Covid-19 and its impact on food and agriculture

Agricultural productivity data are scarce, but indications are that small-scale food producers lag behind their larger peers. Image credit: United Nations India

15 September 2020 – The world was already off track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 and the Covid-19 pandemic has made it even harder both to achieve these goals and to monitor progress where it is being made, according to a new report released recently by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).

“We need better data to better understand the path we need to take to get to our destination,” said FAO chief economist Maximo Torero. “Knowing more about where we are and how slowly or quickly, we are moving will help us focus our efforts and actions to target interventions to achieve SDGs.”

The unprecedented global health crisis, with associated economic and social impacts, is “making the achievement of these SDG targets even more challenging,” according to the report, “Tracking progress on food and agriculture-related SDG indicators 2020”.

Hunger, as well as other forms of food insecurity, are rising, and the pandemic has disrupted longer-term practices from conserving genetic resources as well as immediate operations such as national agricultural censuses, which are key both to identifying immediate needs and nudging the world’s farmers to more sustainable practices. These censuses have been delayed, postponed, or suspended in more than half of the 150 countries canvassed. About one in four countries say that Covid-19 has disrupted national statistical agencies, with “nearly all” key data collection being adversely affected and vastly complicating FAO’s work as the custodian agency for 21 SDG indicators and a contributing agency to another five.

The report assesses current trends, finding many stagnating – including the hunger benchmark known as Prevalence of Undernourishment used to track SDG target 2.1 – or even deteriorating – such as the broader Food Insecurity Experience Scale used for the same target. Many of the indicators, particularly for measuring smallholder labour productivity and incomes with the aim of doubling them by 2030, suffer from inadequate data to assess both current status and progress.

“Members can rely on FAO to help work through the often very substantial methodological complexity and pursue harmonised and comparable results that will enable the necessary acceleration of efforts to achieve the SDGs, as we enter the crucial decade of action culminating in 2030,” said Pietro Gennari, FAO’s chief statistician.

“And while the general assessment is concerning, it’s also important to note positive trends, such as improved water use efficiency in Southern Asia, increases in plant genetic resource conservation efforts in Northern Africa, progress towards sustainable forest management, and some improvement in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing .”

“The Covid=19 crisis makes the job more difficult but is also an opportunity to find new ways to work smarter, faster and harder,” said Torero , who along with Gennari presented the report virtually in Geneva recently.

FAO  has set up a Big Data laboratory and tool to gather real-time information for a series of indicators, a Food Price Monitoring and Analysis tool, as well as the Hand in Hand Geospatial Platform,  and is also increasing its efforts to bring all data public. The Organization is exploiting alternative data sources to help members assess in real-time the impact of the pandemic disruptions on food systems and also to overcome the current limitations on data collection in the field. Satellite imagery is being used to identify and monitor risks of disruption on crop production and value chains. Machine-learning models have been developed to calibrate and classify crop prospects, and these are integrated with other data sets – including government restriction measures and trends on the impact of COVID-19, to inform evidence-based decision-making.

Agricultural productivity data are scarce, but indications are that small-scale food producers lag behind their larger peers. Data on smallholder incomes are relatively more abundant, but show that in most countries, smallholder incomes are less than half of those of larger producers.

Global holdings of plant genetic resources for food and agriculture rose to 5.43 million in 2019 from 4.21 million in 2005. But efforts to secure crop diversity for crop wild relatives and underutilised crop species continue to be insufficient.

The number of livestock breeds with sufficient genetic material stored to allow them to be reconstituted in case of extinction rose 10-fold in the decade to 2019. But they still amount to only 101 of the roughly 7 600 breeds reported around the world, some 73% of which are at risk of extinction.

Gender equality, investigated through the lens of women’s land tenure, is far from realised, and legal provisions in many countries do not adequately protect the rights of women to land. Only 12% of assessed countries guarantee a very high degree of such protection.

Both forests and the sustainability of global fish stocks continue to decline, though at a slower pace than before. Government investment in agriculture, measured as a share of GDP, has declined globally by around a third since 2001, led by sharp drops – from high levels – in much of Asia.

“Working together, we need to work together to find innovative ways to accelerate the information needed to catalyse the changes the world has pledged to achieve,” said Torero.

This article was first published by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations.

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