By David Phiri
September 2021 provides a unique opportunity in the quest to transform our food systems for the better, as the United Nations convenes the Food Systems Summit. The Summit is part of the Decade of Action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, leveraging the interconnectedness of food systems to global challenges such as hunger, climate change, poverty and inequality.
During the Summit, major policy recommendations on food security will be advanced with a view to reaching global and regional commitments, including the Africa Union’s aspiration to end hunger on the continent by 2025.
For the Summit to be successful, bold actions will need to be taken by UN Member States to deliver progress on all 17 SDGs, each of which relies to some degree on, and contributes to, healthier, more sustainable and equitable food systems. Hence, the voice of Africa in this Summit is crucial in carving the path to an Africa where adequate, nutritious and affordable food is accessible to all.
Food systems, which refers to the activities involved in producing, processing, transporting and consuming food, touch every aspect of our live. The health of our food systems profoundly affects the health of our bodies, as well as the health of our environment, our economies and our cultures.
A recent publication by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the African Union Commission and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) highlights the fact that the existing food systems are failing to guarantee food security, where all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
In Africa, the number of hungry people has increased by 50 million since 2014. Now, it stands at 250 million, or nearly one-fifth of the population. The report further indicates that, in addition to hunger, millions of people suffer from widespread micronutrient deficiencies. Overweight and obesity are also emerging as significant health concerns in many African nations.
The food systems in Eastern Africa is in a particularly difficult situation, even by Africa’s standards. The food security situation in the region is worsening, let alone being on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 2 and African Union’s targets. Despite having less than 25 percent of the African population, East Africa accounts for more than 50 percent of the food insecure and undernourished on the continent.
The gradual deterioration of food security and nutrition in East Africa is attributed mainly to never-ending conflicts, frequent extreme weather events, and economic slowdowns and downturns, emerging animal and plant pests and diseases, often overlapping. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 has worsened further the food security situation.
The natural environment in the subregion has also faced startling levels of environmental degradation, mainly due to two factors – global climatic changes and human activities – affecting natural resources and land use. Rainfalls are becoming more erratic, temperatures are rising, and drought events are getting more frequent. Land degradation through deforestation and desertification is occurring rapidly, resulting in soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, leading to food shortages.
These challenges lead us to the conclusion that our food systems need a revamp, spanning many disciplines — agriculture, health, climate science, digital science, political science and economics, among others. We all must work together to transform the way we produce, process, distribute, consume and dispose food. We need to transform the existing agri-food system towards nurturing a more sustainable, resilient and effective system that can nourish the growing population.
FAO offers a bold vision to push for the achievements of this goal. FAO’s new Strategic Framework, anchored on the principle that food and agriculture, people’s livelihoods, and preservation of natural resources cannot be addressed in isolation, is to optimise four betters: better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life.
Taking a systems-based approach to tackle complex challenges, FAO is working to accelerate innovation, technology, data, governance and institutions to transform today’s agri-food systems for tomorrow’s world where no one goes hungry. It is fostering innovative solutions to produce more with less (to mitigate water scarcity, land degradation, food loss and overuse of inputs, and loss of biodiversity) and to reduce food and agricultural prices, including the cost of nutritious food.
Doing so would help to i) reduce hunger, putting it back on a downward slope; ii) transform agri-food systems to nourish people, nurture the planet, and build resilient livelihoods and ecosystems; and iii) increase investment in rural transformation and vulnerable populations to reduce inequality, leaving no country and no person behind.
By David Phiri is FAO Subregional Coordinator for Eastern Africa and FAO Representative to
the African Union (AU) and to the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA)