By Marie Haga
IFAD, April 2, 2020.- Healthcare workers are valiantly fighting, and too often dying, on the front lines in the global response to coronavirus. But what started as a health crisis could turn into a food crisis unless we take measures now. Preventing a food crisis is key to maintaining the strength to fight back.
WHO has called for a “whole of government, whole of society” approach to combatting the pandemic. Beating COVID-19 requires more than just a health system response; it involves every person, everywhere, and every sector. We are all in this together.
Food is our most basic need, and we must defend our food systems and the people who work in them. We have all seen stories about the heroic supermarket workers who keep the shelves stocked at the risk of their own health, so that locked-down populations can continue to eat. What we don’t see are the small-scale producers working in remote areas far from the cameras, who continue to grow food that is critical for national food security in developing countries.
These rural producers are particularly exposed to the impacts of COVID-19. Access to healthcare, medicine, water and sanitation is often inadequate in rural areas of developing countries, where more than three quarters of the world’s poorest and hungriest people live, depending on agriculture for their livelihoods. Over and above the impacts of the virus itself, interruptions in input supply – for example, seeds – and difficulties in accessing markets, as a result of restrictions of movement and border closures, are already threatening the livelihoods of small-scale farmers.
Many of the world’s poorest countries are heavily dependent on small-scale producers and their contribution to the food supply, though they are also among the most vulnerable and marginalized people in the world. Rural women, youth, and indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable.
Today, we need our small-scale producers more than ever. And they need us.
IFAD’s mission is to invest in small-scale producers and other rural people to improve their livelihoods and resilience. Small farms produce 50 per cent of all food calories on 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural land. In sub-Saharan Africa, 80 per cent of all farms are small. Small farms could be even more important in ensuring food security for both rural and urban people at a time when global trade – including in food – faces potential interruptions. In addition, small family farms are key to maintaining nutritional diversity, which is harder to achieve with shifts toward larger-scale industrial farming. An adequate and diverse diet is vital to maintaining health.
Much like the health response, the effort to keep food systems working requires multisectoral and multilateral action, and a combination of finance, technology, science, human resources and policy support. Feeding the world during a pandemic will mean deploying food aid where necessary, but also keeping value chains running as much as possible, so that those small-scale producers who are still operating can find markets for their produce, and so that markets don’t collapse.
The responsibility is not on government alone. Multilateral institutions and the private sector need to work together with governments on coordinated actions to protect food systems and food security and support the most vulnerable, including small-scale producers. These actions could include ensuring inputs such as seeds and fertilizer continue to get through to farmers, taking measures to ensure that local markets function, maintaining rural financial services and credit and strengthening information platforms.
For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, IFAD is working with the Ministry of Agriculture, Water Management and Forestry to safeguard local food systems by distributing seed packages to small farms. Support packages contain fertilizer, seeds and seed material from basic vegetable crops. This is enabling small-scale farmers to support their own food needs as well as those of local people. In total, the initiative is expected to reach 9,000 small farms.
The battle against COVID-19 is widely compared to a war. It is not enough to win the war; we must also win the peace—to ensure that development progress is not eroded. There will be a need for more mid- and long-term investments to increase resilience and fight poverty and hunger. This is a battle that we want to win for good.
Economic growth in agriculture is two to three times more effective at reducing poverty and food insecurity than growth through other sectors. After an emergency like a pandemic which can disrupt food production and availability, a rapid scaling up of investment in small-scale agriculture can help jump start recovery and provide vital support to vulnerable and marginalized small producers. They can play a central part in the recovery of rural areas. Small-scale agriculture can also create jobs for young people, many of whom work in the sectors most exposed to the economic impacts of the crisis.
The international response to COVID-19 is showing how the global community can come together in the face of a common threat. Let us hope that a unity forged in the heat of the moment persists into the future. For now, let us join together to save lives but also to protect our food systems, and not allow the coronavirus to open up a second front in the struggle to preserve human life and health.