The Pan­demic Must Trans­form Global Agri­cul­ture


NEW YORK/ROME – The COVID-19 pan­demic should spur us to re­de­fine how we feed hu­man­ity. The world now has a unique opportunit­y to adopt long-term mea­sures to pro­mote health­ier diets, en­cour­age farm­ers to pro­duce a wider range of food, and strengthen col­lab­o­ra­tion among the pub­lic-health, food, and agri­cul­ture sec­tors. ..

NEW YORK/ ROME – The COVID-19 pan­demic should spur us to re­de­fine how we feed hu­man­ity. The world now has a unique opportunit­y to adopt long-term mea­sures to pro­mote health­ier diets, en­cour­age farm­ers to pro­duce a wider range of food, and strengthen col­lab­o­ra­tion among the pub­lic-health, food, and agri­cul­ture sec­tors. And agri­cul­tural re­search can play a vi­tal role in trans­form­ing food sys­tems and mak­ing them more sus­tain­able and re­silient.

The need for change is clear. For starters, un­healthy diets are one of the lead­ing risk fac­tors re­lated to COVID-19 fa­tal­i­ties. The SARSCoV-2 virus dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fects peo­ple who are over­weight, di­a­betic, or suf­fer from car­dio­vas­cu­lar disease – all of which are linked to poor diets.

This cri­sis has also ex­posed the ex­treme fragility of the global food sys­tem. So­cial-dis­tanc­ing and lock­down mea­sures to curb the virus’s spread have sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced peo­ple’s in­comes and thus global food de­mand. The re­sult­ing de­cline in food prices be­tween Jan­uary and May 2020 has pro­foundly af­fected the liveli­hoods of hun­dreds of thou­sands of small­holder farm­ers around the world.

More­over, clo­sures of restau­rants and schools, lo­gis­ti­cal dis­rup­tions, and short­ages of migrant la­bor to har­vest crops have re­sulted in huge amounts of wasted agri­cul­tural out­put. Many farm­ers are in­creas­ingly un­cer­tain about start­ing a new crop cy­cle, al­though some highly com­pet­i­tive pro­duc­ers have pros­pered: for ex­am­ple, Brazil’s soybean ex­ports to China reached a record high in the first five months of 2020.

But, given the food sys­tem’s fragility, any ad­di­tional sup­ply con­trac­tion or ex­port re­stric­tions could rapidly re­verse re­cent price trends. Food prices could rise sig­nif­i­cantly, fur­ther un­der­min­ing global food se­cu­rity.

In­deed, the Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­ga­ni­za­tion of the United Na­tions es­ti­mates that at least 14.4 mil­lion peo­ple in the 101 net food­im­port­ing coun­tries could be­come un­der­nour­ished as a re­sult of the eco­nomic cri­sis trig­gered by COVID-19. In an ex­treme sce­nario – a re­duc­tion of ten per­cent­age points in global real GDP growth in 2020 – that to­tal rises to 80.3 mil­lion.

In the short term, there­fore, gov­ern­ments must not only pro­vide fi­nan­cial sup­port to in­di­vid­u­als and firms af­fected by the pan­demic, but also act to pre­vent a food cri­sis. Rather than in­ter­rupt­ing trade, pol­i­cy­mak­ers should fa­cil­i­tate it, and im­prove co­or­di­na­tion and in­for­ma­tion ex­change be­tween food pro­duc­ers and buy­ers, es­pe­cially at the lo­cal level.

Longer-term mea­sures must in­clude pro­mot­ing health­ier eat­ing. In the last 60 years, global diets have be­come more ho­mo­ge­neous and in­creas­ingly dom­i­nated by sta­ple foods that are high in en­ergy and low in mi­cronu­tri­ents. Three crops – rice, maize, and wheat – pro­vide more than 50% of the calo­ries that hu­mans gain from plants. Peo­ple in gen­eral, but mainly the poor­est, do not con­sume enough nu­tri­en­trich food such as fruits, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. And about 11 mil­lion peo­ple die each year as a re­sult of un­healthy diets.

