Why our food systems need to be changed?

Vegetable stand at a market in India (Image: ILRI/Mann; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Vegetable stand at a market in India (Image: ILRI/Mann; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

COVID-19 pandemic and the associated policy responses highlighted and often exacerbated weaknesses and inequalities in our food systems. Many vulnerable people faced threats to their immediate food security, health, and nutrition restrictions. In India, over half of the poor people were deprived of nutritious food, as per the 2021 Global Food Policy Report by the International Food Policy Research Institute.

The health calamity, economic hardship, severe disruptions to services, and critical restrictions on movement has led to long-lasting consequences on the country’s food systems due to the contraction in diet quality, as per the report.

Impact of lockdown on food systems

India implemented a complete lockdown when cases and deaths due to the pandemic were relatively low. Policymakers were caught off-guard when a large number of migrants took to the roads to reach their home states, the report said. The pandemic led to “falling incomes resulting from lockdowns and movement restrictions, which have been the primary driver of increased poverty and food insecurity.”

India faced rising levels of food insecurity and worsening nutrition. Increased poverty, reduced incomes and employment, and food supply led to rural households spending less on food even six months after an initial lockdown. The lockdown and restrictions on movement brought about a change in how people purchased food. “Dietary quality and diversity have been affected by both reduced incomes and reduced availability of nutritious perishable products such as fruits, vegetables, and animal-sourced foods,” as per the report.

“Food supply chains, though relatively resilient, were disrupted by labour restrictions and falling demand. Food services were especially affected and many poor people lost jobs in urban areas, particularly in the tourism and restaurant sectors, as per the report.

Traditional food systems, with few linkages beyond the farm, were less affected by restrictions; and modern, vertically integrated systems often were able to adapt because they had control of their supply chains. However, food systems transitioning from traditional to modern, which are characterized by longer supply chains and still-fragmented storage, transportation, and services, were more vulnerable,” the report said.

Impact on women, children and poor

“Disadvantaged groups, including women, have borne the brunt of the pandemic due to the economic, legal, and social barriers they already faced and their reliance on informal work. Women account for 39% of employment globally but incurred 54 percent of total job losses during the pandemic. Many experienced increases in their already-heavy workloads… Yet, national policy responses have largely failed to adopt a gender-sensitive approach and risk leaving women further behind,” the report said.

Women were badly affected by the restrictions with the report pointing out how 50% of households surveyed reported that women were spending more time in cooking or fetching firewood than before.

In addition, lockdowns shuttered schools and anganwadi centres, which provide critical mid-day meals and supplementary nutrition to young children. The mid-day meal programme in particular covers 80% of primary-school-aged children in India, improving not just nutrition but also learning outcomes and gender equity.

“The country’s school closures likely exacerbated food insecurity and malnutrition, especially for girls and disadvantaged populations. This decline in food security and sound nutrition, compounded by missed education and reduced healthcare, will have lifelong consequences,” the report said.

“Poor households, more than wealthier households, saw their food security, livelihoods, and wellbeing decline, both because the poor are heavily employed in the informal sector and perform physical labour that was restricted by lockdowns and because they spend a larger share of their income on food,” the report said.

Lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic offers a number of lessons on what investments and policies will work to increase resilience to shocks and contribute to long-term food system transformation.

As per the report, “although income losses caused serious, potentially persistent declines in food security and nutrition, food supply chains proved more resilient than expected. Private sector innovations introduced along food supply chains helped to overcome disruptions caused by lockdowns. Also importantly, as food systems’ central role and capacity for adaptation were demonstrated, the momentum needed to change our food systems for the better increased in 2020.”

The report calls for the need to break out of the vicious cycle of unsustainable agricultural practices and natural resource degradation. “This requires integrated, “nature-positive” solutions — both technological and governance mechanisms — that meet food needs and protect and restore ecosystems.”

To make food systems more resilient to shocks, including epidemics and natural disasters, the report suggests the need to:

  • Reduce stress on our food systems by limiting the frequency and magnitude of shocks;
  • Improve resilience i.e., the capacity to anticipate shocks. Investments in early warning systems, development of improved data and indicators, and digital technology are examples of ways to increase access to actionable information for individuals, businesses, and governments;
  • Enhance the capacity of all actors in our food systems to absorb shocks through instruments, such as better access to finance; flexible social safety nets; competitive markets and efficient value chains; reliable trade agreements; and investment in rural services, infrastructure, and R&D for improving food production systems.

On balancing policy trade-offs, the report suggests “building policy systems that can address future shocks — that are adaptable, coherent, effective, and have citizens’ confidence — can help decision-makers respond in an informed, timely, and cohesive way not only when a crisis strikes but for long-term food system transformation.”

The report provides a set of evidence-based ideas drawn from the experiences of 2020 and recommendations for making the transformation to healthy, resilient, efficient, sustainable, and inclusive food systems possible. Studies indicate that government intervention in terms of food and cash transfer and the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana in particular has helped in mitigating some of the problems.

The report calls for the deepening of the social safety nets by “providing larger benefits or extended them to include more beneficiaries, such as informal workers and the urban poor. These efforts provide evidence that pro-poor interventions can be expanded if there is political will; they also offer more complex lessons about what works, especially in terms of inclusion. Programs built on robust existing systems were most successful.”

It calls for “targeted social protection programs as it can also contribute to improvements in dietary quality and diversity, including behaviour change communication, vouchers for healthy foods, and improved quality for school meals. Support for the development of national food-based dietary guidelines can inform public and private investment strategies that promote the production and consumption of nutritious foods. Measures to shift “food environments” (for example, food labelling) and consumer demand (for example, public awareness campaigns) toward healthier diets will help redirect food systems to provision and consumption of more nutritious foods.”

Way forward

The report recommends:

  • Seize the opportunities opened by the pandemic — including growing momentum and lessons learned — to transform food systems to be resilient, healthy, efficient, sustainable, and inclusive.
  • Use global events planned for 2021 — including UNFSS, COP26, and the Nutrition for Growth Summit — to put food system transformation prominently on the develop­ment agenda.

Increase resilience for all food system actors through actions that limit the frequency and severity of shocks, improve communities’ ability to anticipate shocks, and build capacity to absorb shocks. This will require better access to finance; flexible social safety nets; competi­tive markets and trade channels; and investment in rural services, infrastructure, and R&D for improving food pro­duction systems.

  • Promote the expansion and flexibility of social protec­tion policies to protect vulnerable populations in times of economic, health, or environmental crises.
  • Improve access to infrastructure and markets, especially through the provision of digital services for market and farm­ing information, education, government interactions, financial transactions, and logistics to reduce inequality and facilitate resilience.
  • Seek innovative means of financing food system transfor­mation, including through policies influencing consumer spending and private sector expenditures and profits, support for impact investment, and repurposing of pub­lic funding.

The full text of the report is available here