Why food systems are bound to fail the Covid-19 stress test

BY ERIC KIMUNGUYI

Coronavirus has brought enormous setbacks, suffering, and forecasts of a global depression ahead following the closure of so many economies for so long.  But if there has been one area where it has exposed our global fragility, that area has been food.

Certainly, the curfews, lockdowns and workplace closures delivered an uptick in power cuts, but there’s no great clamour about our energy infrastructure now being under threat of failure. Likewise, with water, it remains far from accessible to all, but has not been plundered by this year’s pandemic. Shelter could take a hit on joblessness and unpaid rents. But the elephant in the room is definitely food.

That hasn’t gone unremarked. At the level of international geopolitics, the World Food Programme has warned us all that we are moving into a famine of what it has called ‘biblical’ proportions, by which, it’s fair to say, the WFP meant ‘humanity threatening’.That made some headlines. But not too much concern at street level.Likewise, economists and academics keep muttering darkly in jargon about food supply chain issues and food security. What they mean is, we are going to be short of food: very short of food indeed. In fact, we are going to be more short of food later this year than we have ever been on Planet Earth in any of our lifetimes.

So, with the translations provided on the biblical famine and food supply chain issues, how has this happened, and what can we do to prevent starvation?Well, the trouble began by locking most of the world into their homes during the planting season, stopping a lot of logistics that were transporting seeds, fertilisers and pest control products, keeping most seasonal workers away from the fields, and additionally messing up the ways food is bought (much of it through restaurants, for instance), resulting in agricultural throwaway and leaving farmers additionally short of payments to fund replanting, while other stocks were impaired as different food stocks were, conversely, run down.

Across all, the food chain took a row of hits, with far more food thrown away than normal, and far less planted.

In Kenya, our own horticulture, which was feeding Europeans with vegetables, couldn’t get air cargo space and is still being limited by tripled transport charges. We also had excessive rain that reduced our last harvests and the largest locust invasion this century.There is, nonetheless, some time lag in the impact of all those problems. Take our bread. Wheat accounts for 28% of the cereals we consume, while maize accounts for 56%. Yet we import nearly all of our wheat to make the bread that is a significant part of our diet. Some 30% of that imported wheat comes from Russia, but Russia isn’t going to suffer a bread shortage of its own sending its wheat to us to keep our bread going. Threatened with running short, it banned its wheat exports on  April 26 until later this year.Some of its wheat was already on ships in transit to us. But by the third week of May, our commodity importers reported that wheat deliveries due from Russia had not arrived. Some ordered extra from Argentina, because Argentina and Russia – being southern and northern hemisphere – have different planting cycles and seasons. But as the disruption feeds through to those who were freshly harvested as well as to those who were due to harvest from now, the number of alternative sources will become fewer.

And without imported wheat, Kenyans simply won’t have any bread. Nor any rice to speak of either.From the first glimpse of the hunger now ahead, we at the Agrochemical Association of Kenya began communicating through every means possible that #EveryCropCounts this year, urging farmers to plant more, government to subsidise imputs, organisations to support every endeavour to control pests, manage soil, and maximise yields. But as we face months ahead of unprecedented hunger, encouraging the maximum possible harvests through more planting and higher yields, is but a first step. For what this pandemic has brought home – and this will speak far more plainly to many in weeks and months to come, as they cannot buy the food they need – is just how vulnerable our food system is.

We store little. We add value to little. We lose a lot to low yields and poor pest control, getting sometimes less than a fifth of the possible production from the land we have.  Despite having some of the finest agricultural land in Africa, we import large swathes of our food, and while we talk about sustainable production in the face of climate change, we have paid far less attention to the resilience of our food supplies to all other disruptions.And yet the lessons are there. In 2017, we lost 70 per cent of our maize to Fall Army Worm at a time when we could import maize from elsewhere. This year, we have fed millions of locusts with food destined for our nation, and now face every kind of possible food shortfall. 

Thus, if a single good thing can come from the food challenges we now face, it will be our attention to stocks and storage, to yields and self-sufficiency and value addition, and to how we make food security about protecting ourselves from all the risks we didn’t protect ourselves from in time for the Coronavirus pandemic.

And if we do that, something great will have come from all of this: as the first real stress test on our way-too-fragile food system.  

Writer is CEO, Agrochemical Association of Kenya

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