On 16 October, we celebrate World Food Day. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of our global food system. Food & Trees for Africa (FTFA) is committed to ensuring that communities in South Africa can access nutritious, sustainable food. A big part of this is encouraging local food production.

FTFA works with beneficiaries to grow food within their communities. The aim is to make them more resilient and less dependent on long – often global – supply chains. These supply chains are among the first casualties of natural disasters, pandemics and societal disturbances – as COVID-19 has shown us.

“When communities grow their own food or have the option to buy at a community garden in their area, they are more resilient in the face of global price fluctuations and disturbances in large-scale supply chains,” says FTFA Food Gardens Programme Junior Manager Luyanda Ntuli. By bolstering local food production, FTFA is working to support local food supply too.

Countries’ economies and borders shut down as the coronavirus spread. As a result, the vital arteries linking farmers and their produce to consumers stopped working. Around the world, food waste skyrocketed. Farmers dumped millions of litres of milk, let vegetables rot and smashed eggs that couldn’t be sold. Even in South Africa, farmers lost harvests because there was no way to get their produce to consumers.

More food, but people are still hungry

Large-scale farming has increased the volume of food the world produces. It can be more difficult to get food to vulnerable people – some of whom are within the food system itself. 

“Hunger was on the rise in 2019 before the pandemic began,” writes Rhonda Ferguson, a research fellow at the Dahdaleh Institute for Global Health Research at York University, Canada. “Despite ongoing calls for change, trade organisations and top food-exporting countries have yet to acknowledge that the current global food trade system is ill-suited to respond to local needs in an increasingly volatile world.”

In an effort to achieve economies of scale, the global food system has prioritised large-scale production of single crops, often on big farms far from consumers. However, these economies of scale and global distribution networks come at a cost. Vulnerable people – often within the food system – are at the mercy of global and national logistics and face food insecurity. On top of this, agriculture is a leading contributor to carbon emissions and, with it, anthropogenic climate change.

“In reality, our food systems have been sitting on a knife-edge for decades,” says Olivier de Schutter, co-chair of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems and United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. “Children have been one school meal away from hunger, countries are one export ban away from food shortages, and farms are one travel ban away from critical labor shortages. Families in the world’s poorest regions are more vulnerable than ever to food insecurity, untenable living costs, and forced migration.”

COVID-19 pandemic has heightened food insecurity

The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped open these fault lines. One way to enable access to healthy, sustainable food is to encourage local food production, shortening the links between farmers and consumers. FTFA continues to stress the importance of this localisation. It builds resilience and gives people greater control over what food they eat.

During the lockdown in South Africa, millions of people went to bed hungry. In response to the pandemic, FTFA launched its Grow Your Own initiative. This involves inviting people around the country to apply for seedlings to grow food for themselves and their communities. To date, it has distributed almost 720 000 seedlings. Through this effort, FTFA was able to bring healthy, sustainable food to some of the people who needed it most.

People in these communities, and others with local food gardens, can buy fresh – often naturally farmed – produce their neighbours have grown specifically for them. This is according to Robyn Hills, Programme Manager of FTFA’s Food Gardens for Africa programme. “This sort of economy is more robust because it’s small, so it’s flexible. Local markets should not be niche, they should not be bourgeois,” she says. “They should be encouraged everywhere, in backyards, next to clinics, because we should fundamentally be able to travel by foot to get our food.”

Agroecology benefits communities

This is also the recommendation of De Schutter. In a 2014 report, he notes that agroecology (which underlies FTFA’s approach to food production) “provides other social and health benefits” to communities. “Diverse farming systems contribute to more diverse diets for the communities that produce their own food, thus improving nutrition,” he writes. “Because agroecology reduces the cost of farming by minimizing the use of expensive inputs, it improves the livelihoods of farming households, particularly the poorest households.”

One food garden at a time, we can feed the world healthy food, sustainably. That way, when shocks such as global pandemics hit the food system, people will not go hungry.

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