A looming food crisis threatens to push more than a quarter of a billion people to the brink of starvation just as the world scrambles to provide medical and financial relief to nations whose people and economies are ravaged by outbreaks of coronavirus.
To feed hungry families and pivot toward a more equitable future for all, it’s time to put the power back into local hands.
Grassroots organisations and community activists have spent decades developing local solutions to food insecurity. As governments and global agencies coordinate to provide food aid, local groups can provide critical relief, and their alternative systems could offer more than just short-term support.
As it launched a new global food crisis report this week along with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and more than a dozen other organisations, the World Food Programme predicted that 265 million people may experience acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 unless urgent action is taken.*
Coronavirus has disrupted supply chains and thrown the global food economy into disarray. As border closures, production stoppages, and export restrictions limit supply, demand has surged, inflating prices and impacting the world’s poorest and most marginalised people. In Afghanistan, the cost of wheat flour has skyrocketed. In Nigeria, rice prices have shot up.
“Coronavirus has disrupted supply chains and thrown the global food economy into disarray.”
At the same time, the Global North is facing artificial food shortages – the result of a supply system that puts profit before people. With no infrastructure in place to repurpose commercial supply chains to meet individual consumers’ needs, American dairy farmers have dumped millions of gallons of milk down the drain. In Europe, fresh fruit is being left to rot on farms, as seasonal labourers are restricted from migrating or working.
The local model
For years, farmers, activists, and organisers in the Global South – all too familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the global food economy – have pioneered alternative systems that prioritise local decision-making, restore communities’ access to the food they produce, and ensure that vulnerable and marginalised people aren’t excluded.
For example, Honduran social movement OFRANEH, which defends the rights and resources of the indigenous Garifuna people, has fought off exploitative corporate agricultural projects and developed a local model of food supply centred around ecological farming and small-scale, sustainable fishing.
When COVID-19 landed in Honduras, OFRANEH was able to pivot faster than most governments. In response to the pandemic, it launched the olla comunitaria, or community pot, a tradition of communal eating that has allowed Garifuna communities to endure past crises.
In India, millions of informal and migrant labourers lost their livelihoods overnight when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government ordered a national lockdown. Without wages or access to government programmes, many workers are unable to eat. Local group Jan Sahas has stepped up to support them, offering food to those unable to obtain state-issued rations, while also advocating for government assistance to reach vulnerable migrant workers and providing clear recommendations for how they can do so.
Engaging and resourcing these grassroots initiatives and local leaders is key to providing immediate relief to starving people, as well as ensuring that humanitarian relief provided by governments and international agencies is equitably distributed and reaches the most vulnerable. But beyond supporting immediate relief, local organisations and leaders also offer longer-term solutions for our failing global food system.
Worldwide, the disconnect between demand and supply for food has been growing for decades. As governments and transnational corporations built global supply chains, farmers got caught up in a system that incentivises them to grow single crops to meet global demand. These crops often produce larger yields but weaker products. In Uganda, for example, grassroots groups report that genetically modified cassava seeds grow faster but don’t produce natural seedlings, forcing farmers to purchase seeds year after year from providers whose profit-chasing methods have severely damaged the environment.
“At least before, we could eat our harvest. You can’t eat poinsettias.”
Pushed to put aside their own food needs in order to participate in global supply chains, local communities whose crops stock shelves in US and European supermarkets have faced heightened risk of hunger and even starvation. When demand dips, these communities are stranded without cash for their crops or the food they had traditionally grown to feed their families.
As one Guatemalan subsistence farmer, forced to grow flowers for US markets instead of his usual crops, told my colleague after the export price dropped below the cost of production: “At least before, we could eat our harvest. You can’t eat poinsettias.”
A more sustainable future
In response to such profound food insecurity, the seeds of the food sovereignty movement were planted in the 1990s – local activists and community organisers coming together with food producers to advocate for the people who produce food to determine their own systems for supply and distribution.
In Honduras, OFRANEH recognised that policies prioritising agricultural production bound for export were creating a serious food crisis. They created their own model of sustainable supply that emphasises the use of indigenous seedlings, which are more durable and yield crops year after year. In 2015, OFRANEH was awarded the Food Sovereignty Prize for its efforts to ensure that the communities it serves have access to the food they need.
This kind of community-led organising is key to creating alternative, more equitable systems across the globe. From farming cooperatives in the Congo to communal land management in Myanmar, local activists and food producers are working together to reclaim control of food production and management of their natural resources from foreign entities and corporate interests.
As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, we have an opportunity to rethink our flawed global systems and invest in long-term, systemic change. With a dire food crisis looming, this moment of urgent need demands that we listen to the experts: the local producers, indigenous peoples, and grassroots groups that are working on the front line in their communities and pioneering new more sustainable ways to provide food.
(*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the report itself made this prediction)