For some time now, the global development community has known we will not meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of “Zero Hunger” by 2030. Last year, in fact, we witnessed a spike in world hunger that was larger than any increase of the past 20 years. Our struggle to achieve the SDGs comes as little surprise, as this September marks a year and a half that the U.S. has battled the COVID-19 pandemic and its sweeping impacts. Today it is estimated that 660 million people worldwide may face hunger in 2030, 30 million more people than if the pandemic had not occurred. Women also face disproportionate risks, with food insecurity being 10 percent higher among women than men in 2020, up from 6 percent in 2019.
Despite these grim statistics, a shift toward food systems transformation is emerging in the fight against global hunger. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has identified the “elevation of a food systems approach” as one of the four new priority areas of its Feed the Future initiative. The United Nations Food Systems Summit today provides an opportunity for a collective reset on the issue at a critical moment in history. New variants continue to arise in the pandemic, the looming threat of climate change is becoming real, and large parts of the world experience conflict. How is the global development community going to get back on track?
The three Cs—coronavirus, climate change, and conflict—all play a role in global hunger. They undermine our food system and expose alarming vulnerabilities in our supply chains. One way development organizations are building resilience in the face of these threats is by prioritizing a systems approach. Systems approaches address the root cause of a problem, rather than the symptoms, building stronger, more resilient systems.
The food system, like most systems, is quite complex. In the same way that a virus originating in China can disrupt the entire world, changes to one part of a local, regional, national, or global system can have reverberating effects. Many Americans experienced this during the early stages of the pandemic when a sudden demand for products like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, as well as yeast and flour, disrupted supply chains and caused shortages. Disruptions to our systems, whether caused by a virus, a hurricane, or armed conflict, affect people’s access to food, which is why a systems approach must take precedence.
At ACDI/VOCA, we define the food system as the environment, people, processes, and other factors related to how food is produced, processed, distributed, prepared, and consumed. In the more than 60 years ACDI/VOCA has worked within the food system, we have seen how shocks to one part of the system matter to the health of the whole.
The country of Myanmar is no stranger to recent shocks, from conflict between the military and ethnic groups to a worsening pandemic and a recent military coup that left 870 people dead and 6,000 people detained. These shocks have had ripple effects, such as power outages, cash shortages, civil unrest, and disruptions to the food system. According to a survey conducted by the International Food Policy Research Institute, inflation of food prices in Myanmar stood at 7 percent in July 2021, relative to the previous year. Even prices for the cheapest variety of rice, the country’s most important staple food, increased by 13 percent on average. And three-quarters of food vendors surveyed reported customers buying less animal-sourced foods, indicating lower incomes and higher prices.
In response to the worsening conditions, the USAID activity ACDI/VOCA implements in Myanmar quickly changed its agreements with partnering agribusinesses. The team took an evidence-based approach to make those changes happen, including shifting focus from export to domestic consumption. The team also made dramatic changes to its operations. When COVID-19-related restrictions made it risky to visit banks in person, the team set up online banking and asked suppliers to open accounts with the same bank. When banks and ATMs ran out of cash following the military coup, ACDI/VOCA introduced an emergency policy allowing staff to receive their salaries partially in cash. And after the country’s banking system collapsed, the team moved grant payments to ACDI/VOCA’s home office.
Our office in Myanmar closed for the safety of our staff following the military takeover, but their work continues. The team is piloting supply chain support and new partnerships in hard-hit areas of the food system. These transformational partnerships are what is keeping some farmers and agribusinesses afloat.
In the current crisis, many farmers cannot access loans, prompting them to cut costs and grow fewer crops. Kaung Ko Group (KKG), a company that received a grant from the USAID activity, signed contracts with 82 farmers to grow sesame. KKG distributed 290 50-kilogram fertilizer bags to farmers on credit and agreed to purchase 50 metric tons of sesame produced by the farmers at 2 percent above the market price. This subtle change to the market system is stabilizing farmers’ incomes and improving their food purchasing power to help fight against hunger.
The road to recovery for Myanmar may be long but systemic change is possible. If we want to stop the reverse of gains made toward ending global hunger, we must view these crises through a holistic lens. Today’s United Nations Food Systems Summit offers the space to come together and do just that. The true test will be holding ourselves and others accountable in our commitment to action.