COVID-19, food systems, and One Health in an urbanizing world: Research responses at a national level

The course and effects of COVID-19 have exposed new vulnerabilities in our global food system. The movement restrictions imposed by the pandemic have intensified economic and health challenges among the world’s poorer population, prompting a response from the scientific community, and especially among those researchers with CGIAR and its many partners.

In a July 6 side event for the UN Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) Science Days, attended live by an audience of nearly 800 people worldwide, an expert panel gathered online to discuss the evolving evidence of the impacts of COVID-19 on urban food systems and the urban poor who suffered disproportionately during the pandemic.

The challenges posed by the pandemic are considerable. As one example, while income reductions in rural areas of Nigeria were reported to be approximately 16%, in urban areas those declines were closer to 27%, according to Kwaw Andam with the International Food Research and Policy Institute and a member of the CGIAR COVID-19 Hub team in Nigeria.

Due to mobility restrictions, in many countries, farmers were unable to cultivate all their available land.

“These conditions intensify the insecurity of many small-scale farmers who need to feed their families and the crop surplus for income,” said Ibrahim Mohammed, the Deputy Head of Planning and Policy Coordination in the Federal Ministry and Agriculture and Rural Development in Nigeria.

Claudia Sadoff, the Executive Management Team Convener and Managing Director for Research Delivery and Impact for CGIAR set the stage for discussion.

“The pandemic has exposed fragilities in our food systems and public health… and stressed the need to recognize the interdependence of plants, animals and humans through a OneHealth approach. Our food systems must evolve to balance our needs with the needs of the world,” she said.

To prompt discussion, the panel began with the presentation of a global assessment to examine the impacts of COVID 19 on food systems, and food and nutrition security. Christophe Béné with the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT led the team of researchers who asked, “How did the pandemic affect food security in the first 12 months (from January 2020 to December 2020)?”

Using survey data collected from 62 countries and 337 secondary documents, Béné and his team concluded that the global food supply was largely sustained during the pandemic; however, access to food was a comparatively larger challenge for more vulnerable consumers, and especially the urban poor. Furthermore, price rises observed in 2020 for particular crops may possibly have further hindered access to food for broader groups of consumers.

“But overall, food systems resisted because actors in the systems adapted and because food services were protected by governments as essential services.”

Another takeaway from the study, according to Béné, was the need for more research and, specifically, the need for greater collaboration to obtain better data. He said many effects of the pandemic were poorly quantified and/or documented, such as nutrition, domestic violence, and shifts in food consumption habits. This lack of information speaks to a broader knowledge gap about food systems that, for the time being, rests in theoretical use of terms like “food systems” but little shared agreement about the components of that concept, such as “resilience” or “vulnerabilities.”

“If we’re going to build back better, we need to understand what that means beyond a group of buzzwords,” Béné told the panel.

In response, Rene van Veenhuizen, a Senior Program Officer with the RUAF Global Partnership on Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, confirmed the study’s primary conclusion about the need for more evidence.

“We lack understanding about food systems… we have lots of anecdotal evidence but, in most cities, food system production and its resilience have not been analyzed. Evidence from cities where we worked with the WLE/RUAF/FAO City-Region Food System approach show the importance of data gathering and monitoring, as well as multi-stakeholder involvement and action planning. The pathways of impact, although well presented, need proper information and joint assessment to define the pathways of change. However, I will say that I feel strongly about the need for better policy and governance to mitigate future impacts. We can contribute in that way by encouraging more agroecology and connectivity between actors and levels of government.”

The need for improved data was echoed throughout the remainder of the panel which featured insights from national and international public sector authorities, who shared their particular perspectives on the effects of COVID 19 on urban poor.

Saro Abdella, the TB and HIV Research Directorate Director with the Ethiopian Public Health Institute, said the movement restrictions with the pandemic had an unequal effect on women and girls in two ways. For one, as 15% of urban women around the globe run food businesses as a livelihood, this group saw their incomes drop precipitously. Second, the required home confinement meant many women had to forego ante-natal and gynecological health services, and, in some cases, exposed them to stronger threats of domestic violence.

In many countries, food supply was under pressure. For example, trade restrictions limited input availability and retail markets were closed. To mitigate these effects, Willem Janssen, lead agricultural economist with the World Bank, said his organization had intervened with a variety of tools, including seed distribution, cash transfers, and programs to help expand the availability of dairy products. In the long run, Janssen stressed, research for development institutions would need a better understanding of consumers to inform appropriate policy action, especially on engaging and empowering (small and large) private sector actors for establishing new market channels and improving access to food.

While much of the conversation focused on the disparate effects of the pandemic on different group of people within food systems, Simon Heck, the Director of the Global Sweetpotato Agri-food System Program at the International Potato Center, reminded the panel that future research will need to take a more holistic view.

“As we work with stakeholders to update our research agenda on rural food production, we need to place this agenda within a larger system perspective spanning both rural and urban drivers of change. Two-thirds of consumers will live in cities by 2050 and we need to consider this fact as central to the future of resilient and sustainable food systems,” Heck said.

Silvia Alonso, a Senior Scientist with the International Livestock Research Institute supported Heck’s point and noted the value of a OneHealth approach to guide food system research.

“We know the role that wet markets played in COVID 19, so we need to be mindful of how these systems interact and affect people and the environment.”

In closing, John McDermott, the Director of the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, spoke of the need to create enabling environments that facilitate more effective collaboration and more informed interventions.

“Partnership and collaboration are key going forward. Where there is more information and transparency and trust, things work better and change is more positive and sustainable.”

The side event was one of several Science Days events to provide ideas and conversation for the UNFSS this September.