Food and Nutrition Security in the 21st Century

Ismail Serageldin

Foundind Director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina
Vice – president of World Bank 1992 – 2000
Co-Chair of the Nizami Ganjavi International Centre


I. The Setting

The 21st century has brought a profound transformation to our world.  Largely thanks to the Internet, we can see accelerations in all aspects of globalization, be it travel, trade, financial integration across nations, and social connectivity.  The Internet has helped nurture an even tighter new set of links in what is institutionally referred to as Science, Technology and Innovation (STI); a tight linkage that brings ever newer products and innovations to the market.  Rocked by at least one huge recession (2008-2009), the Euro-crisis (mostly Greece and Southern Europe) and several wars, the world economy has nevertheless grown albeit with growing inequalities in almost every country.

But in the 21st century, the world has pursued a common vision of development: first the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to cover the period from 2000 to 2015 and then the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for the period 2015-2030.  The success of the first set of goals was largely helped by the enormous transformation of China, which not only grew at a blistering pace, but also lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty.

At the center of the global strategy behind the goals adopted by the nations of the world at the UN, was the immediate need to fight poverty and hunger, as the most fundamental of human rights.  But there was also an increasing appreciation of the over-arching importance of climate change as an existential threat over the longer term.


II. 2020: The Year of the Pandemic

In 2020 the world was hit by a pandemic of the Corona Virus (SARS-COV-2) and the disease it spreads (COVID-19).  By the beginning of 2021, as I write these lines in mid-January 2021, the world has already recorded over 94 million confirmed infections and over two million confirmed COVID-19 related deaths. The USA alone has over 23 million confirmed infections and over 390,000 COVID-19 related deaths.

But as countries have tried to cope with the explosion of the COVID-19 cases swamping the available healthcare facilities, governments moved on prescribing social distancing, stay-at-home policies (including work-from-home wherever feasible), cancelations of events that called for large public gatherings, and other measures that have impacted many service industries.  Hospitality, tourism and travel almost came to a standstill.  The public health crisis begat an economic crisis, and resulted in a massive economic contraction (especially in the rich countries of the West), and millions of people lost jobs. Massive unemployment ensued.  Unemployment was projected to reach nearly 10% in OECD countries by the end of 2020, up from 5.3% at year-end 2019, and to go as high as 12% should a second pandemic wave hit. In general, an OECD jobs recovery is not expected until after 2021, this despite multi-trillion dollar rescue and stimulus packages being adopted by the western governments concerned.

But the overall global economy’s performance is being buoyed by the rapid recovery and enviable resilience of the far-eastern countries led by China, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and South Korea, and including Australia and New Zealand.

According to the IMF, the global economy suffered a contraction of more than – 4% in 2020 as the measures to fight the spread of the Coronavirus took their economic toll.  However, the IMF expects that global economic growth will exceed 5% in 2021, as economies recover, vaccines are distributed and the world moves slowly towards some semblance of normality.

But that  – 4% is deceptive.  The impact on various countries has been very different.  And within countries it represents a significant increase of people that have fallen back into extreme poverty (and hunger).  In fact, as many as 100 million people may have fallen back into extreme poverty.  Even in the rich countries like the US, we see long lines at charity food centers.


III.   On Extreme Poverty and Hunger: The Case of the USA

Hunger is associated with the presence of extreme poverty, not by shortage of food production.  A prime example is the USA.   The USA is a leading producer of food in the world, yet has suffered considerable hunger due to its economic policies that have undone the benefits of the “War on Poverty” that was launched in the 1960s, by serving the wealthiest at the expense of the vast bulk of the population.  In the US, both inequality and poverty increased significantly over the last half century.

So we find that even before the pandemic and its economic contraction, in 2018 already one in nine American households was food insecure. But surveys have consistently found much higher levels of food insecurity for children generally and students specifically, with a 2019 study finding that over 40% of US undergraduate students experienced food insecurity (Wikipedia).

Against that dire situation the pandemic and ensuing loss of jobs and income brought about a disaster. Indicators suggest that the prevalence of food insecurity for US households has approximately doubled, with an especially sharp rise for households with young children. (Wikipedia).


IV. From the Pandemic to the Food and Nutrition Security System

Today, about 690 million people worldwide go to bed hungry each night.    And if current trends continue, the World Food Program (WFP), recipient of the Nobel prize for 2020, estimates that this figure could reach 840 million by 2030.

