The COVID-19 pandemic exposed hundreds of millions of people to new or worsened food insecurity. Yet, this crisis has so far fallen short of the 5% global food shortage that experts predict is probable this century (see our site’s resources for more information).
Our team reflected deeply about how to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We foresaw food system consequences, but predicted that a global famine was unlikely.
Nonetheless, we felt we could contribute, make alliances, and learn a lot about national and global responses to a global scenario. Another factor we considered was that some of our existing work was unavoidably affected by the pandemic. We decided that these factors justified some reorientation, so that we could study and assist with threats associated with COVID-19.
Our response prioritized some of our areas of food-systems expertise, specifically famine, food insecurity, and cascading threats. Our biggest concern was the hundreds of millions of people, predominantly in African and Asian countries, facing new or exacerbated food insecurity. Our efforts included providing briefings to the Tanzanian and Ethiopian governments, analyzing the impact of COVID-19, locust swarms, floods, and droughts, as well as mitigation measures they could take.
We expect our pandemic-related projects will help with future micronutrient deficiencies and with risks to crops, as well as by encouraging agricultural organizations to be more involved in catastrophe preparedness and response. This work will also help us be better prepared to scale our approach in response to food system scenarios that could occur on an even greater scale.
Two of our major COVID-19 projects analyzed how the pandemic could increase the risk of food system shocks. We focused on involving a global cohort of stakeholders in all stages of these projects, from collating resources to knowledge sharing.
In March we produced the report, Cascading Risks from COVID-19 to Food Systems, which provided early analysis of multiple threats, including widespread locust swarms and excessive export controls, which could be exacerbated by poor responses to the pandemic.
On Earth Day, we co-authored an Atlantic Council article that publicized the report’s findings. These findings were also presented to members of the World Food Programme, multinational bodies, and the governments of countries with some of the most at-risk populations.
Recognizing that we needed to do more in addition to the report, we organized a cohort of volunteers and experts to create a single resource for researchers and policy makers to find the information necessary to prevent, mitigate, and respond to food system disasters. The result was the Food Systems Handbook.
Thanks to contributors around the world, the open-source handbook now includes more than 400 resources that can help mitigate global food insecurity after a catastrophe. In particular the handbook focuses on the risk of widespread famine in regions of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America arising from COVID-19, locust swarms, and preexisting vulnerabilities, among other factors.
The community that has grown around the handbook has included individuals from dozens of NGOs (including Mercy Corps and OXFAM), government groups (including DEFRA and USAID), the private sector (including Bayer and Calysta), and multilateral organizations (including the WFP and the FAO).
The Food Systems Handbook was the focus of several ALLFED talks and presentations throughout 2020, and it led to a second coauthored Atlantic Council article.
During the pandemic we were also involved with other aspects of catastrophe response.
COVID-19 provided further impetus for us to finalize some of the resilience and response projects we already had underway.
We built and trained on our first formal response plan. Complementary to the plan and the initial training sessions, we established a response team and created training materials so that response capabilities could be incorporated into ALLFED’s standard team training.
We also developed guidelines so that if a catastrophe occurs, certain members of the team know there are particular tasks they should be doing depending on the type of catastrophe. Our response plan is global, so it takes into account different locations and varying scales of infrastructure loss. Also incorporated in the plan is an emphasis on how to ensure the safety of all ALLFED team members.
Our response team not only enjoyed the training sessions, but also now feel far better equipped to respond to an extreme scenario.
Given that much of our regular research looks at repurposing industrial capabilities for production of resilient foods, we were well-positioned to pivot early and focus on alternatives to conventional ventilators to help hospitals in need. We were able to do this thanks to our connection to the Michigan Tech Open Sustainability Technology Lab (MOST), which led the effort. MOST also published seven new pandemic-related works and hosted a roundtable (all available on a dedicated Appropedia page).