OPINION | We need to build better, more resilient and equitable food systems

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Rebuilding our food systems must be well-considered and done in a reasonable manner that embraces the differences that exist environmentally, socially, culturally and economically, argues the author. (Photo: Pixabay)
Rebuilding our food systems must be well-considered and done in a reasonable manner that embraces the differences that exist environmentally, socially, culturally and economically, argues the author. (Photo: Pixabay)

With the global population expected to reach nine billion people in 2050 under limited resources and rising disasters, we cannot continue adopting a business-as-usual approach in the hope of meeting our future food security needs, writes Nokuthula Vilakazi.


The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed enormous inequalities and injustices that have existed for a long time in our global systems. These inequalities have divided those who have adequate income and mobility from those who do not, especially in food availability and access issues. 

It is speculated that the coronavirus ended up affecting humans by way of an intermediate host animal in a wet market in Wuhan, China. The host animal is thought to have been a wild animal consumed by some Chinese people – a trend brought about by the need for more food to meet the needs of the expanding human population. This has resulted in food production models that are destroying ecosystems and contributing to the emergence of zoonoses. 

As populations continue to expand and increase their proximity to wildlife in search of more living spaces and food sources, more animal-to-human transmission of viruses leading to similar pandemics, such as the Ebola virus, Zika, West Nile and the most recent SARS-CoV-2, are likely to increase in occurrence in the near future. 

Food insecurity

Measures to control the spread of Covid-19 resulted in changes that severely affected those who are already at a high risk of long-term food insecurity and malnutrition. When the pandemic hit in 2019/20, more than 820 million people globally were facing food insecurity. By December 2020, 9.34 million people in South Africa (16%) were facing high levels of acute food insecurity, and the number was projected to rise to 11.8 million people in the first quarter of 2021. 

Unless urgent action is taken, current estimates suggest that the number of people facing hunger globally could double from 135 to 265 million due to Covid-19. In some developing countries, national poverty rates are expected to increase by as much as 27 percentage points.

Global hunger has accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic, rapidly exacerbating an ongoing food insecurity and nutrition crisis. School closure due to the pandemic resulted in nearly 370 million children in 150 countries missing in-school meals. Export bans resulted in price increases, making it difficult for people to access essential foods, worsening the risk of food insecurity. Travel bans and closure of businesses and strict working conditions for independent formal and informal retailers resulted in job and income losses, affecting their dietary and nutritional status. 

READ | Opinion: The importance of technology to enhance food security post Covid-19

The Covid-19 pandemic led to interruptions in agricultural activities, increasing levels of post-harvest losses due to the reduced workforce, negatively affecting food availability and the subsequent change in people's dietary and food consumption patterns. Because of these disturbances to the food system, 25 countries are at high risk of extreme food insecurity.

Poorly established systems, like the global food system, are making it easier for disasters to persist. In order to prevent history from repeating itself, we need to rethink the human-animal-environment interfaces by investing in approaches and early-warning systems that will help to rebuild better, more resilient systems.

The pandemic provides an unlikely opportunity to reconsider the structural inequalities of our food system. Collective action is required to rebuild the food system to support food security and ensure access to healthier foods for all, while protecting local farmers and food producers. The question that arises then is: how do we transform our food systems in this rapidly changing and unpredictable environment and ensure that we stay within our planetary boundaries?

Rerouting, reconfiguring and realigning the food system

Major failures of global food systems are related to production, meeting dietary and nutritional targets, and climate resilience. With weather-related disasters being the biggest drivers in these failures, governments must review and reconfigure how modern agriculture contributes to food production, so that it does not destroy natural resources.

Reconfiguration for sustainable food systems calls for changing the course of the current food systems through new policies, regulatory frameworks, financial mechanisms and innovations that would make new food systems function more efficiently. 

Changing the course includes helping farmers make better choices that help them maintain their production and reduce their risk from severe events. We need to promote options that are within a safe operating space by reducing the environmental effects of the food system. Change requires making policies that promote less destructive technologies and dietary changes and careful considerations to minimise food loss and waste.

Policy implications may include:

  • Investing in infrastructure for storage, transport and distribution.
  • Improving farm level support to adopt best available technologies.
  • Investing in improving technological skills, especially among youth. 

Protecting vulnerable populations

As a vital part of the majority of the world's population, the informal food economy plays a critical role in food security and employment for the urban poor, globally. Informal markets provide affordable, accessible, diverse food and support the livelihoods of the urban poor. With working from home and social distancing an unlikely choice for those working in the informal food sector, the extended restrictions limited the economic activities of informal food producers and distributors, further exacerbating the food crisis in many developing countries. 

READ | Africa needs a free market and strong property rights to solve its food security problems

While independent, informal food traders, smallholder farmers and food vendors, most of whom are women and young people, might have been resilient to some pressures, they are not likely to survive extended periods of restriction because physical and social distancing prevents the poor from working and generating income. National governments need to make bold decisions that take into consideration the most vulnerable populations in an effort to rebuild better food systems. This calls for expanding economic opportunities for informal food traders, smallholder farmers and food vendors.

Adopting a systemic approach 

With the global population expected to reach nine billion people in 2050 under limited resources and rising disasters, we cannot continue adopting a business-as-usual approach in the hope of meeting our future needs.

We need to build a food system that finds solutions within the current planetary boundaries. Countries need to work together to expand food production sustainably by adopting a systemic approach to meet the food needs of future populations. This requires looking at all the connections between the animal-human-plant-environment and their impact on the food system to consider interventions that will enhance food security.

Mapping the food system and looking at all the activities and drivers and how they influence food availability, accessibility, utilisation and stability will help to identify where the most significant problems exist and how they can be remedied. The systematic approach works on an integrated approach that takes advantage of the complementary elements between the different subsystems for maximum output.

While no one-size-fits-all strategy may be possible for all situations globally, rebuilding our food systems must be well-considered and done in a reasonable manner that embraces the differences that exist environmentally, socially, culturally and economically. Rebuilding better food systems must happen quickly if we are to achieve sustainability by the year 2030.

- Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi is a food security researcher at the University of Pretoria.

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