* Ruth Mathen
CHIANG MAI, 28 MAY 2020: “Community-led sustainable agriculture is the key to securing food sovereignty in Asia. As agriculture, livelihood, and food security are intertwined, it is vital to construct the right structures, infrastructures, and incentives in the post-crisis recovery period and ensure that the most vulnerable are protected from the worst effects of the disruption in food production and supply. The multifaceted COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating vulnerabilities in food production, processing, and distribution, and might lead to risk of persistent starvation for millions of people, and hence, adequate advanced preparation is needed for tackling food insecurity in the long run,” opined experts specialising in food security and sustainable agriculture at the sixth virtual conference organised by the Christian Conference of Asia (CCA).
The virtual conference on the theme ‘Will COVID-19 Worsen Food Insecurity in Asia?’ was the sixth in a series of webinars hosted and facilitated by the CCA and was held on 28 May 2020. It witnessed engagement by over 2,500 people on the CCA’s social media platforms, in addition to about 60 registered and invited participants on Zoom.
Six virtual conferences focusing on various aspects of the impacts of COVID-19 have already been organised and facilitated by the CCA in the course of one month, starting from 30 April to 28 May 2020.
The panellists – experts in food security who represented the United Nations World Food Programme (UN-WFP) as well as civil society organisations (CSOs) and faith-based organisations (FBOs) which promote sustainable agricultural practices – discussed the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on food security and sustainable food production in the short, medium, and long term. They also explored the restructuring of a new agrarian culture for increased food production and sustainability in Asia aimed at enhancing food security in the future.
Dr Mathews George Chunakara, the General Secretary of the CCA, who moderated the session, introduced the theme and said that even before the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the issue of food security was a grave concern in several countries in the world. The pandemic had worsened the risks of food insecurity in Asia, with the lockdown situations, constraints on mobility, and loss of employment affecting food production, supply, and distribution, and the curtailment of the ability of millions of vulnerable people to procure and purchase food.
Explaining the necessity of discussing the theme at hand, Dr Mathews George Chunakara explained that as part of the reflection and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing crisis, it was the need of the hour to discern the relationship between the global pandemic and food insecurity. The UN-WFP had warned of a ‘looming global humanitarian catastrophe’ as COVID-19 could double the number of people who would face acute hunger and starvation by the end of 2020.
Loss of income and a parallel steep rise in food prices had led to a decline in consumption and purchasing power of people from poor and vulnerable communities. As malnutrition due to limited food intake could lead to weakened immune systems, large swathes of the Asian populace were at a greater risk of contracting the virulent virus. Thus, it was imperative to design inclusive recovery solutions for food sustainability even in the post-crisis period, added Dr Mathews George Chunakara.
Kun Li, a spokesperson for the UN-WFP, noted the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on agriculture, livelihood, and food security in Asia. She said that 65 million people in the Asia-Pacific region were susceptible to food shortages, and described the situation as grave and needing urgent attention from policy-makers. “The economic impact will inflict more pain than the virus itself and will erode the developmental gains made so far,” she said.
Encouraging governments to minimise the risk to their citizens, Ms Li said that countries must modify their existing social safety nets to counter the unique challenges posed by the pandemic. Care needed to be taken to ensure that vulnerable sections of society, for example, migrant workers and those employed in informal sectors, did not slip through the cracks. Although overall food production had not been affected, it was the supply chain disruption and availability of labour that would pose issues in the future. Severe climate change events in the upcoming months, such as floods, landslides, and droughts, along with armed conflict in some states were likely to compound hunger.
Dr Ed Sabio, Director of ECHO Asia, who focused on the need to help smallholder farmers and the poor in Asia to improve food security and livelihoods, emphasised the value of local and community-level perspectives on food security.
“None of us has prior experience with a pandemic or crisis of this magnitude,” he stated, providing the rationale for the necessity of an intersectional lens and collaboration while resolving the food crisis. The voices of small-scale farmers were crucial in securing meaningful and inclusive partnerships with governments, he said, while stressing the importance of stimulating community food systems, supporting family farming, and developing sustainable agricultural technologies.
Dr Sabio shared the lessons to be integrated into the post-recovery design, saying that family farming was resilient against risk and that biodiverse food sources provided insulation against malnutrition. He favoured creating internal interdependencies rather than international ones and also opined that an immediate short term strategy to mitigate the impact of the food crisis would be to distribute seeds to communities so that they could immediately replant and produce their own food.
Manosi Abe Chatterjee, a young staff member from the Asian Rural Institute (ARI), focused on training in sustainable agriculture through integrated organic farming and community building to share food. She detailed the country-specific situation, pointing especially to the dismal food self-sufficiency of Japan which has remained below 40 per cent. Mobility constraints and supply chain disruptions had severely minimised Japan’s food imports.
