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We cannot solve food insecurity with quick fixes

17 October 2022
By Melissa Pinfield

As we take stock after World Food Day last weekend, we must recognize that our food systems are under immense strain: the climate and energy crises, the COVID-19 pandemic, and global political instability are all taking their toll. Right now, the Horn of Africa is suffering a historic drought, with at least 22 million people across Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia going hungry – a figure that is expected to rise. On top of this, the ‘hidden hunger’ of vitamin and mineral deficiencies is rife across the globe, a recent report by the Lancet revealed, with two thirds of all reproductive-age women affected.  

The conflict in Ukraine means acute hunger is predicted to increase by 47 million people in the 81 countries in which the World Food Programme works. In addition, two of the world’s largest producers and exporters of fertilizer – Russia and China – imposed restrictions before the invasion of Ukraine which made fertilizer unaffordable for many farmers.  

These are just a few examples of the drivers of a food and nutrition insecurity crisis that was already entrenched well before the invasion of Ukraine and the pandemic. It is also a crisis that shows no signs of abating, and governments, especially across the Global South, are understandably under immense pressure to ensure that their citizens have access to enough safe and nutritious food.  

In the face of this challenge, however, governments need to proceed carefully. How they respond could have far-reaching consequences – potentially impeding longer-term changes that our food systems need to adapt to and mitigate climate change as well as provide a nutritious diet to a growing global population.  

Efforts to increase national yields and productivity – whatever the environmental cost – could exacerbate land degradation, increase the loss of biodiversity, and accelerate the climate crisis. Agriculture is the largest driver of biodiversity loss worldwide and already causes a third of greenhouse gas emissions.  

But it is not a case of choosing between saving the environment and ending hunger. In fact, we cannot do one without the other. Failure to transition to sustainable, resilient, and equitable food systems means we will always be vulnerable to the next drought, war, or disease. It means the specter of hunger will haunt every future generation.  

Avoiding the quick fix  

It is essential that governments are measured in their response, act in a coordinated way, and learn the lessons of previous food insecurity crises – most notably the 2007–2008 food price spike. There are immediate actions that can be taken, such as facilitating trade flows from net export countries to net importers to smooth out price rises and avoiding panic buying and hoarding. Direct support to consumers and farmers is also needed, for instance by introducing cash transfers to tide over vulnerable households until prices stabilize.  

The fundamental solutions, however, lie in the long term, by building resilience to future crises and avoiding short-term measures that exacerbate risks and entrench instability in our global food systems.  

Yet there are worrying signs that governments are not reflecting on past lessons or thinking of the future. Some have already imposed restrictions on food exports, driving food prices even higher and exacerbating the crisis of availability. Food assistance programs also tend to be poorly designed, racing to provide calories rather than nutrition and failing to create stable markets that could relieve the financial stress of poorer farmers who are already struggling in the face of climate change.  

Long-term solutions          

The longer-term measures that countries need to adopt require a shift in mindset to see the current crisis as an opportunity to transform food systems for lasting, sustainable, and healthy outcomes. The current global food system, which focuses on only a few food crops and is often reliant on unsustainable fertilizer and pesticide use and cropping patterns, will not address the underlying drivers of current and future crises.  

We need to strengthen resilience in farming and invest in climate-smart agriculture by introducing measures which improve soil and water use, encourage efficient fertilizer and pesticide use, and change production techniques to boost soil quality, yields, biodiversity, and carbon retention.  

Driving this transition requires significantly more investment in agricultural research to develop the solutions needed. We must also regain the sense of optimism and momentum built up during last year’s United Nations Food Systems Summit and COP26, doubling down on the bold actions these summits promoted and drawing on the diverse experiences, insights, and expertise they helped bring forward.  

The transition we need could also be supported by strategic approaches to new and existing social assistance programs. Employment-based social assistance or public works programs, for instance, can be designed to combine short-term social protection needs with longer-term livelihoods investments that focus on ecosystem management, resilience, and climate mitigation.    

All too often in times of crisis, people reach for what seems like the quickest way out, without thinking about the long term. Political and electoral cycles don’t help this. Now more than ever, we cannot afford to let short-sighted, short-term actions impede the critical transitions needed. Fortunately, when it comes to food systems, we do not need to compromise longer-term objectives for short-term gains: the solutions exist. We just need to implement them, now – before it is too late.