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Research Provides the Bricks and Mortar for Our Food Systems to ‘Build Back Better’

Elwyn Grainger-Jones is the Executive Director of the CGIAR System Organization.

MONTPELLIER, France, Jul 22 2020 (IPS) - The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the structural weaknesses of today’s food systems, showing how quickly global networks of food production, trade and supply can waver under the impact of a single disease.

By compromising access to safe, nutritious food through enforced restrictions on distribution and labour resulting in shortages and price rises, the coronavirus outbreak has shaken the foundations of global wellbeing, with repercussions for health, livelihoods, and equality.

Elwyn Grainger-Jones

But while such an interconnected system, in which food and agriculture prop up healthy economies, environments and societies, has its vulnerabilities, it also points to potential strengths.

By responding with the best available science and research on resilient, healthy and sustainable food systems, the global community can not only recover food security, but it can also build back better entire systems that support health, nutrition, incomes and climate action.

This is why CGIAR’s response to COVID-19 is underpinned by four key pillars of research that provide crucial insights into how to transform food systems with short-, medium- and long-term changes for the better ahead of the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

In the months leading up to the decisive summit, CGIAR will make the case for a science-based approach to response, recovery and resilience, to support a much-needed transformation of food production, distribution, consumption and disposal, which form global food systems.

The first of these four pillars is research into food systems and within this, CGIAR has prioritised the means and ways to ensure sufficient and diverse food supplies during the pandemic and its aftermath.

For example, as part of the short-term response in the next 12 months, CGIAR will gather and provide on-the-ground monitoring data and scientific evidence that will help policymakers and agencies to better understand and overcome the pressures on local and regional food systems.

The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) is monitoring harvests in South Asia to identify food supply shocks caused by COVID-19 while the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT will document the effects of the pandemic on the production and consumption of rice in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Meanwhile, researchers are working to improve the very starting points for food production, from improved rice germplasm to improved species of carp to produce more and better food to consume and to sell.

The second research pillar addressed the need for robust understanding of both animal and human health to support the sustainable growth of animal agriculture.

Research dedicated to “One Health” – or the concept that animal, human and environmental health is inextricable – includes the threat of disease spillover between people and livestock as well as improved disease control measures from hygiene and decontamination to vaccination and safe food storage.

The CGIAR COVID-19 Hub is carrying out research into food safety in informal value chains, for example, in Kenya’s dairy sector and the pork market in Vietnam.

Such research offers valuable insights to inform and shape government and multilateral investments that prioritise protecting the most vulnerable from the impact of the pandemic.

Under this third research pillar, scientists are studying the effects of social protection programs, identifying areas of vulnerability and mapping local food systems to understand existing and needed coping mechanisms, which are often embedded in informal and social structures.

Finally, the fourth research pillar is focused on the broader framework needed for policies and investment that support response, recovery and long-term resilience.

At a country level, this means using science and research to develop tailored policies that mitigate the impact of shocks on the most vulnerable.

In Bangladesh, CGIAR research and evidence is being used to develop interventions designed around specific crop seasons as well as household food aid distribution and wet market management.

And at a global level, CGIAR is also working with UN agencies and development partners on research including phone-based survey assessments to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on rural household livelihoods and food security.

COVID-19 may have caused devastating setbacks and instability around the world that risk undermining progress towards global development, including ending hunger, malnutrition and poverty. But for those of us working on agricultural development to serve public health, wellbeing and prosperity, the pandemic has only accelerated efforts towards our mission.

CGIAR research in four key areas can help ensure that instead of uprooting progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the pandemic is taken as an opportunity to add urgent reinforcements and bolster the structures on which global development depends.

Between now and the culmination of the UN Food Systems Summit, countries and authorities must build stronger bridges with the academic and research community to ensure that all of us can build back better.


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