A panel on food security heard how rising oil prices, conflicts, emerging diseases, poor governance, and supply chain disruptions due to transportation disruptions during the pandemic have combined to create a potentially devastating scenario for the global food system.

“This has created a perfect storm for global food collapse,” Fan Shenggen, chair of China Agricultural University’s academy of global food economics and policy, said on Thursday during an online panel hosted by SciDev.Net and its parent organization CABI (25 November).

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s monthly food price index released on September 2, global food prices have risen nearly 33% since the same period last year.

The World Food Programme estimates that, in the countries where it operates, some 272 million people are already – or are at risk of becoming – acutely food insecure due to the effects of the Covid-19 crisis.

“The big elephant in the room is the need for us to change our diets as a result of increasing demands,” Afeikhena Jerome, special adviser to the commissioner for rural economy and agriculture at the African Union Commission in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, said during the discussion.

We found that economies which rely heavily on food imports are highly vulnerable. And this applies to the majority of African countries.”

Africa’s net food import bill is expected to grow from US$35 billion in 2015 to over US$110 billion by 2025. “We must promote more sustainable, productive and regenerative agriculture and use the one health approach — plant health, environmental health and human health,” Jerome added.

“The pandemic has provided a stark indicator of the need for more resilient food systems with fundamental change needed if we’re going to build sustainable systems that can help to address the linked challenges of feeding a growing population, supporting growth and jobs, and protecting our planet from climate change and environmental degradation,” CABI’s chief executive Daniel Elger told the meeting.

Panellists looked at how sound policies and institutional linkages, agricultural innovations and research, investment in infrastructure and technology, and facilitation of information could help mitigate the negative impacts of the pandemic on food security.

Tariq Khan, adviser and director-general of Pakistan’s Ministry of National Food Security and Research, said more opportunities have been created with online transactions, digital trade and online delivery systems established.

Moses Mwale, director of agriculture in Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, emphasised that monitoring and tracking of food security and nutrition indicators are a vital component of enabling a robust food system.

“The nutrition scenario for Zambia indicates a need for healthier food systems that are critical in the fight against hunger and obesity through a multi-sectoral approach,” he said.

Enough food is produced globally to feed everyone, but up to 811 million people went hungry in 2020, according to the UN’s State of Food Security and Nutrition report. Roughly one-third of the food produced for human consumption every year — about 1.3 billion tonnes — gets lost or wasted, according to a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report.

In developing countries, 40 per cent of losses occur at the post-harvest and processing stages while in industrialised countries more than 40 per cent of losses happen at the retail and consumer level, according to UNEP.

Neil Willsher, CABI’s global director for value chains and trade, decried the “criminal amount of waste that goes on in the value chain” and called for a close look at shortening supply chains and producing more staple foods, seeds and fertilisers in-country.