Yet, there is more than enough food produced in the world to feed everyone on the planet.  Small farmers, herders, and fishermen produce about 70 percent of the global food supply.  But they are especially vulnerable to food insecurity – because poverty and hunger are most acute among rural populations.

Furthermore the current global health crisis (and its economic consequences) has disrupted supply chains and laid bare the need to better address the inter-related challenges of hunger, malnutrition, climate change, and environmental degradation.

While the COVID-19 pandemic is a major public health crisis, it has struck different countries very differently.  And various governments have responded differently, resorting to lockdowns and other measures that have brought about enormous economic disruptions.  These have put added stress on food systems around the world.   Consumers are paying higher prices, supply chains are disrupted, children are deprived of school feeding programs and families who rely on food assistance are struggling. In a number of places, farmers have lost their markets and are worried about harvesting their current crop and planting for the next season.

Some governments have responded to the tightening food situation with export bans and import restrictions, which can exacerbate price swings and trade tensions that were already high before the COVID-19 outbreak. But most governments have kept trade flows open with sensible export and import policies.  Others have responded with humanitarian actions and have tried to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of the food supply chains.  But we need to re-build resilient local and regional supply chains based on diversified local food systems and sustainable natural resource management.  And while short-term actions to address the various local situations and crisis are vital, we must also address several long-term implications of the crisis for global food systems.


V. What Needs to be Done?

A call to Action:  Internationally coordinated, locally relevant actions are needed to address the medium- and longer-term impacts of COVID-19 on agriculture, food, and nutrition security, as well as the rising and coming challenges that climate change will bring, especially to the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world, especially in Africa.   Furthermore, without proactively addressing the challenges of Food and Nutrition Security, it will be difficult – if not impossible – to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) adopted by the UN in 2015.  This was the subject of an open letter (that the author participated in drafting) that was signed by several hundred eminent political figures and technical experts and sent to the UN, the G-20 and published widely on the Internet.  Many of the points made there deserve being repeated here.

Achieving the SDGs will require actions on the agriculture and food security fronts, and such actions should be at local, national, regional and global level through a well monitored and coordinated approach.

Unfortunately, research on these interlinked challenges continues in the silos of environment, agriculture, economics, and public health. We now need more transdisciplinary research to develop more resilience of our agricultural and food security systems in the medium term.

Promoting a “Green Recovery”:   Climate change and the disaster risks it portends has not gone away, even if it has been crowded out of the media headlines by the COVID-19 crisis. COVID-19 has demonstrated what a profound impact human activities have on our environment. Greenhouse gas emissions are declining; water and air quality are improving; birds and wildlife are returning to forsaken habitats. Obviously this is temporary since the economic and social costs of the abrupt economic shutdown will not be acceptable over the long term.  Yet it is an opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of conserving natural resources, especially agro-biodiversity, increasing carbon sequestration, improving soil health and water quality, generating renewable energy, and promoting scientific eco-regional planning.  But since there are large-scale stimulus measures that are being proposed by most governments, it is important that these be used to “build back better” and promote a “green recovery” of our economies.   And green is not only related to energy.  It should include agriculture and more efficient water and nutrient use, diversification, greater dependence on locally available plant-based food systems, etc.  These would demand a paradigm shift in national priorities.

Science, Technology, and Innovation (STI) are essential in addressing COVID-19 and other global threats and challenges. We have seen the enormous success of accelerating the development and production of vaccines.  In agriculture, the revolution in ICT and in biology can help re-imagine the food and agricultural systems to provide food security to the poor, and to transform the sector by reducing its environmental and climate footprints.  Disruptive innovations are needed to increase productivity and income through precision farming and timely delivery of inputs to farmers’ fields, through a 'More from Less' approach. Research should also help bring new technologies to markets, including 'out-of-the-box' ideas such as meats from single cell proteins to biofuels from algae; from accelerated fish farming to improved livestock breeding to plant-based proteins.  Such frameworks should enable rapid movement from 'lab to land' and from 'farm gate to consumer plate'.

Nutrition is important to all human beings at all points of the life cycle. For women, health is a human right; their access to good nutrition is fundamental to ensuring good health and underpinning empowerment.  In addition, entire families benefit from the realization of women’s right to health; the children of women who are well nourished will be healthier, and those children will avoid stunting and wasting and be able to grow into more active, healthier, and productive young people. Supporting nutritious food and agricultural systems also ensures household nutrition security. The medium and long term COVID-19 response must ensure that the needs of all women, men, and children are met, including those who are most marginalized.

