Four billion at risk unless food chain enhances resilience – FAO

The world’s agrifood industry has been warned it needs to become more resilient after the COVID pandemic highlighted the fragility of many parts for the food supply chain.

In a hard-hitting new report the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), has warned without proper preparation unpredictable shocks will continue to undermine agrifood systems.

The State of Food and Agriculture (SOFA) report warned that should the system suffer another major shock it has the potential to leave another 1 billion people across the world unable to afford a healthy diet.

“Countries need to make their agrifood systems more resilient to sudden shocks of the kind witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has emerged as a major driver of the latest rise in global hunger estimates,” said the report. “Today there are approximately 3 billion people who cannot afford a healthy diet. The estimates are that an additional 1 billion people would join their ranks if a shock reduced incomes by one-third.

“Moreover, food costs could increase for up to 845 million people if a disruption to critical transport links were to occur.”

The report defines shocks as “short-term deviations from long-term trends that have substantial negative effects on a system, people’s state of well-being, assets, livelihoods, safety and ability to withstand future shocks.” Examples include extreme weather events and surges in plant and animal diseases and pests.

Even before COVID-19 broke out, the report said the world was “not on track” to meet its commitment to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. And while food production and supply chains have historically been vulnerable to climate extremes, armed conflicts or increases in global food prices, the frequency and severity of such shocks is on the rise.

“The pandemic highlighted both the resilience and the weakness of our agrifood systems,” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. “The SOFA report reflects FAO’s efforts aimed at increasing resilience and sets out new indicators to help Members measure the resilience capacity of their agrifood systems and identify gaps for improvement,”

The world’s agrifood systems – the complex web of activities involved in the production of food and non-food agricultural products, as well as their storage, processing, transportation, distribution and consumption, produce 11 billion tonnes of food a year and employ billions of people, directly or indirectly.

While low-income countries generally face much bigger challenges, the report found that middle-income countries are also at risk.

“In Brazil, 60 percent of the country’s export value comes from just one trading partner,” said the report. “This leaves it with fewer options if a shock hits a partner country. Even high-income countries such as Australia and Canada are at risk from a shock because of the long distances involved in the distribution of food. For nearly half of the countries analysed by FAO experts, the closure of critical network links would increase local transport time by 20 percent or more, thereby increasing costs and food prices for consumers.”

Given the findings of the report the FAO recommends that governments make resilience in agrifood systems a strategic part of their responses to ongoing and future challenges.

“The key here is diversification – of input sources, production, markets and supply chains, as well as of actors – since diversity creates multiple pathways for absorbing shocks,” the report added. “Supporting the development of small and medium agrifood enterprises, cooperatives, consortia and clusters helps maintain diversity in domestic agrifood value chains.

“Another key factor is connectivity. Well-connected agrifood networks overcome disruptions faster by shifting sources of supply and channels for transport, marketing, inputs and labour.”

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