Now is the time to climate-and-pandemic-proof our food systems

Comment: Social safety nets and shorter supply chains are essential to protect smallholder farmers facing spiralling debt and bankruptcy

Women and children receive food relief after the passage of Cyclone Amphan in northeast India last month. (Photo: Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission Belur Math/Flickr)


As farmers in Bangladesh and India assess the damage to their villages and crops from Cyclone Amphan, it is clear that climate disasters have not stopped for Covid-19.

ActionAid’s emergency teams report that many villages are almost entirely flooded, with homes destroyed and crops lost.

Some farmers have benefited from adaptation efforts to improve soils and crop diversity that protect their harvests from floods and winds, and early warning systems that enabled them to harvest and get to safety before the disaster hit.

But the Covid-19 pandemic is bringing to light many more vulnerabilities and inequalities in the food system. As lockdown measures hamper farmers’ ability to sell produce, even farmers whose crops have survived the cyclone may still lose their livelihoods.

Globally, cyclones, droughts and locust swarms continue to devastate food security and farmers’ livelihoods, and the combination of climate change and the pandemic threaten to seed a global hunger crisis in the year to come. We must therefore seize this moment to fix our broken food system.

For the past decades, the industrialisation of crop and livestock production has devastated the world’s ecosystems, soils and agricultural biodiversity, produced excess greenhouse gases that heat the planet, and left farming vulnerable to the weather extremes caused by climate change.

At the same time, agribusiness penalises smallholder farmers, leaves them more exposed to climate impacts, and concentrates land and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.

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For these reasons, last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report on land and climate clearly set out that we must shift from dependence on big, industrialised agribusiness, towards ‘agroecological’ practices that work with nature instead of against it, that are sustainable and climate resilient, and that safeguard the livelihoods of the people who grow our food.

However, the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary measures taken to stop its spread are having a devastating knock-on effect that is causing widespread hunger and pushing farmers into debt around the world. Unless the rising hunger caused by the Covid-19 crisis is addressed, we will see food insecurity deepen next year while also setting back the climate agenda.

ActionAid works with rural communities around the world, many of whom report that sickness and lockdowns are preventing farmers and workers from accessing farms and harvesting crops.

Lockdowns have meant the closures of local and street markets, on which smallholder farmers – particularly women farmers – usually rely on to sell their produce. Food is being wasted, as vegetables and grains are rotting unharvested in fields, livestock are being killed and buried, and milk is being thrown away.

Meanwhile, many people in lockdown have been left unable to earn an income or access the street markets and informal systems on which poorer communities often rely to buy their food. Even supermarkets, with their long and vulnerable supply chains, have had empty shelves.

From Brazil to Bangladesh and India to America, farmers around the world are facing losses, spiralling debt and bankruptcy. Many may be unable to afford the costs of planting for next season. This threatens food supplies in the longer term, and may extend the duration of the food crisis. The UN has warned that in combination with climate change, Covid-19 may trigger famines of “biblical proportions”.

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There is a risk that if smallholder farmers and small businesses go under, bigger polluting agribusiness operations are likely to capture more of the market, concentrating yet more wealth and land in fewer hands, and increasing the food system’s contribution and vulnerability to climate change.

Social protection safety nets are therefore urgently needed to prevent the pandemic from pushing farmers, particularly women, out of the food system, and ensuring that people have enough to eat. Farmer income support, cash and food transfers, replacement school meals for hungry children, and public procurement policies that support smallholder farmers are key.

But to strengthen the resilience of food systems to future climate and pandemic emergencies, longer-term systemic changes are needed.

Covid-19 has witnessed a growing trend of smallholders selling directly to local customers, as people realise that short supply chains are less likely to be interrupted.

This approach can help food systems be more resilient to pandemics and better for the climate, while enabling farmers and local economies to thrive.

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Policy makers must support this momentum, and complement it with a shift towards agroecological farming practices, as well as less and better meat. As Covid-19 has shown the importance of social protection measures for farmers, workers and the food system, this lesson should also be applied to protect farmers from climate disasters.

Governments must maximise the synergies between food, climate and Covid-19. As relief, bailout and recovery packages roll out, they can benefit from Just Transition in Agriculture principles and Green New Deal thinking.

These approaches can strengthen national plans to improve pandemic-and-climate resilience, and transition to greener economies, particularly in the National Adaptation Plan (NAP) and Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) policy processes that are so key to the implementation of the Paris Agreement. This is a key moment to build back better.

Teresa Anderson is ActionAid International’s climate policy coordinator and Climate Action Network’s agriculture working group coordinator.

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