Food Disruptions Highlight Importance of Transdisciplinary Research and Action

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts have gone far beyond individuals’ health, transforming social, economic and ecological landscapes, as well as the food systems many rely on and leading to dire predictions of increased poverty, unemployment and food insecurity that could reverse much of the progress made in recent times.

Innovation and partnerships are required to prevent a food security crisis, avoid the decline of agricultural production and address humanitarian impacts.

This is according to researchers Mrs Rashieda Davids, Dr Shenelle Lottering and Ms Mallika Sardeshpande, who work with Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi who leads the Agriculture Theme of the international Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) transdisciplinary research programme.

‘Through consideration of the opportunities and risks in the food system as a whole, and working across disciplinary and institutional boundaries, we can facilitate improved policies towards a more sustainable and resilient food system and the social, economic and environmental components that underpin it,’ they said.

In South Africa, lockdown regulations saw an initial upsurge in food demand through panic buying, followed by a downturn as many people lost their income. The disruption of food production, distribution and access has affected the livelihoods and nutritional well-being of many. It has devastated small-scale producers supplying informal markets, worsened vulnerabilities to food and nutrition insecurity, and threatened the basic human rights and dignity of those facing increasing hunger and poverty.

Vulnerable groups face a vicious cycle. When the labour force is unable to work, food supply dwindles, as does the income to purchase food, resulting in malnourishment and weaker immune systems, with many already battling chronic illness. It is estimated that 3.2 million South Africans now require food aid, with insufficient capacity to meet this demand.

Recent estimates suggest that the effects of COVID-19 could see an increase of up to 50% in poverty rates in sub-Saharan Africa, signalling a likely recession and exacerbating the gap between the rich and poor. Globally, up to 195 million jobs could be lost, equating to three-fifths of the global workforce, and translating to around seven million jobs in South Africa. Job insecurity makes it difficult to stay home or maintain social distancing.

‘The situation is of particular concern for South Africa, which already has very high rates of inequality, poverty and unemployment owing to historical imbalances. COVID-19 is worsening these existing vulnerabilities,’ said Mabhaudhi.

The pandemic has also exposed the vulnerabilities of international food trade. Fresh produce and livestock products from large-scale operations are going to waste, and while few nations have stockpiled food or banned exports, in South Africa, which is biophysically capable of producing sufficient food, some industries have suffered due to export restrictions.

The need to support localised food systems has been recognised. This could take the form of subsidies, cash transfers, provision of seed, sanitation and storage facilities, and so forth, but also diversification of food production through cultivating indigenous, underutilised species that are often culturally significant, more nutritious, better adapted to their environment, and more resilient to climatic shock.

‘Ultimately, the food crisis arising from the pandemic is an issue of access rather than shortage, and malnourishment rather than hunger,’ said the researchers. ‘It brings to the fore the need to recognise and respect diverse forms of food production and procurement, including foraging, gardening, and small-scale agroforestry.’

Heartening responses to the pandemic have included the allocation of billions of rands to relief funds, grants, food parcels, provision of clean water, and the mobilisation of internationally acclaimed South African HIV and TB scientists to lead the charge, as well as the seamless application of infrastructure, knowledge and experience gained from decades of research in HIV to this crisis.

Despite these efforts, questions remain on how best to safeguard the economy and social welfare from future food system disruptions, and how to transform these systems for greater resilience and sustainability.

‘Similar to the redeployment of HIV researchers and health workers for COVID-19, we need to offer solutions from all sectors operating in the food system, to be agile, innovate and transfer knowledge and experience to address the multiple issues resulting from COVID-19,’ the group said.

They suggest that the National Development Plan’s delineation of improvements to sustainability, agriculture, climate change, and water and sanitation requires transdisciplinary and inclusive collaboration between various sectors for effective implementation.

The need for inclusivity is demonstrated in the often-overlooked link between human and ecological health. Disruptions of the human-ecological balance through factors such as rapid population growth increase the risk of the spread of and exposure to emerging diseases such as COVID-19. The environments where humans reside influence their vulnerability to disease, and inequalities in healthcare access, proper housing, and nutritious food place significant portions of society at increased risk of infection. In this regard, there is a need to revisit old spatial planning laws, which perpetuate these vulnerabilities.

Research efforts like SHEFS generate novel knowledge and tools to inform policy and practice on sustainable and healthy food systems, and enable innovations to mitigate systemic shocks to the food system by providing structured opportunities for transformational learning and collaborative work among diverse stakeholders.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photographs: Supplied