The importance of gender:  Women farmers are the key to food and nutrition in Africa for in most of sub-Saharan Africa it is women farmers in small plots that produce most of the food.  These smallholder women farmers need better assistance in producing more with less, in reducing post-harvest losses, and in getting better prices for their products.  They must be empowered socio-politically, organizationally and financially.

In this regard, empowering women in agriculture will ensure household nutrition security. And more generally, emphasis on diversification around local nutritious food will enable all nations to achieve greater resilience and boost food security.

Raising wages for landless farm workers is essential.  In large parts of Asia and Latin America, they represent some of the poorest members of society, with few prospects for improvement without a systematic effort at creating a better working environment for them and somehow getting them included in national social safety net systems.  In Africa small-holder women farmers play an essential role in ensuring food and nutrition security and need special attention and support.

Reducing local conflicts:  Conflict is a major driver of hunger: The UN estimates that 122 million of 144 million stunted children live in countries affected by conflict.  An estimated 14 million children under the age of five worldwide suffer from severe acute malnutrition, also known as severe wasting, yet only 25 percent of severely malnourished children have access to lifesaving treatment.

Increasing the Resilience of the global Food and Nutrition System:  The disruption of input supplies will affect agriculture adversely for the next 6 to 24 months. Urgent action should start now to ensure that adequate credit and agricultural inputs (seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides) are available when and where needed to strengthen the ability of the farmers to deliver.  Transportation, storage and distribution systems need to be enhanced, including the capacity to change production systems to meet shifting demands.

Special attention is needed for Africa.  It is the only continent where population is projected to grow until the end of the century and beyond, and where we already find the greatest number of the extremely poor who are at the greatest risk of chronic hunger and malnutrition.  Furthermore, rapid urbanization is transforming the links between producers and consumers of food.

Adaptation to Climate Change is as important as efforts at mitigation.  Climate change is real.  Its impacts are already with us.  In North Africa and the Sahel, a hot dry water-scarce and food-importing region will become hotter, drier and suffer from desertification and an even larger food deficit.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, where some 95% of agriculture is rain-fed, rainfall is becoming erratic. With alternating cycles of drought and flood, and ill-prepared very small farms and poor rural infrastructure.  We must increase the resilience of the system and ensure the transformation of agriculture into “precision agriculture”, driven by science, and executed with the best environmentally sound management practices.


VI. The need for global action

The pandemic, climate change and the resilience of our food and nutrition system are all global problems and challenges that require a concerted global response.

Helping the most vulnerable. The international community must help the poorest countries with actions on the ground. The World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Program (WFP), the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD) and the Regional Development Banks have all played – and continue to play – important roles in supporting agriculture and food security.  Bilateral donors and regional organizations such as the European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU) also have a major role to play. Together they have operational presence in well over 130 countries and can mobilize action for a better future.  The CGIAR can enhance the global research system in working on bringing greater resilience to the Food Security system, and enhanced partnerships with National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS), the private sector, and NGOs.

The UN is holding a Food Systems Summit in 2021. This will be a major opportunity to craft a well-organized global effort to address these challenges.  To study the experiences to date and ensure that the best practices of the few become the standard practices of the many.  It will also be a chance to reinforce the formation of real partnerships for implementing actions on the ground.  These partnerships must be forged between all governments and the regional banks, international organizations (from the UN and specialized international agencies to regional organizations), bilateral agencies, the private sector, NGOs, and the organizations that support farmers and consumers in all countries …


VII.   Conclusions

We must act collectively for the common good.  We must call upon our common humanity.  We must act in ways that are driven by caring and compassion for the poorest and the weakest among us.  On the pandemic, we must ensure that vaccines, therapeutics and tests are available and accessed by all who need them, not only those who can afford them.  We can resume action on the agenda for fighting climate change.  The Biden Administration’s return to the Paris accord is to be welcomed. We can help human society overcome the multi-faceted challenges to the agricultural and food security system brought on by the legacy of bad policies in the past, the disruptions of the pandemic, and the increasing challenges of climate change, and place society on a much stronger and more sustainable path of growth and balanced human and environmental development.

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