The COVID-19 pandemic has brought our daily lives and economies to a halt. Our colleagues and Rikolto’s partners will also need to realign their daily work. Yet this should also be a time of reflection. And for Rikoltians, this means reflecting upon what this crisis means for our current food systems and what conclusions we can draw that will help shape them in the future.
What we can learn from the corona crisis that will help shape our future food systems
What we can learn from the corona crisis that will help shape our future food systems
We can learn from new initiatives to create inclusive food systems in informal markets
"The COVID-19 pandemic only started in the first quarter of 2020, but it has already caused global disruption in the food sector, also here in Indonesia. Local authorities’ responses play a critical role in ensuring the proper functioning of the domestic food market. Smallholder farmers, as a main actor in the food system, are facing uncertainty due to movement restriction that affects farming, production and distribution activities. One of Rikolto’s partners in the rice sector in Java mentioned a sales increase, as rice is a staple food in the region. They adapted their way of working: wearing masks and washing hands more frequently. But at the same time, high transport costs become a constraint. They expect the government to ensure that inputs such as fertilisers and seeds will be available in time, and to facilitate their distribution, so that the production stages will not be harshly affected."
Closures of restaurants reduce the demand for fresh foods like vegetables and fruits, but the supplies from peripheral regions keep coming in. This situation has created a bottleneck in the food supply chain. New e-commerce platforms connect farmers with broader markets to solve the market access problem.
"We are also seeing gaps between supply and demand in certain sectors, e.g. perishable products such as vegetables and fruits. For instance, Jakarta - as a COVID-19 epicentre in Indonesia - has imposed substantial restrictions on movement to prevent the disease from spreading. This has led to closures of restaurants and less frequent grocery shopping. This measure reduces the demand for fresh foods like vegetables and fruits, but the supplies from peripheral regions keep coming in. This situation has created a bottleneck in the food supply chain, and generated food waste due to the limited cooling facilities for preserving the fresh foods. The Indonesian Agriculture Ministry has partnered with one leading national multiservice tech platform to address this problem. Consumers can order their food via an online app and their order is then delivered by services provided by the platform. Also, local agritech start-ups have developed e-commerce platforms to connect farmers with broader markets in a bid to solve the market access problem. By directly linking them, these kinds of new initiatives help customers and producers. On the one hand, people can avoid crowds and prevent disease transmission without being afraid of running out of food. On the other hand, the disruption in the food supply chain is minimized, and the wheels of the local economy continue to turn.
We can learn from these initiatives about the importance of creating inclusive food systems in informal markets, that benefit smallholder farmers. We also see that the participation of local governments and private actors is vital for creating inclusivity and long-term system resilience against such shocks."
Striking the right balance between efficiency and resilience
A country neglecting its agriculture because it is cheaper (more efficient) to import staple food, becomes very fragile in the event of global turmoil.
"During these past few days, I had to think of something I read about 10 years ago: "There’s a continuum between efficiency and resilience". A system that is only resilient, lacks efficiency; a system that focuses too narrowly on efficiency, can’t be resilient. Read: it will collapse in the event of an external shock.
Nowhere is this so evident as in agriculture. A monoculture, with only one crop, is very efficient as you can scale and specialize. But it is also very susceptible to disease, in which case a farmer may lose all his crops and income. The same goes if you depend on only one big buyer.
The notion easily translates to a global scale: a country neglecting its agriculture because it is cheaper (more efficient) to import staple food, becomes very fragile in the event of global turmoil. For many countries, the food crisis in 2008 was a harsh wake-up call in that regard. We are now getting a similar kind of wake-up call. We are experiencing a shortage of mouth masks and protective clothing for our doctors and caretakers, because we're fully dependent on China's production capacity.
Our shops and supermarkets in Belgium were overwhelmed during the first days of lockdown. Yet, thanks to massive efforts by all the #foodheroes in our agrifood sector, the supply of food was maintained.
