By Tapiwa Gomo
OCTOBER 16 is World Food Day, a day set aside since 1981 to focus on various themes to highlight the importance of food security, mainly revolving around agro-farming. The theme for this year’s World Food Day: Our actions are our future, calls on everyone to be a food hero contributing to the transformation of agri-food systems for better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life, leaving no one behind.
This year’s theme is no ordinary but summons the world to pause and reflect on a number of factors that threaten global food security at local, national and global levels. A global Food System Summit took place last month on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to map out the broad outlines of how the world needs to move forward to reshape the structures under which our food is produced, distributed and consumed.
Food is the mainstay of human survival and without it, the human race faces extinction and yet the food system today faces major challenges. Climate change, environmental degradation and population growth are weighing down the ability to produce enough food for everyone in the world. Both climate change and environmental degradation threaten to reduce global capacity to produce adequate food.
Droughts, flooding and other weather-related conditions are eroding agriculture productivity, while erratic or unpredictable weather patterns are making it hard to plan, plant and produce for small to medium-scale farmers. This means production capacities for farmers may deteriorate and so will be their incomes.
In addition to this gloomy outlook, it is expected that by 2050, the world’s population will have increased by one-third, with the highest increase occurring in developing countries. If current income and consumption growth trends continue unabated, agricultural production will have to grow by 60% to satisfy the expected increased demands for food and feed.
One of the seven priorities submitted at the World Food Summit in September to curtail this impending anomaly is to use technology and call on scientists to boost bioscience by finding ways to restore soil health and improve the efficiency of cropping, crop breeding and decarbonising the soil and biosphere. Plausible as it may be, this is a remote imagination for those in rural areas. It is a solution for developed societies.
Another threat to food security is the global centralisation of production and supply chains. Advances in commerce, technology and the rise of globalisation has seen some countries playing leading roles in research and development which has resulted in some agricultural production and supply chain processes being centralised. For example, a farmer in rural Zimbabwe now needs to wait for chemicals, seed, fertilizers and farming requirement that are produced elsewhere outside the country.
Where the power to make farming decisions used to be made at village level and by rural farmers, it is now either ceded to or determined by global or national supply processes. Farmers, mainly rural ones, have lost the power to control and manage their affairs without being dictated by global factors other than climate change.
It is no longer enough to have good farming weather, water and soils as global economic forces now play a huge part in determining the productive and income capacities of rural farmers. In short, globalisation has again tilted the power dynamics from politically independent countries to economically dependent societies where powerful countries dictate the state of global economic transactions.
This point became a stark reality at the onset of the COVID-19 when global commerce went standstill. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), “the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined that an urgent change of route is needed. It has made it even harder for farmers — already grappling with climate variability and extremes — to sell their harvests, while rising poverty is pushing an increased number of city residents to use food banks, and millions of people require emergency food aid. We need sustainable agri-food systems that are capable of nourishing 10 billion people by 2050.”
When the pandemic hit the world, all movements, logistics and the global and national supply chains came to a standstill. A rural farmer, who was in the periphery of the pandemic or those areas that were not hard hit, was also affected due to their dependence on the global supply chains. It is not just the impact on the rural farmers but how their inability to produce at the time due to lack of supplies has also contributed to national and global lack of food. When the global supply chain resumed, rural farmers in developing countries were not on the priority list because there are on the periphery of things and yet rural population constitute among the food insecure constituencies.
While admittedly it is not easy to be completely self-sufficient, most countries are learning that one way of ensuring national food security is to revive local and national production and supply chains for most, if not, all farming requirements. This entails encouraging research on local seed production and storage, making use of local fertilizers and reviving farming equipment industry. It also entails putting policies in place that encourage consumption of local produce to sustain commercial viability among farmers and cutting on unnecessary cheap imports. Another important lesson is that at the height of crises, producing countries prioritise their domestic needs over global markets. We can be our own food heroes.