The choices we make today will decide our future and now is the time to mould the society we want to live in. The COVID-19 crisis will have far-reaching consequences in the local and global economy. Already, we have started to see these ravages, with unemployment spiking and companies folding under the pressure of physical lockdowns.
“After two months of a nationwide lockdown, our economy is in the throes of the anticipated fallout from this global crisis,” South African president Cyril Ramaphosa wrote on 22 June in his weekly email.
The World Bank predicts that the global gross domestic product will contract by 5.2%, and that emerging markets – such as South Africa – will be particularly hard hit. “Policies to rebuild both in the short and long-term entail strengthening health services and putting in place targeted stimulus measures to help reignite growth,” the bank writes.
“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”Indian writer Arundathi Roy wrote in the Financial Times
The question is then: what kind of future do we want and what should this stimulus target?
Human health at the centre of a COVID recovery
At Food & Trees for Africa, we believe that food security should form the core of the nation’s rebuilding efforts. A recent study by the Human Sciences Research Council found that, during lockdown, about a third of South Africa experienced hunger. It was often hunger that forced people out of the safety of their homes to earn money to buy food.
As part of our response to COVID-19, we have distributed more than 113,000 seedlings to farmers and communities to enable them to grow their own food.
Community-based food production – a sector which FTFA has been actively developing for decades – is one way to grow resilience in a country’s food system and to boost job creation. The need for this resilience is even more important during a pandemic.
Non-profit environmental group 350Africa.org has called for government and decision-makers to ensure that their response to COVID-19 contributes to a just recovery, in which the benefits and risks are equally shared – rather than simply protecting and enriching a select few. They propose five key principles, the first of which is to “Put people’s health first, no exceptions”. (The others are: Provide economic relief directly to the people; Help our workers and communities, not corporate executives; Create resilience for future crises; and Build solidarity and community across borders – do not empower authoritarians.)
But all of that follows from the idea of – first and foremost – safeguarding people’s health.
Food security for all
A healthy citizenry is about more than having enough ventilators or hospital beds – it is also about access to healthy food, green spaces, and an unpolluted environment for all, not just a wealthy few.
Since 1994, FTFA has been running EduPlant, a school-linked initiative which has grown to become the leading school food garden and nutrition programme in the country. It has, and continues to, bolster food security networks in communities, especially for school children, and is an integral part of many school feeding schemes.
FTFA recently wrote about building food security for all. “Farmers and growers with large processing and packing operations that transport produce to retailers through centralised warehouses often have ‘just-in-time’ distribution systems,” FTFA says. “This means they need to get their produce to market within a very short timeframe, but this is only possible if every step in the system works. Any crisis that disrupts the supply chain (such as COVID-19) will prevent some of this produce from getting to market.”
FTFA believes that decentralising many aspects of food production, through initiatives such as EduPlant and others, is one of the ways we can bolster food security. We need to ensure that our food system is resilient enough to withstand supply chain upsets, whether through global disruptions like COVID-19 or extreme weather events such as droughts.
Green spaces for healthy communities – and job creation
As lockdown forced people into their homes, it highlighted the environmental inequity in South Africa: some people got to enjoy gardens and leafy suburbs and the psychological benefits they bring, while others in poorer areas were confined to overcrowded houses with no green spaces nearby.
Researchers have found that green spaces in urban areas are vital for human health and local biodiversity. FTFA, during its 30 years of developing food gardens and greening some of South Africa’s poorest communities, has planted more than 4-million trees promoting and developing green healthy spaces throughout the country.
The Trees for Homes programme, in which FTFA plants a fruit and an indigenous tree in the garden of each township home, is the most successful township-greening initiative in the country. Expanding such projects as part of a COVID-19 recovery could not only actively undo the country’s environmental inequity, but also provide much needed jobs to people within these communities.
Additionally, the Trees for Homes programme is registered with the Verified Carbon Standard, and sponsors can use it to offset their carbon emissions.
Decentralise food production to fight climate change
While carbon emissions initially dropped as the virus spread across the world and economies and transport networks stuttered to a halt (a report in scientific journal Nature estimated that they dropped by 8% globally) they are rising again as countries reopen and people opt for private over public transport.
Climate change is one of the greatest threats facing humanity, and sub-Saharan Africa will disproportionately bear the brunt of this change. If the health of populations is the core around which we rebuild our economies, climate change and carbon emissions have to be front-and-centre of any stimulus or intervention.
Scientists predict that as the world’s climate changes, in large part due to humanity’s greenhouse gas addiction, we will see more extreme weather events – increasing the likelihood of disruptions to our food and logistics networks. The more diversified our food system, the greater its resilience according to FTFA.
Our food systems remain one of the key drivers of climate change and environmental degradation.
“Food security, environment and climate are probably going to be the most important issues of our generation — if they aren’t already,” says Mpho Mahanyele-Matji, chairperson of the FTFA board. “With these being the focal points of the future, I cannot express how proud I am to be a part of an organisation that addresses these challenges in a tangible, solutions-based manner.”
President Ramaphosa asked the country to “reimagine and repurpose our economy and put it firmly on a solid and sustainable path”. To do that, we need to put people’s health first, and we cannot do that without thinking about the environment, food security, and climate change – and imagining the future we want.