Robin Food transforms surplus vegetables into soups for social grocery stores and food aid
April 10 2020 - Together with 4 partners, Rikolto launched a new soup in Belgium, with an amazing story: Robin Food. The soup is made from surplus vegetables for which the farmers of REO Veiling and other regional suppliers have difficulties finding a market due to the corona crisis. The soup is sold to vulnerable people through welfare organisations and social grocery stores.
In Europe and Belgium, we often debate whether we should invest so much in agriculture. And I'm not saying that considerable changes don’t need to happen in Europe's agricultural policy. What I am saying is that every agricultural policy should contribute to a strong, locally rooted, agrifood sector.
Policy in the sector should promote transparent, fair and ecologically sound value chains. We can strike the right balance between efficiency and resilience, by keeping supply chains as short and simple as possible for the bulk of our food, and as long as needed for products that we can't grow ourselves.
That is what will keep us afloat in times like these."
Agroforestry systems: cocoa farmers supplying food to their communities and beyond
"While most of its impact has yet to be seen, the Covid-19 crisis has already affected Latin American agri-food value chains at an operational, economic and financial level. With the many movement restrictions in the region, in some countries farmers have had to get permission to transport their products to the cities. In this context, the very task of being able to maintain the season’s harvest activities is a challenge, and some organizations have stopped their operations completely. The implications? In the cocoa sector, producers will have to ferment high-quality cocoa at their own premises. Without the appropriate processing, families may have to start selling the dry cocoa at a lower price.
With the main cocoa markets (especially for chocolate) of the USA and Europe having been severely affected by the virus, it is safe to assume that the demand for this commodity will fall. The entire supply chain, and especially producers, will be affected. A general paralysis in global economies may reduce consumers’ spending capacity in ‘golden’ markets, and at the same time put one of the main sources of income of Latin American families at risk.
If only they had a Plan B…
Rikolto has always focused on agroforestry systems. Such systems involve combining cocoa with other crops to yield diversified, dynamic, future-proof systems, that are increasingly resilient to environmental shocks. And crises like the one we are currently facing.
When it comes to the cocoa sector, Rikolto has always focused on agroforestry systems. Such systems involve combining cocoa with other crops to yield diversified, dynamic, future-proof systems, that are increasingly resilient to environmental shocks. They become better able to cope with crises like the one we are currently facing. The availability of staple products such as bananas, cassava, corn, tomatoes, chilies, oranges, lemons and other fruits is ensured during uncertain times as well. They also mitigate the negative effects of quarantines, and provide people on lower incomes with access to basic food. Our professional partner organisations can help feed the most vulnerable among us, irrespective of whether they live in rural communities or in cities.
The pandemic is providing us with the unique opportunity to highlight the urgent need to diversify the incomes of many farming families. Rural areas have proven to be a vital component in governments’ urban feeding strategies at this time. Good agroforestry systems allow our partners to offer alternative products and explore new internal markets."
Let’s turn this crisis into an opportunity to install better food distribution systems
It should be possible to aggregate basic staple foods (such as potatoes and beans) in the production zones and organize bulk transport to central storage facilities in the city centre
"This crisis should again serve as a wake-up call for our leaders: we are really too dependent on food imports. This makes us very vulnerable. To give you an example from my city, Butembo, in Eastern Congo: the price of beef has increased by 25% over the last few days. It comes from our neighbour Uganda. The price of locally produced chicken has remained the same in one shop and increased by only 5% in another shop. So, we should really focus on getting our local supply chains more organized.
Soon, we will start seeing the effects of the transport restrictions that have been put in place. In ‘normal’ times, food traders from the city of Butembo go to the production zones to buy the harvest of the farmers: potatoes, vegetables, beans, etc. They go from farmer to farmer and pay in cash, or they visit the small storage centres of farmers’ groups. But because the city borders are almost closed now, this is no longer possible.
