It’s Earth Day! Let’s Talk Food Systems

Michelle Nikfarjam | Alliance to End Hunger

Indigenous people, scientists, activists, and academics alike have long warned of the intersecting nature of crises in the food system, climate, and social and economic inequity. Despite this, our modern food system has seen little change. As many argue, our current food system can be understood as ecologically narrow and highly dependent on outside inputs, while being extremely vulnerable to environmental and economic shocks; and now, as demonstrated by the COVID-19 pandemic, prone to severe disruption by unforeseen crises.

Only in recent decades have we begun to truly understand the magnitude of impact that the modern food system has on our climate, but we know the impacts are wide-reaching and will affect food security for decades to come. These impacts include, but are not limited to, (1) vast reduction in biodiversity, (2) deforestation and the disruption of wild ecosystems and their benefits, (3) changes in atmospheric composition driven by intensive fossil fuel usage, (4) pollution and depletion of freshwater resources, and (5) soil degradation and contamination.

While there has been no direct link established between the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change, the pandemic has laid bare the socio-ecological fragility of our food system at large, in which a single virus has sent an estimated 111 million more people into food insecurity globally, including 42–66 million children.

Now, over a year into the course of the pandemic, the virus has served as a sort of trial for the types of challenges climate change is expected to bring. COVID-19 may very well be the tip of an iceberg of catastrophes and disasters that will compromise economic livelihoods and human health; and threaten stability across all levels of the food system- from production to consumption. As we continue to work on emergency responses on local, national and international levels, we also must think about how to holistically transform our global food system to one that is economically just, socially equitable, and environmentally sustainable so that we are fully prepared for the challenges to surely come.

Climate Change, Hunger and the Pandemic

Before the onset of the pandemic, food insecurity was already on the rise. The 2020 State of Food Security and Nutrition estimated that the number of undernourished people increased from 624 million people in 2014 to 690 million in 2019. While data has been fragmented, the preliminary assessment suggests the COVID-19 pandemic may have added anywhere from 83–132 million to the total number of undernourished and impoverished people. For the world’s hungry, climate change and COVID-19 are both threat multipliers.

More frequent and intense weather events are increasing hunger by destroying land, livestock, crops and food supplies. In the past 30 years, natural disasters have more than doubled and intensified, a trajectory which would push 122 more million people into food insecurity by 2030. The World Food Program reports that over 22 million people are displaced annually due to climate change disasters. And on top of this, it is estimated that 24% of the world’s farmland is degraded. Combined, the various and intersecting manifestations of climate change have negative impacts on food security and hunger through changes in food production and availability, access, nutrition quality, and the stability of food systems at large.

As a result of higher atmospheric temperatures, greater CO2 concentrations, water scarcity, pollution, and extreme weather events, food production is likely to fall. We have already seen a large decline in major food crops due to climate-induced disasters, plant epidemics and insect infestations, threatening crops that feed billions of people. It is estimated that within the decade, we could see anywhere from a 2–6% decline in production.

Warming temperatures also contribute to sea level rise which poses yet another threat to food security and production. Low-lying coastal areas and island nations, many of which host great numbers of food insecure populations, are the most likely to be impacted. A crop such as rice, consumed by nearly half the world’s population, is highly sensitive to changes in both salinity and temperature making it highly vulnerable to climate change, especially in coastal areas.

Climate change will also increasingly affect water resources for production. At present, close to 2 billion people live in water-stressed areas, a number expected to grow to nearly half the population by 2030.

In addition to the changes in production patterns that would have a substantial impact on food security, national economies will greatly suffer. Addressing the multidimensional impacts of climate on food security and agriculture, in terms of land, water, temperature, and sea level rise requires an integrative approach that prioritizes small farmers, adequately considers sustainable methods, community resilience and the equitable distribution of resources. Just as we have seen the COVID-19 pandemic greatly disrupt food availability and access, and also affect food quality, the same is expected for climate change with those living in poverty bearing the brunt of the impact. There are many more examples of the uneven distribution of environmental impacts of climate change and the effect it has on food security of low-income communities domestically and internationally, including those who are reliant on marginal land, resources and stagnant incomes.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s profound negative effect on the global economy and global health is occuring in the context of a rapidly changing climate. As the total case toll mounts to over 140 million, evidence shows us the virus has had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities of color in the United States and other marginalized communities in lower and middle-income countries around the world. Historic and longstanding equities have made these groups, many of which compromise our food producers, processors, and distributors, more vulnerable to the negative health and economic impacts of the disease. These groups already faced severe impediments when it comes to access to livelihood and income, access to health and access to markets, impediments which were exacerbated as COVID-19 debilitated our social and economic systems around the world.

2021 has been forecasted to be only slightly cooler than previous years, but still one of the hottest on record, with weather forecasts indicating a high probability of extreme weather impacting food production, nutrition and food access in many countries including our own. The pandemic calls us to act immediately in addressing global food insecurity and climate, while providing us with a renewed urgency to build out equitable and resilient strategies to future shocks. Pushing aside inequality and vulnerabilities exposed by COVID-19 will only cause them to increase and deepen over time.

Priorities in Upcoming Global Moments

While many of our lives have been disrupted due to the pandemic, climate change has continued on relentlessly. In light of the pandemic, COP26 represents the most important round of climate change discussions to date. Never before has it been so clear that we must take direct action that will result in changes long-term, achieving both equity and stability in our environment. Advocates argue that food, farming and farm workers must be put at the center in the fight against climate change. As we look forward to global moments such as COP26, we must be reminded that the socio-economic consequences of both climate change and the pandemic are impacting those most marginalized among us.

The urgency of climate change coupled with the pandemic must serve as a call to policy leaders to set targets for a transition to what they believe is a more climate-friendly farming system, ensure that agriculture works for people, tackles greenhouse gas emissions and creates resilient farming systems, all key elements of the global recovery from the coronavirus crisis. Preparedness, where people are less susceptible to the consequences of disaster, will require a comprehensive approach, addressing social and environmental determinants of health at the personal, community, and public policy levels.

Where Do We Go From Here? Rebuilding after COVID-19

I write this having just started the seedlings for my own small garden in Boston: lettuce, carrots, radishes and beets. I recognize on this Earth Day, it is not possible for us to gather together as we would in a normal year. But we can plant something. A seed, an idea, an action. We can take this time to reflect on the lessons and opportunities the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us about the vulnerability of our environment and food system, the importance of multiscalar coordination from small farmers to nations and the possibility of global mobilization for change.

Exposing historic, ongoing inequalities, the pandemic has reminded us all of the essential nature of food and farming, workers and the environment. Even more importantly, it has demonstrated the capacity of local communities and states to mobilize and shift resources during a time of crisis. It has been local communities that have come together, innovated in new ways and shown resilience; they are our strongest assets in fostering a more sustainable and equitable food systems. In this current moment, it is more important now than ever before that policy makers, leaders in global summits such as CNOP26 and UNFCCC align policy responses in pursuit of transformative food systems and food security for all.



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