Building Forward Better: Experts Echo the Call for Food System Transformation  

Last week, in a virtual roundtable discussion organized by the World Food Prize (WFP), seven agriculture experts echoed a call for renewed leadership from the United States to help transform food systems and, in the process, lead the way to combat food insecurity, malnutrition, and climate change around the world.  

 While the challenges before the world in the wake of the COVID pandemic are immense and complex, the roundtable struck a tone of general optimism. Claudia Sadoff, the Executive Management Team Convener and Managing Director for Research Delivery and Impact at the CGIAR, said in recent months “a range of constituencies [has] come forward to share their visions and discuss how we can connect food system transformation to climate action and biodiversity conversation… Science and innovation will be a critical part of the mix, providing new evidence, insights, and solutions that feed into strategic alliances for change.” 

 The optimism, however, was tempered by an underlying concern to seize this particular moment for creating a brighter food systems future. 

 “I’ve got to be honest, I’m worried,” said Lawrence Haddad, the executive director for the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition and a 2018 WFP laureate. “We’re on the doorstep of famine in 20 countries and global food prices are rising. We knew this this was taking place before COVID began and now the situation is worse. We know that hunger will continue to increase and could in some cases lead to civil unrest. The good news is we’ve never known more about how to solve this crisis and we have the resources.” 

 The roundtable was organized in response to a February 2020 open letter from 24 World Food Prize laureates (including seven current and former CGIAR scientists) to US President Joseph Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris, calling on the country to renew its leadership in pursuit of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, many of which are rooted in concerns about food, hunger, health, and agricultural systems. 

 In the letter, the laureates wrote:  

Even pre-COVID-19, hunger was on the rise, climate emissions—in part driven by the food system—were not on track to meet the Paris Agreement targets, and the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization reported in 2020 that an estimated 3 billion people could not afford a healthy diet in 2017. While the world reduced absolute poverty from 2 billion people in 1990 to 800 million people before the pandemic, the UN Development Program approximates COVID-19 could push the number of people living in extreme poverty to over 1 billion by 2030. 

 All the experts agreed on the need to target nutrition and youth to provide the energy needed to make long-lasting change. Jan Low from the International Potato Center, and a 2016 WFP laureate, is known for her work on vitamin-A rich biofortified sweetpotato, which has helped curb stunting in children and improved pre-natal health among expectant mothers in Africa. Low said the need to cultivate youth interest in agriculture is especially important in vulnerable areas like sub-Saharan Africa. “Seventy percent of this region is 30 years old and younger and this group has been greatly affected by the economic downturn during COVID. We need to build their skills and provide an enabling system where young people can invest in agriculture as a livelihood again.” 

 Indeed, lack of interest in agriculture by youth has played a role in the stagnation of agricultural development in many areas. And that is a costly mistake for national economies, according tRob Bertram, the Chief Scientist for the Bureau of Resilience and Food Security with USAID. He cited a World Bank report that found growth in the agricultural sector is four times more effective in developing countries than other types of growth, largely due to the innovations generated to spur greater food production and the cascading effects of stronger food systems. 

“When people rise up out of poverty and overcome hunger, they improve their diets and this makes them more productive. [For this reason], we need affordable interventions to drive productivity gains and job opportunities. Agriculture does this very well by producing local food and better nutrition. Importantly, women are well-positioned to make food system transformation succeed because they are consumers and farmers,” Bertram added. “In this way, we can build forward better. This moment in COVID recovery is providing a key entry point.” 

Low seconded Bertram’s point about COVID relief as an important pivot: “In the 1930s in the United States, we saw how depression and droughts drove reforms in agriculture that led to incredible gains and prosperity. This phoenix can and must rise from the ashes.” 

 According to the recent Ceres2030 report from Cornell University, investing USD 100 billion per year for the next decade could be a first step toward ending global hunger by 2030. Haddad said while these numbers may appear intimidating the cost of inaction would drive expenses far higher for humanity.  

 “Cutting domestic and international finance for food systems and agriculture… will put burdens on the young and vulnerable. Over half of all Africans lost work in 2020. Six-hundred-and-ninety million people are hungry and that number is rising. Now is the time for those who have suffered least to lead the way. Food system transformation is the smart and moral thing to do. If we act now, we can look back at this moment and realize this is where we began to bend the curve.” 

 Closing the roundtable, Barbara Stinson, the President of the WFP, noted the event took place on 107th birthday of the late Norman Borlaug, whose pioneering work in breeding inspired the creation of the CGIAR in the early 1970s. 

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