Over the next few days, I will discuss with the farmers’ organisations how we can turn this crisis into an opportunity. It should be possible to aggregate basic staple foods (such as potatoes and beans) in the production zones and organize bulk transport to central storage facilities in the city centre where traders can buy the products. But this would require that the farmers’ organisations have money to buy from the farmers and organise collection and transport. Let’s see if we can overcome all the obstacles."
This is the time to educate our communities about diversifying when it comes to staple foods.
Planting staple crops on coffee and cocoa farms serves to strengthen local food security, and it is also an additional source of income for the families.
"I’m in charge of Rikolto’s coffee programme in Indonesia. April is coffee harvest time. You cannot postpone it. But all activities, such as field schools for farmers and other training, will not take place. At this moment, we don’t know whether the buyers will buy the coffee or not, as transport is problematic: there are restrictions on the movement of people and goods in Indonesia and beyond. We are in touch with buyers, and hope that the situation will go back to normal once the processing of the coffee starts. If not, warehouses will be very full of coffee for some time, and the quality of the coffee drops if coffee bags are stored for too long. This will mean a loss of income for the farmers.
At this moment, there is still enough food available in Indonesia. The government has its own national rice buying strategies, and we have also been importing high volumes of wheat flour and soybeans.The primary focus on rice has caused other local staples to be rather neglected. I think we are too dependent on rice. To me, this is the time to educate our communities about diversifying when it comes to staple foods. Cereals such as corn and sorghum are widely grown in Indonesia, especially in East Nusa Tenggara. But other crops also have huge potential: there are numerous varieties of cassava, taro, sweet potato, and potato. There is also sago, which is extracted starch made from the trunks of some tropical palms. The potential is there in Maluku and Papua.
In the areas where Rikolto supports the coffee and cocoa farmers, we also stress the importance of planting staple crops on their farms. This serves to strengthen local food security, and it is also an additional source of income for the families."
The importance of creating stronger local food connections
People fear getting hungry in cities, and know that food will be abundant in the rural agricultural areas.
"I have to think a lot about a book I read some years ago by Carolyn Steel called ”The Hungry City”. This book was an eye-opener for me as it shows the strategic importance of local food systems for feeding urban consumers.
When I walk in the streets of Arusha nowadays, I see to what extent the hungry city is becoming a reality. An estimated 40% of Arusha urban citizens derive their primary source of income from tourism activities. Tourism has completely (!) stopped, since Tanzania Aviation Authority suspended all international commercial flights. So this affects poverty rates largely in the city.
What is very remarkable in Arusha and the rest of East Africa is that the first reaction of a majority of urban citizens after hearing news about corona is to move back to the rural areas because food security can be guaranteed there. Over the last few days, thousands of people have left the cities and walked for days to return to their home to start cultivating there. People fear getting hungry in cities, and know that food will be abundant in the rural agricultural areas.
This clearly shows that the current urban food system is very weak, and our Food Smart Cities programme is becoming more important than ever in addressing the gaps in the linkages between rural areas and cities."
In the last two weeks, our team in Tanzania has been very active in promoting pulses production, to ensure basic food supply. The biggest obstacle at this moment is that there are no quality seeds available. Therefore, we launched a partnership with a company called Crop Bioscience and engaged women entrepreneurs in the multiplication of seeds.
"Also, we should not forget that the current pandemic is there because mankind thinks we can still dominate nature and wildlife. As a consequence, diseases pass from animals to humans and create health catastrophes.
Inger Andersen, director of UNEP, said that corona is a consequence of the lack of care we take for nature. Human behaviour is the root cause for diseases passing from animals to humans, creating health catastrophes. And agriculture seems to be one of the root causes for humans conquering nature for land.
When I was looking at how the Masai in the Rift Valley have been interacting with nature and wildlife for many centuries now, it made me humble, but it also made me believe that we can overcome this contradiction between agriculture and nature conservation. I do believe smart agriculture practices like agroforestry can strengthen biodiversity, nature conservation and wildlife management. It is what we strive for with Rikolto in the end: supporting farmers to engage in productive agriculture activities that respect ecological boundaries."