Pandemic brings urgency to transform the world’s food system now

Africa has not been spared by the COVID-19 emergency. Beyond the immediate health effects, the pandemic threatens the world’s already fragile food system, with particularly severe consequences in Africa. The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity believes that the solution lies in small-scale food producers and farmer-managed seed systems.

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    A broken food system

    Africa is facing diverse conflicts, climate change, the biggest locust invasion in 70 years, and food and nutrition insecurity – in addition to COVID-19. The 2019 United Nations report, ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’, provides key figures on the number of people suffering from hunger, as well as the rate of child stunting and wasting, and adult and child obesity. Worldwide, more than 820 million people still go to bed hungry, and more than 2 billion lack regular access to safe, nutritious and sufficient food.

    Unfortunately, the vast majority of the world’s hungry live in sub-Saharan Africa. It is so unfortunate that we live in a global society full of injustices, with hunger and obesity being two sides of today’s broken global food system.

    A worsening food and hunger crisis

    The pandemic has worsened the food and hunger crisis, and devastated the livelihoods of millions of Africans. It has also raised the alarm on the urgency of transforming the world’s food system. The strict health measures imposed to control the pandemic, with lockdowns, job losses and reduced mobility of food products, have led to a serious food crisis in Africa, especially in urban areas. In countries like Uganda and Nigeria, prices of basic foodstuffs escalated to record high as a result of speculation. This has meant that the majority of those who live from hand to mouth, with unstable incomes, have missed out even on the food that was available. Inability to meet daily dietary needs compromises people’s immune systems, weakening whole communities’ abilities to fight COVID-19.

    In developed countries, e-commerce and large grocers have played a significant role in providing relief. However, the same cannot be said for sub-Saharan Africa. The retail sector here is almost entirely ‘informal’ and operated through small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Moreover, sub-Saharan Africa’s population is mostly rural.

    Detrimental changes, guised as support

    In response to these challenges, and to address the constraints that have too long faced agriculture on the continent, multinationals have stepped forward with several mitigation and adaptation measures. Some of these have been offered under a guise of support for African small-scale farmers, purporting to help them become more resilient and provide insurance against hunger and the worsening situation.

    An example is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA), funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and the Howard G. Buffett foundation. This partnership was introduced with the aim of developing conventional, genetically modified (GM), drought-tolerant and insect protected maize varieties for Africa. Yet, some of the varieties donated to some African countries under the partnership have failed worldwide and are being phased out. This means that a model of agriculture is being promoted that could well confront small-scale farmers with big challenges, particularly a greater need for costly inputs and related biosafety concerns.

    Africa should not be treated as a guinea pig for technological trials or as a dumping site for unwanted technologies. Slow Food is against the tendency towards corporate control of the African food system. Multinational corporations, supported by foreign investors and developed countries are becoming very powerful and have started controlling the African food system at the expense of the food communities and small-scale farmers. As a result of their interventions in some countries, small scale farmers, pastoral and indigenous communities have lost their land to industrial agriculture that supports the use of agrochemicals and monoculture. This has resulted in biodiversity losses and environmental degradation. Some of these countries include: Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania, Benin, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal

    It is no longer business as usual, and much needs to be done. The pandemic has brought increased uncertainty in the global geopolitical environment and exposed fragilities in the current systems and structures. Europe’s food and agricultural policies have a lot of influence and impact, both within and beyond Europe. The planned summit between the African Union (AU) and European Union (EU) can play a significant role in promoting an inclusive, just and sustainable food system in the Global South.

    A role for EU policy and the AU-EU Summit

    EU strategies and policies should seek to address the challenges facing small-scale farmers on the African continent. In sub-Saharan Africa, small-scale farming employs more than 60% of the workforce and contributes an average 23% of the region’s GDP. However, most small-scale farmers are ‘poor kings’, meaning that they live lives of abject poverty, while producing most of the food eaten.

    Free trade agreements tend to be skewed in favour of standardised and industrial models of production. This severely impacts small-scale farmers by discouraging local production and consumption. Agri-food exports from the EU such as poultry and dairy products have continued to flood African markets, confronting small-scale farmers and SMEs with a lot of unfair competition. The AU-EU Summit next year should ensure that exports and imports do not negatively impact food producers and SMEs on either continent. Policies should also aim to support domestic food production to feed Africa’s growing population – and not for export markets.

