Coronavirus: The Importance of food security

The Coronavirus pandemic has shaken the globe. This once in a lifetime disaster has claimed over 100,000 lives globally and continues to do so. Most international crises do not directly lead to job losses, death, economic insecurity or food insecurity. However, this pandemic has trigged all three.

Food security, or insecurity is largely a problem of the developing world. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) defines food security as “existing when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life” (FAO, 2020).

To put this into context in the developed world, people do not have to grow their own food for survival, or additional sustenance, however, in the developing world this is more common. Smallholders are dependent on their land, and in many cases are not fortunate to have access to supermarkets as those in the developed world do. This month bare shelves brought the long neglected issue of food insecurity to the unaware rich world.

Panic Buying

As grocery items on shelves disappeared, panic further increased. Shelves in supermarkets that were stripped bare of hand sanitiser and handwash the previous week were soon stripped, of toilet rolls, fresh fruit and veg, tinned food, cereals, crisps, meat, fresh and frozen. Supermarkets imposed limits (arguably way too late). Shelves that were restocked by night workers in supermarkets, were quickly stripped bare by shoppers who rushed in when the stores opened.

What all this demonstrated, is that the supply of food, particularly in the end stage, delivery to customer is especially fragile. Whether through online delivery, or in store. The supermarkets have assured the general public that enough food is available which may be true but the delivery of it to consumers is the weak link. It is possible to see supply disrupted by a number of sick delivery drivers causing issues for supermarkets in a region of the country.

Supply of food in the developed world in normal times is rarely a pressing issue. As Tim Laing professor of food policy at London’s City University puts it “panic buying aside, our supermarket shelves are usually full. We have access to a greater range of ingredients at better prices than at any time in human history” (Laing, 2020).

As a researcher on this topic its interesting to see an actual focus on short and long term issues of food security globally.

Laing in his book warns that the UK is food system is “stretched, open to disruption and far from resilient” (Laing, 2020).

Laing goes further to state the bitter reality that faces us ‘we have a massively fragile just-in-time supply chain which could easily collapse; a depleted agriculture sector which produces only around 50% of the food we actually eat, leaving us at the mercies of the international markets; and production methods which are damaging to the environment and human health’ (Laing, 2020).

With UK overeliance on international markets and an inability to grow enough food (due to lack of usable land) for its citizens, which is not solely a UK issue. We have to turn to researching into other means of production and look into altering the means of consumption incrementally.

The food system is fragile, complex and not able to react to the demands of panic buying without interventionist policies, food is very much a finite resource and the production of it even more so. A good thing was at the time of this crisis there were no high rates of food loss present in the UK. This would have put untold strain on the food supply system. The panic buying has now ceased, largely because people have stocks of food to last over two weeks and also because of the restrictions in place at the major supermarkets.

One thing the pandemic is demonstrating is that policymakers must be proactive with regards to the food system, it is not enough for policymakers to take a laissez-faire approach.

More updates on the topic of food security, particularly in this context will be posted here.

References:

Rayner, J. (2020) ‘Diet, health, inequality: why Britain’s food supply system doesn’t work’, The Observer, 22nd March [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/22/tim-lang-interview-professor-of-food-policy-city-university-supply-chain-crisis (Accessed 13 April 2020).

Wood, Z. (2020) ‘Supermarkets ready for a new week of rising to the virus’s challenge’, The Guardian, 29th March [Online]. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/mar/29/supermarkets-ready-new-week-virus-challenge (Accessed 13 April 2020).

Meat: A threat to our planet?

Having watched the BBC documentary recently on the topic of Meat production and the threat it poses to our planet. I thought a short assessment on the documentary would be appropriate.

Largely, this documentary focused on the US and South America. However, the overall message was applicable no matter where the location. The current form and sheer scale of meat production is unsustainable. This only increases when we factor in global population growth in all continents.


This is the documentary description

Following on from 2018’s award-winning Drowning In Plastic, science and wildlife presenter Liz Bonnin is travelling around the world to investigate the impact that our hunger for meat is having on our planet’s environment.

