Stop waiting to get back to normal: We need to build back better – and this starts with transforming food systems

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By Kanayo F. Nwanze, CGIAR Special Representative to the UN Food Systems Summit 2021

Lately when I read the news I get the frightening sense that the majority of humanity is just waiting. Leaders in politics and business are waiting for the day they can get back to business as usual, while performing the balancing act of protecting the economy versus protecting human lives from the costs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Everyone else besides is just waiting for things to get back to normal. But the trouble is, there is no getting back to normal. Everything is changing.

Before COVID-19 struck, the world was striving to meet some ambitious targets. The UN’s 2030 Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set the benchmarks for solving humanity’s greatest problems, and creating a better and more sustainable world for all. Meeting the SDGs was never going to be achieved by continuing to do things in the normal way.

COVID-19 has disrupted everything: our way of living; life on Earth as we know it. It poses huge risks to our ability to meet the SDGs, with potential setbacks for our progress to date on poverty, hunger and malnutrition. But it has also highlighted very clearly the interconnectedness of our problems, and our solutions. It shows us how connected we are as people, and how we are all connected to our food, to animals, and to the environment.

Food systems – the intricate webs of life, technology and trade on which we depend for our food – are key to understanding the COVID-19 pandemic, including how we got here, and where to go next. Restrictions on trade, work and travel have disrupted the usual flow of food production and consumption, leaving many people hungry and out of work. Economic impacts on the rural poor will be particularly severe, especially for those working in the informal sector – including farm workers, petty traders and vendors and transporters – who make up the majority of the population in the developing world.

Before COVID-19, 820 million people were hungry, and 144 million children under the age of 5 were stunted due to malnutrition. Our food systems were failing to feed the world sustainably, equitably, healthily and in a way that could support livelihoods and natural resources. As COVID-19 demonstrated, our food systems were also ill prepared to withstand shocks – a worrying revelation in the face of global climate change. Unless urgent action is taken now to transform food systems, 140 million people could fall into extreme poverty, and the world will face a global food emergency. Our challenge now is not to restore the old food systems, to somehow go back to normal, but to put in place systems that can do much better, and avoid a deepening crisis.

This is what needs to be asked of the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit in 2021: how can we build back better, starting with our food systems? The world does not need another declaration about the problems we are facing. We need solutions, commitments and funding for an evidence-based transformation of food systems to build back better from COVID-19, and reach the SDGs by 2030.

As a Special Representative of CGIAR at the Summit, I will be making the case for a concerted, science-based approach to response and recovery from COVID-19, and for building the resilience of our food systems going forward. Rather than shift our targets regarding the SDGs in line with the setbacks we are facing, we need to accelerate our action to address existing global challenges that have been compounded by the pandemic.

To my mind, CGIAR has much to offer in this regard. Coinciding with the Summit, CGIAR as the world’s largest publicly funded agricultural research network will be celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2021, looking back on a proud history of scientific innovations that have contributed to ending poverty, supporting nutrition and gender equality, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and protecting the natural environment. It has also nurtured robust partnerships over the decades that can help bring innovations to scale, impacting as many people as possible, particularly in the developing world where CGIAR has its focus. At the same time, CGIAR itself is undergoing transformative internal changes, uniting its governance and operations as One CGIAR.

A look at CGIAR’s research portfolio can illustrate why food systems are an important place to start in building back better from COVID-19. Around two-thirds of CGIAR’s work is already directly relevant to COVID-19 response, recovery and resilience, including technologies and innovations that can be pulled off the shelf now to address the crisis. Research into One Health – the human, animal and environmental health interface – is well developed, with lessons that can be drawn from past outbreaks of zoonotic disease. Policy research on food security and nutrition, as well as economic recovery and resilience, also has much to contribute.

CGIAR is now pivoting its work to address the crisis, leveraging this existing storehouse of knowledge. A united CGIAR is taking a transformative food systems response to COVID-19. Research is leading the way to ensure a better future for the world’s most vulnerable. And a CGIAR COVID-19 Hub has been established, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, to support ongoing coordinated research and response efforts. Importantly, the transition to One CGIAR is picking up speed, allowing CGIAR to transform in line with rapid global developments – this is the level of change we must aspire to in order to shift gears on meeting the SDGs.

From here, there is no going back to normal. The current crisis is going to have lasting impacts; we need to take a long-term view. While learning from our past, we must imagine a new future, in which we recognize the interconnectedness of food, people, and the environment, and work together to create a better, more equitable and more sustainable world for all.

Header photo: Market vendor Ly Thi Nguyen takes stock of her wares at a fresh food market in Hanoi, Vietnam. Read more about how CGIAR research is transforming food systems in Vietnam. Photo by C. de Bode/CGIAR

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