    The effects of climate change

    Climate change is firmly embedded in the public discourse and has attracted a lot of global attention. What many do not sufficiently realise is that most disasters related to this phenomenon take place in developing countries, especially Africa – though Africa produces the least amount of greenhouse gases. Climate change-related disasters affect Africans so severely because of their dependence on natural resources for their livelihoods and their limited capacity to cope with weather and climate variability and extremes. Swings in weather patterns hit farmers, pastoralists and indigenous communities especially hard, increasing poverty and food insecurity.

    Europe’s agriculture and food industry has focused mainly on expanding trade volumes and making agribusinesses competitive at the global level. Yet, as a strategic partner for Africa, EU investment needs to support shorter supply chains, localised food systems and farmers markets, which would also reduce carbon footprints. EU development cooperation should emphasise research on climate change and its impacts in Africa, while supporting adaptation and mitigation strategies. Local communities need to be consciously involved in decision-making processes and in policy formulation, especially where natural resources management, agricultural production and trade are concerned.

    Youth is the future

    Young people are drivers of change on the African continent. However, we have continued to talk about the youth as if they are peripheral. They are not peripheral, but the majority. Their world may be slightly different from ours, but it is real. The AU-EU Summit should produce services and platforms that work for them, because they will be at the centre of transformation. Investing in the youth will reduce migration to developed countries in search of greener pastures. In addition, the AU-EU Summit should bring us policies to ensure that young Africans have equal rights with their EU counterparts, especially the right to travel. The role African immigrants play in the European agriculture and food industry cannot be overstated.

    Empowering women

    Empowering women is vital to uplift communities out of poverty and ensure food and nutrition security at the household level. In most African countries, women produce 60-80% of food. However, their role is still largely disregarded, and women continue to have limited control over finances and other resources. The AU-EU Summit must mainstream gender concerns in the design of food, agriculture and environmental programmes. Targeted support should be given to smallholder women farmers, including strategies to facilitate their access to credit.

    Protecting African biodiversity

    Africa’s rich agricultural biodiversity is at risk. The global push by private seed companies to control the entire seed market by promoting a few select crops with the use of improved seeds, GM and hybrids poses a threat to Africa’s food sovereignty. Strategies need to be put in place to protect Africa’s biodiversity resources. In addition, the AU-EU Summit should come up with policies that guarantee the right to land for farmers and indigenous communities.

    The Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

    At the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, we believe the real solution to the challenges facing the global food system is not industrial agriculture. The real solution lies in small-scale food producers – custodians of indigenous knowledge – and farmer-managed seed systems. The Foundation has been at the forefront in promoting an agricultural system that respects the environment, animal welfare and human health.

    We started working in Africa in 2004 and have since implemented a range of projects. The Ark of Taste and Presidia projects, for example, are cataloguing and protecting biodiversity resources at risk of disappearing. The Earth Markets and Chefs’ Alliance have forged direct links between food producers, consumers and chefs, while inviting them to take action to improve the food industry, which contributes 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Slow Food flagship project of 10,000 gardens in Africa plays a substantial role in mitigating the impacts of climate change by enhancing agroecology, fostering adaptive measures and promoting resilient crops.

    Urgent action at all levels

    The EU- AU Summit can provide a platform for cooperation between European and African organisations, aimed at forging alliances, networking and awareness raising campaigns targeting consumers in both continents. These alliances will play a fundamental role in ensuring that our production systems are free from human rights violations, respect the environment, animal welfare and human health. Our combined efforts can foster global cooperation, awareness and grassroots interventions for a more sustainable future. Beyond that, immediate action is needed to ensure that all players in the food system, so essential in safeguarding our future and our planet, preserve enough economic strength to overcome the current crisis.

    The COVID-19 emergency confronts us with stark evidence that our model of infinite development, indifferent to cultural, social and environmental values, is not sustainable. The AU-EU Summit must act with urgency, exploring ways to adapt trade agreements and policies to facilitate a transition towards agroecology, biodiversity conservation and a more sustainable global food system. Part of this will be to support local supply chains, upheld as a source of dignity and pride for farmers, and to prevent actions that undermine actors in Africa’s local food chains.

    About the author
    Born in Molo, Kenya, in 1987, John Kariuki Mwangi is vice president of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, coordinator of Slow Food’s projects in Kenya and Slow Food councilor for East Africa.


    Read the full magazine issue

    Navigating the new normal: EU-AU partnerships in the post-COVID era – Volume 9, Issue 3, 2020
    This issue of Great Insights explores the essence of the partnership between the AU and EU from the perspectives of policymakers, business leaders, city officials and individual thinkers. Their insights push decision makers to reimagine the relationship as they navigate the pandemic-induced ‘new normal’.
    26 October 2020
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