale farmers in Tanzania’s economy is stressed in many Tanzanian policy documents and politician’s speeches; however, agricultural policies in Tanzania are ineffective at best and contradictory at worst in achieving its stated policy objectives of combating malnutrition and promoting competitive agricultural value chains. The government’s rhetoric of prioritising agriculture for economic transformation is not matched by strong public investment in the sector. Also, national climate and environmental policies are in place but suffer from weak enforcement and are ill-adapted to the diversity of local contexts. The role of development partners is also contested, as they often support the development of export-oriented value chains while they ignore the importance of the informal sector and the potential of regional markets for local incomes and food security.

    To face these obstacles, the report puts forward four pathways to change, aimed at improving the access to knowledge about more sustainable practices for farmers, increasing the awareness of local consumers about the nutritional benefits of indigenous vegetables and supporting the development of an integrated food policy at the city level.

    The most important pathway that the report draws out is to invest in the dialogue between local champions and coalitions that are already working on innovative solutions. Together or separately, these pathways can build a more sustainable food system in Arusha. Most importantly, the research shows that a systematic approach to analysing food systems can help find ways to transition towards more sustainable and resilient food systems, be it in Arusha or elsewhere.

    Reboot the system


    Experts have been raising serious concerns about the weakness of our current food systems. COVID-19 has brought such weakness to the surface in many countries across the globe. In Europe and in Africa – just as anywhere else – understanding the drivers and challenges of a food system is crucial to creating resilience to those shocks we have been warned about for decades already, such as climate change, or sudden ones such as the coronavirus pandemic, and those that are yet to come.

    The good news is that cities around the world are already exchanging practical experiences on how they are facing this health crisis and at the same time building inclusive and sustainable local food systems. Building a brighter world after the Corona-crisis will be about daring to dream big, imagine the unimaginable, push the global leaders to think ahead and seize this opportunity of global solidarity now to face the sustainability challenges of our times.

    Please click here to read the complete report ‘Sustainable food systems through diversification and indigenous vegetables: An analysis of the Arusha area’

    The views are those of the authors and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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