Reports from the IPCC and the FAO revealed that the global livestock industry is responsible for more greenhouse gas emissions than the running of all the world’s transport combined – and it’s polluting our air, land, and water. So just how bad is the problem, and what can we do about it?

Liz travels from Texan megafarms, where 50,000 cows belch out vast amounts of planet-warming methane, to giant pig farms producing colossal quantities of polluting manure. In the Amazon rainforest she discovers how beef farming is a leading cause of deforestation, and comes face to face with a baby harpy eagle – a species rapidly losing its habitat as cattle farmers cut down the forest. Feeding our planet’s livestock is also leading to huge biodiversity loss and, in South Africa, Liz discovers how this is affecting life in our oceans, helping to drive the African penguin towards extinction.

Liz also meets the scientists and entrepreneurs urgently looking for solutions. At a university in California, Liz puts her hand directly into the stomach of a cow – all in the name of reducing methane emissions. In North Carolina she meets an entrepreneur who’s using his manure to power local homes. And in San Francisco, she becomes one of the first people in the world to try a lab-made chicken nugget – a product that might reduce the environmental damage caused by meat production.

Liz finishes her journey on a small farm in Wales, where she meets a family who have shifted their relationship with meat by taking the bold step of slaughtering their own animals.

At the end of her journey, Liz starts to assess her own attitude to meat, and questions what we can all do to save our fragile planet.


Twitter lit up throughout the documentary with arguments for veganism, which in itself is not the solution. Changing the behaviour of millions or potentially billions of people is difficult at best. Many advocates of veganism, advocate total veganism which in itself is unsustainable.

As I have argued previously, what we need to promote globally is a balanced diet. The dangers of unintended consequences loom large promoting such a diet, for example the land mass to for a plant based diet may be significantly less but the consequences of a loss of biodiversity have not been adequately considered. Far better to promote incremental change and balance with regards to how people eat, rather then total change as it is simply impossible to foresee every consequence of any action.

In conclusion
It is great to see that the media is finally broadcasting programmes that make the public aware of the environmental problems some of the food we consume can cause. However, this is just the beginning.

Moving forward

What is needed by everyone though is more focus on the security of food and population sustainability. Whether it be crops or meat, overall the climate will force us to change our diet. This will create ‘food deserts’ in some areas of the world, where little or nothing can grow or be produced. Overall the BBC made a good start, but more focus on the benefits of genetic modification and the circular effects of food waste/losses in different regions of the world would be something to explore.

Climate change and chickens in Nigeria

Climate change is causing serious problems across the world, from wildfires to freak storms. A topic that is often neglected is the current and future effect of the changing climate on the supply of food.

Developing countries will be affected disproportionality more then developed countries by the effects of climate change. In terms of food security, food loss is the largest food issue affecting developing countries.

In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) rural smallholders routinely function as both producers and consumers (Morris, 2018, p.10). For this reason, both food loss (losses which occur at production level) and food waste (losses at point of retail/consumption) affect the approximately 80% of smallholder farmers in Nigeria. In comparison, although around 70% of UK farms are owner occupied, however, no smallholder farmers rely primarily on their own farms to feed (DEFRA, 2009, p.99).

This makes the article titled How to roast a chicken: Climate change and farming in Nigeria by Aljazeera concerning. The subtitle sets out the real issue that African farmers will have to grapple with for the future; Extreme heat is worsening economic inequality among African farmers – and raising the spectre of future food shortages.

The article points out the losses Nigerian farmers are making on smallholder farms particularly in northern Nigeria, where most recent temperatures have spiked to 36c with farmer Olusola John who states that the severe heat has been affecting his 600 chickens (Mbamalu, 2019).

Farmer Olusola dreams of building a modern-style chicken house that could minimise his heat-related losses (Mbamalu, 2019). However, such a structure could cost as much as 19 million naira ($55,000) – more than the profits that he could recoup by selling his chickens (Mbamalu, 2019). Not only do farmers on the continent face difficulties with agricultural knowledge-transfer (which has always existed in some form and that I have reported at length), but they face the threat of climate change reducing production and deepening inequality.

