Opinion: How science and technology can help rebuild healthier and more sustainable food systems


Dr Celso Moretti is President of the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), which is the largest agricultural research enterprise in Brazil, falling within the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Food Supply. An expert in plant and food science technology, Dr Moretti joined the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition in October 2019. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread rapidly across the globe and continues to threaten the health and lives of millions of vulnerable people. But the impact of the virus goes far beyond its pathological effects. The necessary measures we have taken to suppress the spread of the virus have created new pressures on our economies and exposed the fragility of our food systems.

In many low- and middle-income countries, the number of new daily confirmed COVID-19 cases is rising. Given the profound impact the pandemic is having in wealthier nations, the impacts in lower income countries are likely to be particularly severe because of inadequate healthcare resources, economic constraints, and limited social protection programmes.

We could see a significant escalation in the levels of hunger and malnutrition among the most vulnerable in these nations, as dietary choices become constrained and spending power diminishes.

How should governments respond? Protecting and strengthening food systems in all lower- and middle-income countries is central to preventing malnutrition. Not only are they a source of nutritious foods to maintain good health, they provide employment opportunities and commodities which can be traded to support economic recovery.

The immediate policy response should be to support farmers who face challenges from labour shortages and access to seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, machinery parts, and fuel for transport and energy generation. Governments must also ensure that transport disruptions for example at cross-border checks, do not increase the risk of crops perishing after harvest, particularly fruits and vegetables. Policies that ensure consumers have access to, and are encouraged to eat a healthy diet should also be prioritised.

In Brazil the Minister of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply established a crisis committee at the start of the pandemic to ensure continued flow of food, both for the domestic population and for export. Policy interventions included emergency economic measures to meet the needs of smallholders, supplying essential foods to poor populations and declaring food production activities an essential service. A liaison network with other government bodies brought together agribusiness, supermarket associations and food distributors. These measures were supported by personal and food safety protocols for agricultural activities, alongside prevention and containment protocols for cold storage facilities, agroindustry, agricultural trade fairs, and cargo transportation. An economic buffering scheme to support cashflow for companies in the agribusiness sector was also set up.

Policies for the longer term are also needed to strengthen food systems around the globe so they provide more nutritious foods whilst protecting the environment. Even before the pandemic, food systems were responsible for a significant part of total greenhouse gas emissions. These very same food systems are failing to provide safe, affordable and healthy diets across the world. 11% of people lack access to the minimum caloric intake needed to maintain a productive life, and deficiencies in vital micronutrients still persist. Obesity and associated diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease are rising fast. In Brazil over half the adult population are either overweight or obese, whilst iron deficiency affects over a quarter of women. More resilient food systems will also protect us from further waves of this novel coronavirus, or indeed another new pandemic.

Strengthening food systems is only possible with investment in science and technology. With the great pressure on global economies across the world, it may not be realistic to expect increased funding for scientific research, particularly in resource constrained countries. But this does not mean we cannot re-examine the current distribution of research budgets, to point them toward research that better supports nutrient-rich foods in ways that are sustainable and resilient.

Currently much of the global research budget is focused on productivity, rather than environmental sustainability. We need both. The focus is also mainly on starchy staples – 45% of global private sector research investment is on maize, while not enough attention is being given to fruits and vegetables. This is not to suggest that research on staple foods is unimportant. Research to improve staple yields to limit cropland expansion will be an essential part of delivering sustainable intensification. In Brazil, during the last five decades, staple production increased 5 times whereas cropland expansion increased two-fold. Science and technology played a key role in this process.

Research spend should be more balanced towards increasing yields whilst also lowering agrochemical and natural resource use, involving the use of smarter agronomy, breeding technology, and digital platforms. And tackling food loss and waste is vital. We also need to diversify our research portfolios to improve the production of a wide range of micronutrient-rich foods, for example fruits, vegetables, pulses and fish. Research to boost the micronutrient content of staple grains, beans or tubers through biofortification also has a role.

The COVID-19 pandemic also shows that research to better predict future plant and animal diseases that could compromise food production and supply must be expanded. Beyond agriculture R&D, a better understanding of what people are eating, and why, will help target consumer education programmes.

My colleagues and I at the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition have been encouraged by how the international community has come together, sharing scientific knowledge and keeping trade flowing. This was highlighted in our recent brief COVID-19: Safeguarding food systems and promoting healthy diets. The Global Panel urges policymakers need to recognise the importance of the opportunities to create more resilient, more equitable and more sustainable food systems which deliver healthy diets for everyone, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. The Global Panel’s forthcoming Foresight 2.0 report, to be published in September 2020 will highlight the strategies needed to make this food system transition. But foods systems can only be reformed if we invest in scientific research and innovation to support them in promoting human health, driving the economic recovery and protecting the natural environment.