Iden­ti­fy­ing va­ri­eties of nu­tri­tious crops that can be rein­tro­duced into diets is a top pri­or­ity. For ex­am­ple, quinoa, fo­nio (a highly nu­tri­tious ce­real for which there is grow­ing de­mand), and African Bam­bara ground­nut con­tain higher-qual­ity pro­teins than most ma­jor ce­re­als and can grow in harsh en­vi­ron­ments. Fur­ther re­search could re­sult in higher yields and lower prices, en­abling such prod­ucts to be­come more widely avail­able. Gov­ern­ments and donors can help by al­lo­cat­ing more fund­ing for lo­cal pro­duc­ers of th­ese and many other or­phan crops.

Fur­ther­more, re­searchers can use con­ven­tional plant­breed­ing meth­ods to bio­for­tify the crops that dom­i­nate cur­rent diets, par­tic­u­larly those of the poor­est pop­u­la­tions. Bio­for­ti­fi­ca­tion means de­vel­op­ing nu­tri­ent-rich cul­ti­vars through se­lec­tive cross­breed­ing of a high-nu­tri­ent va­ri­ety with higher-yield­ing va­ri­eties. This in­volves tap­ping the ge­netic traits of thou­sands of crop va­ri­eties that are pre­served in gene banks or still ex­ist in the land­scapes at their places of ori­gin.

Sup­ply-side ad­just­ments should not end there, be­cause food pro­duc­tion is the main driver of en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion and bio­di­ver­sity loss. Agri­cul­ture uses large amounts of fresh­wa­ter, ac­counts for 30% of global green­house-gas emis­sions, and de­stroys nat­u­ral habi­tats to make room for live­stock and crops. And yet agri­cul­tural re­search has long fo­cused on boost­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity rather than sus­tain­abil­ity, with in­vest­ments geared to­ward de­vel­op­ing bet­ter seeds, more disease-re­sis­tant an­i­mals, and more ef­fi­cient pro­duc­tion tech­niques for a small num­ber of plant and an­i­mal species. Gov­ern­ments have en­cour­aged this trend with fi­nan­cial sup­port, reg­u­la­tory stan­dards, and trade agree­ments.

But the race to pro­duce and de­liver cheap calo­ries has caused col­lat­eral dam­age, mainly in terms of nutri­tion and lo­cal de­vel­op­ment. Be­cause the “calo­ries race” re­lies on value chains that fo­cus on a few ba­sic prod­ucts from a lim­ited num­ber of coun­tries, many other coun­tries have be­come net food im­porters. The pan­demic has high­lighted their ex­ces­sive and frag­ile depen­dence on a few pro­duc­ers lo­cated thou­sands of miles away and un­der­scored the need for shorter and more di­verse value chains.

The cur­rent food-pro­duc­tion model is also driven by an es­ti­mated $600 bil­lion in an­nual sub­si­dies to farm­ers, mainly in ad­vanced economies. Such schemes gen­er­ate ex­cess sup­ply and lower prices, thus lim­it­ing food pro­duc­tion in coun­tries that lack the fis­cal ca­pac­ity to sup­port their farm­ers.

Cut­ting this Gor­dian knot re­quires de­ci­sive ac­tion on sev­eral fronts. We need ad­di­tional re­search into food prod­ucts that could sus­tain a more di­verse and health­ier diet; emerg­ing and de­vel­op­ing economies could pro­duce many of them. Pol­i­cy­mak­ers must also foster re­gen­er­a­tive pro­duc­tion sys­tems that pro­mote bio­di­ver­sity and im­prove soil and wa­ter qual­ity, which would con­trib­ute sig­nif­i­cantly to cli­mate-change adap­ta­tion. Gov­ern­ments, in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions, and NGOs must take the lead in shap­ing an in­sti­tu­tional en­vi­ron­ment that en­ables th­ese far-reach­ing changes in the agri­cul­tural re­search agenda.

The pan­demic has un­der­scored the ur­gent need to trans­form agri­cul­ture. And the eco­nomic re­con­struc­tion that will fol­low it rep­re­sents a per­fect opportunit­y to pro­vide bet­ter nutri­tion and health for all.


Cárdenas, a for­mer min­is­ter of fi­nance of Colom­bia, is Se­nior Fel­low at Columbia Univer­sity’s Cen­ter on Global En­ergy Pol­icy. Juan Lu­cas Restrepo is Di­rec­tor-Gen­eral of the Al­liance of Biover­sity In­ter­na­tional and the In­ter­na­tional Cen­ter for Trop­i­cal Agri­cul­ture.

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