Adedoyin Idowu, a senior lecturer at the University of Agriculture, Abeokuta states that in Nigeria, mortality rates for poultry are increasing “to the level of at least 15 percent per annum” (Mbamalu, 2019). Naturally, this loss is not as severe on farms with modern technology, where yields and profits are higher (Mbamalu, 2019). With high economic growth rates in Nigeria the gap between those who can afford modern technology and those who cannot will surely increase.

This means agricultural producers who are wealthy enough to mitigate the effects of global warming can plant more productive crops and raise more poultry and livestock (Mbamalu, 2019). This is why it is the more affluent Nigerian farmers who are now controlling the market, says Merlin Uwalaka, an environmental economist at the University of Alberta (Mbamalu, 2019). For Uwalaka, even a slight change in the balance of the ecosystem can be enough to plummet low-income Nigerians into dire poverty. This is particularly and issue when roughly 47 percent of the population is living in poverty, according to the World Data Lab (Mbamalu, 2019).

More government intervention and points to note

How can Nigeria address its agricultural needs? The article finds:

“The government must intensify its efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change on farmers,” says Adenike Adediran, a project manager for the International Climate Change Development Initiative. “Research producing relevant data should be carried out. This would bring to the forefront the impact of climate change, and [would] create awareness amongst all stakeholders” (Mbamalu, 2019).

Nigerian farmers say that unless the government provides that basic support, the only way they can afford to take measures to address extreme heat is to take out loans from banks that can charge interest rates as high as 28 percent (Mbamalu, 2019).

The article does not include any suggestions on how to improve agricultural knowledge-transfer (the circulation of agricultural knowledge) or pool resources in local communities which can be a cost effective means of reducing losses. Whilst it is true national governments can, and should do much more to reduce the impacts of climate change on farmers.

Bottom-up interventions such as pooling of money or materials through NGOs and local communities can go a long way to solving this crisis. Behavioural instruments could also be trialled to get those farmers that are more economically better off, to share their resources and knowledge with the benefit of decreased losses and increased production for both parties.

This demonstrates the complexities and wide issues facing smallholders not only in Nigeria but across the African continent. Only through joined up policymaking, increased resource pooling, and sharing can such pressing food security issues related to climate change be mitigated. States should work harder to make sure circulation of knowledge is efficient, loans more readily available with terms that are reasonable, and they should be more willing to work at a wider level through the African Union and other international organisations.

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References:

Mbamalu, S. (2019) How to roast a chicken: Climate change and farming in Nigeria [Online]. Available at https://www.aljazeera.com/ajimpact/roast-chicken-climate-change-farming-nigeria-190712154410790.html (Accessed 21 July 2019)

Morris, M. (2018) South-South Cooperation: An analysis of agricultural knowledge-transfer implementation influencing smallholder food losses – An analysis utilising the case of Kenya and Ghana (August 2018)

Phillips, C. (2019) Climate change is creating catastrophic wildfires | World Economic Forum [Online]. Available at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/the-vicious-climate-wildfire-cycle/ (Accessed 21 July 2019)

The push to consume insects instead of traditional farmed meat

Is eating insects the real answer to solving food security as the economist suggests? Moving from meat to insect protein may make sense. However, I have long argued against this. A more recent guardian article puts plummeting insect numbers ‘as threatening collapse of nature‘.

For all the hype and push towards consuming insect bars and the like we need to look into this seriously.

What the planet needs most right now is balance and we should be exercising caution before advocating the altering human of diets significantly, this also rings true for the recent vegan trend.

A move from one extreme to another may cause unintended consequences.

Update 07/05/2019: Another argument against such a proposition is that of the human effect on biodiversity. A draft UN report reveals that up to one million species face extinction due to human influence. Surely rendering the argument that humans can switch to eating insect protein dead in the water.

According to the report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the loss of pollinating insects and other ecological disasters – from the destruction of flood-saving mangroves to air pollution – poses no less of a threat than climate change (The Guardian, 2019).

The report will lend more weight to the argument that reducing the consumption of meat and dairy produce is the most viable solution, both in terms of reducing climate impacts and ecological damage. More news will be posted on these interesting developments soon.