Opinion: The COVID-19 crisis has brought with it many important warnings and lessons. None more so than the fragility of our global food system.


Shenggen Fan is Chair Professor of China Agricultural University, former Director General of International Food Policy Research Institute and member of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought with it many important warnings and lessons. None more so than highlighting the fragility of our global food system. Dangerous weaknesses have been exposed in how foods are produced, transported, traded and sold. The pandemic has threatened the livelihoods of more than 1 billion people employed in the food sector.

That’s why we published a report two weeks ago to address these persistent inequalities and inefficiencies of our food systems. These are the same goals for the forthcoming World Food Day on Friday October 16th. Both share a common goal to address the persistent inequalities and inefficiencies of our food systems.

The Foresight 2.0 report – Future Food Systems: For people, our planet, and prosperity recommends governments reform outdated policies which are impeding change and protecting the status quo.

Published by the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition, the report calls for:-

  • a rebalance of today’s massive agriculture sector subsidies to enhance local and global supplies of nutrient-rich foods and to help ensure these foods are produced sustainably.
  • carefully-designed incentives to shift prices of staples and ultra-processed foods versus nutritious ones so the latter are more affordable to more people
  • income transfer to the poor to provide greater equity of purchasing power
  • governments to adopt a more active role in influencing peoples’ choice of food
  • regulating advertising to children and promotion of more sustainable and healthy diets

And the report makes clear how these steps can be taken.

Either-or is not an option. Currently 3 billion people cannot afford and access healthy diets. Changing this will be a massive challenge for governments, the donor community, the private sector, and academia.  All have complementary roles to play.

Governments need to forge a new relationship between the public and private sectors, so that the considerable innovation and resources of business can be aligned with these goals. Anything else should be unacceptable. We need to inform and empower citizens who are increasingly demanding change, and who collectively can exert great influence.

COVID-19 has also thrown light on who eats what. Diet-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs) have mushroomed in recent years, and these represent an underlying risk factor for many deaths.  The pandemic made the situation even worse. Many poor people shift their diets to low quality ones as their jobs and income are negatively affected.

Changed eating habits and a shift to more sedentary lifestyles have also contributed to substantial increases in overweight and obesity while undernutrition increases overall susceptibility to risk of death from infections.

Agriculture and related land-use patterns are one of the top sources of greenhouse gas emissions, and a major driver of biodiversity loss and destruction of natural habitats. Current approaches to growing food are unsustainable and represent a growing threat to future generations; especially since our world’s population is set to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.

At the same time, our food systems are increasingly impacted by the effects of climate change and natural disasters which disrupt not just production but also trade and purchasing power. And the mix of foods we produce are seriously misaligned with the requirements for healthy diets – the world only produces a third of the fresh fruits and vegetables that we should all be eating.

Current food systems impact people and the environment in ways that threaten the future of both and these failures are common factors that impede progress in addressing so many major challenges facing the world beyond COVID. This is insufficiently recognised, particularly in high profile targets, such as the majority of the Sustainability Development Goals.

Despite this bleak outlook, I believe the situation can still be turned around, but only through radical change. So in that respect, 2021 offers several international events that offer opportunities for real change – they include the UN Food Systems Summit, the Nutrition for Growth Summit in Tokyo, the COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow and UN Biodiversity Conference in Kuming.

Together these meetings constitute a critical opportunity for world leaders to be courageous, and to go beyond aspirations and targets to agree on the practical steps which are so urgently needed.

This opinion editorial was originally published by the Thomas Reuters Foundation https://news.trust.org/item/20201015173334-3y14e