Ms Chatterjee said this was risky given that several households would not be able to secure food. Conversely, the closure of the tourism sector meant that huge amounts of food, both raw and processed, was left unsold, and food with no buyers in the sector was abandoned and left to rot. This paradox implied that though there was sufficient food, hunger persisted and there was no distribution of food among families in need. She advocated the promotion of farming as a viable profession for young people in rural areas to achieve self-sufficiency and grow food domestically. She also reminded the participants of the responsibility as consumers, asking them to be mindful of some of their food consumption patterns that were potentially damaging; for example, procuring foods available beyond seasons and consuming more imported food rather than locally-produced food.
Usha Soolapani, Director of Thanal, a collective of nature enthusiasts trying to promote an environmentally conscious generation in India, said that employment in agriculture in the country was unstable and unpredictable given the seasonality of the sector. Although the procurement of food grains was possible, the public distribution system was flawed and did not work initially. She dissuaded competition among farmers and denounced the free market system while saying that farmers’ collectives and community development were key in tiding over the food crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ms Soolapani also brought attention to the issue of urban malnutrition, as families’ intake of nutritional food was compromised due to financial constraints under the COVID-19 crisis. Several communities had ceased to grow biodiverse foods due to the macro-globalised food systems. While rural communities were able to consume more biodiverse food, this was not the case in urban areas. She recommended that CSOs and FBOs in urban areas design and initiate community gardens to cater to the nutritional needs of vulnerable communities. She also encouraged establishing relationships between farmers’ collectives and schools, where schools who had the facilities to do so could engage their students in small-scale agriculture.
Rev. Jae Hak Ahn, Associate Secretary of the Asian Christian Life-Giving Agricultural Forum in South Korea, said that life prior to the crisis was one of suffering for farmers due to free trade, plantation farming, and large-scale monocropping. All of this was fundamental to the consequences of globalisation; the collapse of trade barriers and the tyranny of multinational agricultural enterprises on farmers in poor Asian countries caused rural communities to disintegrate and deprived farmers of seeds sovereignty, which relegated their lives to mere businesses.
Rev. Ahn called the world’s churches to action and exhorted them to take the lead in building communities based on ‘life-giving agriculture’. He said, “Churches must go further in their faith communities of worship, restore relationships with nature, and save lives! The land held by the world’s churches and their denominations should be made accessible free-of-charge to rural church members. Churches should provide the foundation for self-reliant farming, return the rights to their crops to farmers, and promote a path of coexistence through the transactions of agricultural products between rural and urban churches.” It would become the way to revive a new agrarian culture by restoring food sovereignty and strengthening locality in the face of globalisation, he concluded.
Joyanta Adhikari, from the Christian Commission for Development in Bangladesh (CCDB), spoke of the effects of COVID-19 crisis on income and consumer spending of marginalised sectors in Asian countries and how the lockdown situation and loss of employment affected people in terms of their food security, food choices, and nutritional intake. He emphasised the importance of investing in innovation and research and said that climate-resilient agricultural techniques and technologies were the need of the hour.
Dr Ardniel Baladjay, Director of the Agricultural Education and Extension Department from the University of Southern Mindanao in the Philippines, stated that there were collaborations between different government departments and state universities on projects to enable food security via community-level food production, processing, and marketing. The Department of Agriculture was ensuring a supportive policy framework, public investment, and support services needed for domestic and export-oriented businesses, and were also re-aligning programmes to address continuity in the food supply chain. Dr Baladjay emphasised the need to strengthen credit and support services to develop farmer-oriented seed supermarket supply chains and revive science-based farm extension service programmes.
Across the board, the panellists unanimously agreed that massive agrarian restructuring was necessary to mitigate the impending food crisis. Globalisation and the domination of the global food supply chain by giant trade corporations had led to a mammoth and complex system with several interconnected dependencies, thus exacerbating the vulnerability of certain developing countries in Asia. It was vital to strengthen food sovereignty and reduce the trade sensitivity of countries while empowering farmers to extricate themselves from the global system where they were forced to adopt unsustainable practices like monocropping and plantation agriculture.
In his concluding remarks, Dr Mathews George Chunakara noted, “The food crisis was a pre-existing situation that has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although we have made technological advances and have taken it to mean the ‘success’ of our development models, this has proved to be insufficient in overcoming inequality, poverty, and hunger in the world. It is true that over the past few decades, several Asian countries have advanced agricultural production. The paradox of the situation, however, is that even though food is available in surplus at the macro level, food accessibility at the household level remains a problem, particularly in remote rural areas due to lack of proper income and purchasing capacity. The impact of COVID-19 is leading the world to unprecedented challenges with deep social and economic consequences, including compromising food security and nutrition. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed more uncomfortable realities about the structure of our economies and societies that we must now confront. In this context, the CCA webinar series has been the first step to address and respond to this crisis,” said Dr Mathews George.
The CCA webinar series was initiated as part of the organisation’s advocacy efforts and has served as a platform and forum to share emerging challenges, learn from one another’s best practices, and develop insights and solutions together.
The Reports of the CCA’s previous webinars: