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Interviews - issue #4

Resetting Global Food Systems

Introduction by Francis Mwanza
With interviews by Patrick Steel, David Reeve

As global food systems and supply chains have been disrupted by Covid-19, Francis Mwanza, researcher and writer on African and local foods, and former head of office of the United Nations World Food Programme’s London office, UK, introduces a series of interviews looking at how communities around the world are adapting and finding local food security solutions to a pandemic-struck planet.

Many years ago I interviewed a Zambian village elder who warned me against eating processed foods, which are unhealthy and unreliable, and recommended eating local foods. Any talk about local foods, then and now, tends to focus on vegetables, fruits and, sometimes, edible insects like mopane worms or locusts, and very small amounts of meat. This has helped my family during this pandemic as we have been dependent on our garden for cultivated and spontaneous vegetables, just as the elder advised.

Covid-19 has brought renewed global focus on local producers, local foods and food supply systems. It has come at a time when global food needs are at unprecedented levels, with one out of nine people facing hunger every day and a record 168 million already requiring humanitarian assistance.

As the World Food Programme points out, the Covid-19 pandemic is complicating existing crises and threatening to worsen others, with the potential for multiple famines in the coming months. And the UN is reporting that there is now a high risk that the broader disruptive effect of Covid-19 will drive up levels of global food insecurity. Yet one third of the food produced - that could feed all of the world’s vulnerable people - goes to waste.

This pandemic is but one example of likely crises the world faces and should prepare for. Fixing our broken food system is more urgent than ever before. Everyone eats, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. And everyone is involved in the food system, whether the system is local, regional or global.

Unfortunately, the most common system is the agro-industrial system, dominated by a few multinational corporations, flooding markets with predominantly processed foods, which include unhealthy levels of sugar, salt, and fat, leading to health issues like obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes (all risk factors for Covid-19).

With lockdowns, sparked by the spread of coronavirus, the global food system and its global supply chains have been disrupted and continue to be under pressure. The pandemic is negatively and seriously affecting economies and daily life everywhere.

Now, after years marked by limited access to food, particularly for the poorest, rising or often fluctuating prices, ecological threats to seed diversity, and what is generally referred to as “food sovereignty”, Covid-19 is demanding that we hit the reset button on our broken food system.

Local food systems are becoming stronger because of their short supply chain, minimally processed food from local farmers, and food that fits local consumption habits. The push now is for resilient and sustainable food systems for urban centres, peri-urban and rural areas, with increasing emphasis on sufficient and diverse local production, affordable prices, good quality, healthy eating, and a stable food supply.

In major cities, whether it be New York, Kigali, Harare, Bogota, Mumbai, or Lahore, an increasing number of people are responding creatively with non-traditional farming methods: tunnel, vertical and micro gardening. We are now seeing more rooftop gardens in unlikely places in both developed and developing countries.

These methods are helping shorten supply chains, ensuring access to fresh foods, with a smaller carbon footprint compared with the international food supply chain. Restaurants are also engaging in precision indoor gardening. And chefs in the mainstream restaurants are exploring local markets for local ingredients and hitherto little-used food plants.

In Africa and Latin America, for example, it is estimated that some 360 million residents are already engaged in urban or peri-urban local food production. In Fiji, home gardening is being promoted and funded by the government as a direct response to Covid-19 and the challenges of the disrupted food supply chain. And there is another push: a push for “ancestral” foods. There is now a stronger movement trying to protect rare indigenous seeds and take seeds back to tribal communities.

Traditional lifestyles and eating locally-grown or locally-available spontaneous plants are being seen as an effective arsenal to dampen the effects of the broken global food system and improve the health of local communities with nutritional, rich, local foods. While conventional vegetables like cabbage, lettuce and spinach are often heavily dependent on inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, the cost of which continue to rise and can have negative impacts on the environment, traditional vegetables like amaranth and African egg plant have an advantage because they produce well without such inputs. This holds out the prospect of a broad, hardy, nutritionally-sound local food base, which does not require inputs (that many local farmers cannot afford).

Covid-19 is fuelling the fire for addressing the failures of an inequitable and broken global food system and demanding that we address food security issues differently. As the interviews in this section show, the pandemic may be hurting us and undermining food security for the poorest, but it is also helping to highlight the necessity for thriving local and regional food systems, and focus on Indigenous, sustainable, and nutritious local foods.

MEXICORaúl Mondragón, founder, Colectivo AhuejoteRaúl founded Colectivo Ahuejote to work with farmers in the Xochimilco lake area to the south of Mexico City, first settled by the Aztecs, where floating islands known as chimpanas are farmed according to traditional methods. The organisation’s focus is on building a sustainable agrifood system, connecting the farmers to consumers and local markets through sales networks and eco-tourism.

Colectivo Ahuejote, Mexico.

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