The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how fragile our globalised societies are, and the real human consequences of this fragility. Years of conflict, an escalating climate crisis, spiralling inequality, and a long-broken food system had already brought millions of people to the edge of disaster, only for the coronavirus pandemic to tip them over the edge.
The World Food Programme estimates the number of people on the brink of starvation could increase to 270 million this year. A new Oxfam report, ‘Hunger Virus: How the coronavirus is fuelling hunger in the world’, identifies ten hunger hotspots where the food crisis is most severe, and getting worse because of the pandemic.
The EU and its member states must act quickly to save those on the brink, and they must also start building a fairer and more resilient food system for the future, rooted in protecting and promoting the human rights and dignity of small-scale producers and workers. The recovery package and the recently proposed EU Farm-to-Fork Strategy are good opportunities to initiate lasting change.
The food crisis is rooted in inequality
Rural communities in developing countries play a crucial role in the socio-economic development of their region, producing food and providing employment. But the difficult contexts they live in, characterized by the worsening climate crisis and a lack of investment in the agricultural sector, make agriculture production vulnerable to disruptions with devastating impacts on food security.
Oxfam’s conversations with smallholder farmers in several continents shows how the pandemic restrictions mean many farmers and workers have been unable to plant or harvest crops, buy seeds and tools from a market, or sell their goods.
However, the difficulties which have appeared due to COVID-19 cannot be addressed without taking into consideration the vulnerabilities that existed before.Food systems are failing because smallholder producers, who produce one third of the global food supply on small plots of land, and the millions of agricultural workers don’t earn enough income to escape poverty.
This is a question of economic inequality, and gender inequality: women play a pivotal role in food production and suffer from structural inequalities and failing democracy, and those in power ignore their voices. Now, women are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and the underlying problems are exacerbated by the pandemic.
EU COVID-19 recovery package and proposed Farm-to-Fork Strategy do not show enough ambition
Under the current EU budget, food security and sustainable agriculture are priority areas of EU development cooperation. However, the impact of COVID-19 prompts the need for upscaled EU support to the sector.
The recently-proposed EU global response to COVID-19 was a timely and swift move to tackle the crisis. However, in the EU’s coronavirus recovery package, food security is relegated to a brief mention, without addressing the structural causes of the emerging food crisis and without clear rules to ensure that the EU’s response does not undermine longer-term action, for example by re-directing development funding away from agriculture.
Instead, the COVID-19 recovery package, which pledges an additional EUR 10.5 billion for development cooperation, mainly promotes the use of development money to support European companies investing in developing countries. That can happen in the form of public guarantees for company investments, or by blending taxpayer money with private funds. So far, there is very little evidence that these approaches actually help fight hunger, poverty and inequality. On the contrary, reports show that blended finance is surrounded by unrealistic expectations. A recent report commissioned by the European Parliamentrecommends “a radical rethink of the blending assessment methods and the overall agenda both for the EU and other developmental agencies”.
The proposed Farm-to-Fork Strategy includes some encouraging commitments to address the climate crisis, respect the environment, and ensure decent livelihoods for producers and farm workers both with in the EU and externally. However, global issues are covered only very briefly in the strategy, failing to reflect the importance and impact of the EU's agriculture and food policy outside of its borders.
How the EU can tackle the food security crisis
The EU must demonstrate political leadership by addressing the immediate COVID-<19-related food crisis now and overhauling an unjust and unsustainable food system, through EU policies and by leading global reforms.
In the immediate response to COVID-19, the EU must resist pressures to rob development funding, including from agriculture and food, to address the immediate health and economic emergency response. Doing so risks further destabilizing food security and communities’ resilience against shocks.
It must first secure access to food and income for those who have lost it because of the pandemic, through social protection programmes and innovative approaches that better link producers with consumers. This should include promoting the continued functioning of food markets in partner countries and ensure that producers and farmers are able to continue to plant, harvest and earn a decent income.
Now is also the time to strengthen the European Commission’s Farm-to-Fork proposal to harmonise EU agriculture policies and development objectives, by recognizing and addressing contradictions between the objectives of the Farm-to-Fork Strategy, the EU’s international trade policy and the Common Agriculture Policy. To avoid undermining local food systems or harming local food producers, the EU must reduce overproduction and prohibit export dumping.
The EU must maintain food and nutrition security and sustainable agriculture as a priority in the next long-term EU budget for development, and should encourage partner countries to invest more in this sector through their national budgets. The priority should be on grants and public investment over blended finance and guarantees.
The EU can help save millions of lives from hunger and build a fair and sustainable food system, if it makes sure all its actions contribute to the social and ecological transformation of the food system.