There are several pointers to the fact that COVID-19 and similar disease outbreaks are as a result of our encroachment on natural habitats and destruction of genetic diversity occasioned by the industrial system of agriculture and other economic activities. The current pandemic and the lockdown measures to curb its spread have given us an opportunity to analyze our food production systems and to change our course for a healthy and resilient future.
The pandemic has brought to fore the importance of local, inclusive and sustain-able food systems because while many businesses are shut down and commercial processes including the distribution of genetically modified seeds to farmers are restricted, smallholder farmers have to keep up with the production and marketing of healthy food for the population. This, they do in spite of the challenges they face in terms of restriction of movement; access to markets, credit schemes; lack of storage and processing facilities; and poor road networks etc.
On 30 June 2020, HOMEF had a webinar (Dialogue) with students of Agriculture and youths from across Nigeria which focused on the implications of the pandemic on our food systems; the impact of industrial agriculture (GMOs, excessive use of chemicals, monocultures etc.) on food systems as well as its link to pandemics such as the COVID19; and issues of seeds and markets and how they affect small holder farmers. The dialogue which also had journalists and CSOs in attendance highlighted the way forward for healthy and resilient food and farming systems in a post COVID-19 Era.
Speakers, drawn from Nigeria, Ethiopia and South Africa included Million Belay, Coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa; Tatfeng Mirabeau, professor of Medical Microbiology, Nigeria Delta University; Jackie Ikeotuonye, CEO at Bio-integrity and Natural Foods Awareness Initiative; and Linzi Lewis, a researcher and advocacy officer at the African Center for Biodiversity.
The fact that we must first understand the root of problems before we are able to solve them was stressed by Nnimmo Bassey (HOMEF Director) in his opening remarks. “Industrial agriculture (which propels 80 percent of deforestation, promotes land grabs, displaces family farmers and communities) and the pursuit of profit have unrelentingly eaten away at natural habitats, bringing about displacement of both humans and beasts” he explained.
According to Million Belay, intensive livestock production and destruction of genetic diversity occasioned by modern biotechnology further increases the risk of emergence and spread of diseases such as the COVID-19, SARS, Ebola, etc. Speaking on the realities of the present pandemic, he stated that it has brought about increased marginalization of already marginalized people. “Women are seriously impacted as they have the responsibility of caring for the sick and also making food available amidst the movement restrictions and market challenges” he added.
Speaking further on the impacts of the pandemic on our food and farming systems, Jackie Ikeotuonye stated that there have been hikes in food prices, poor access to seeds by farmers, poor access to markets, disruptions in collecting and transporting agricultural products to areas of consumption, post-harvest losses occasioned by lack of storage facilities, and a general inability of farmers to meet up with food supply.
“This is the time to explore sustainable agricultural systems which provide healthy, enjoyable diets for all while contributing to socioeconomic development and minimizing (and eventually eliminating) environmental impacts and waste. Agroecology and food sovereignty are of key importance in the post COVID 19 era. The right to own and control our agricultural systems and our food from seed to consumption must be upheld” she explained.
Speaking on seeds, seed laws and markets, Linzi Lewis stressed on the importance and need to protect farmer managed seed systems which provide 90% of agricultural seeds and which allows for saving, sharing and sale of local, genetically diverse, adaptable and affordable seeds across planting seasons.
It was noted that currently, the orientation of our seed laws is specifically towards the private sector which undermine the farmer managed systems that we rely on. We must understand that it is the small holder farmers who feed Africa and so we are faced with the question of who will feed us since our laws put the small holder farmers at risk and favour the private sector whose major concern is export and profit.
Genetic modification of food crops and specifically the approval for commercial release of Bt Cotton and cowpea in Nigeria is of serious concern. “Implication of GMOs, in addition to the loss of farmers’ rights over the modified seeds include increased use of herbicides – destruction of non- target organisms; loss of biodiversity; and health implications such as cancers, immune system disorders, birth defects etc.” Professor Mirabeau explained.
It was stated that landmark outcomes such as the report-Agriculture at a Crossroads issued by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) in 2008 which calls for adoption of the most efficient farming systems, and recommends a fundamental shift toward agroecology as a way to boost food production should be utilized in national policy.
In addition to being an efficient and resilient farming system, agroecology, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 2014 is a key element of the food system that the world needs in order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). As noted by the FAO, Agroecology directly contributes to many of the SDGs including eradication of poverty (1) and hunger (2), ensuring quality education (4), achieving gender equality (5), increasing water-use efficiency (6), promoting decent jobs (8), ensuring sustainable consumption and production (12), building climate resilience (13), securing sustainable use of marine resources (14) and halting the loss of biodiversity (15).
From the presentations and discussions, the following action points and recommendations were drawn:
- While the immediate concerns of protecting the health of citizens may be taking precedence during the crisis, our governments need to keep their foot on the pedal of agricultural transformation and take this opportunity to strategically rethink our agriculture and food systems.
- We should focus on regenerative, restorative agriculture such as Agroecology that nourishes and sustains ecosystems and biodiversity.
- Post COVID -19, we must wean ourselves from the dependency on imported processed foods and on the industrial agricultural system which not only impact negatively on our health but also weakens our economy. A mindset of autonomy and strong political will is needed to turn the enormous potential of Africa’s food sovereignty into a reality.
- The government should put in place a variety of proactive measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on women, smallholder farmers and producers.
- Young people should be included in dialogues with public health specialists and policymakers and should be given the opportunity to contribute to decision making and problem solving. Including young people will result in a more sustainable and long-term solution to the current and future pandemics. The youth of today can act as custodians of the pandemic response in order to remind future generations of the lessons learnt, pitfalls, and the best way forward.
- Our governments need to be proactive in monitoring food availability and pricing. This can be done by setting up food-security or agricultural response units in the face of COVID-19 as centralized strategic and planning hubs. Governments should deploy digital tools and data-gathering approaches to manage food availability, accessibility, and affordability—as well as providing support to value-chain players.
Africa is rich in biodiversity and we have the potential to feed ourselves and have excess to share with the global human community. We do not need the external approval of exploitative entities to build a sustainable food and agricultural system. We must resist the urge to have our food system guided by the warped agenda that promotes mass production driven only by higher profit margins and that see food only for its market value.
The pandemic is also forcing nations to recognize the risks of depending on other nations for major food and health supplies. This presents us a pivotal moment to direct the future that we want.