Akila Wijerathna highlights the food system woes unearthed by the pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak has revealed contradictions in the modern food system – and presented an opportunity to recognise the critical socioeconomic roles played by food supply chains.

Workers engaged in the system are in a precarious position, and lack adequate pay and healthcare benefits but are asked to take risks to ensure food is available for people to consume.

Food systems comprise all the processes associated with production and utilisation – i.e. growing, harvesting, packing, processing, transporting, marketing, consuming and disposing of food remains.

These activities need inputs, and result in products and services, income and access to food, as well as environmental impacts. A food system operates in and is influenced by social, political, cultural, technological, economic and natural environments.

As new research indicates, power and control over food globally have become so highly concentrated that large profit oriented multinationals are influential in shaping critical decisions regarding how food is produced, traded and marketed.

Some consider such businesses to be necessary on the grounds that the increase in production and distribution is a prerequisite for global food security.

Meanwhile, it is undeniable that the global food system developed over the past half century is unsustainable.

The increasing incidence of monoculture farming with swaths of single crops grown over enormous areas is heavily dependent on synthetic fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics. These in turn lead to a loss of biodiversity, environmental pollution and increasing fossil fuel dependency.

Several impending disasters are converging on the food supply, any of which could be catastrophic.

The climate breakdown threatens to cause what scientists refer to as ‘multiple breadbasket failures.’ The UN forecasts that feeding the world will require a 20 percent expansion in agriculture’s global water use by 2050. A global soil crisis threatens the basis of our subsistence as great tracts of arable land lose fertility through erosion, compaction and contamination.

Meanwhile, crucial phosphate supplies are dwindling rapidly. The collapse of insect populations hints at a global ecological meltdown threatening catastrophic pollination failures.

It is hard to see how farming can feed us all until 2050, let alone the end of the century and beyond.

Additionally, the food sector is facing unprecedented challenges in production, demand and regulations stemming from consumer trends. An increasing focus on sustainability, health and freshness in recent years has placed pressure on the sector to innovate.

Besides this, as the organic food trend reached its peak and began commoditising, another trend appeared to take its place – viz. plant based, meatless, animal free products and so on.

Fixing the broken agriculture system can inject renewed energy and momentum into our quest for a more inclusive and sustainable economy. Addressing the core issues at the heart of the food challenge offers an opportunity to tackle many of the broader risks we face.

Collectively, we have the tools, resources and new knowledge, to summon the political will and courage to act. Therefore, transforming how we use
natural resources in agriculture plays a major role in addressing three critical planetary boundaries.

In recent years, agro-tech innovators have developed exciting ways to harness technology to enhance the world’s food supply.

Such innovations are protecting crops and maximising output, enabling structural changes that could achieve important sustainability goals of lowering greenhouse gasses, reducing water use, ending deforestation and potentially even sequestering carbon back into the soil.

The opportunity to utilise technology to improve food is massive; and this extends to increasing usage and decreasing waste as being vital to minimising the environmental impacts of a growing human population.

Currently, many smallholders lack the means and support to gain from growing food demand. Initiating and sustaining a process of inclusive transformation requires supporting their market access by investing in basic infrastructure, creating market incentives and promoting inclusive agribusiness models.

But it is as important to invest in intermediate supply chains where millions of SMEs already operate in food processing, storage, logistics and distribution.

Furthermore, women make a significant contribution throughout food systems but are often not formally recognised and face constraints that prevent engagement on equitable terms. Increasing their decision-making power, and control over resources and assets, could help empower them to contribute to food systems in ways that benefit both men and women.

Most of all, government policies and regulations play an important role in shaping food and agricultural activities. However, food sharing initiatives often struggle to gain visibility among policy makers.