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FAO’s 'The State of Food and Agriculture' (SOFA) 2021 report exposes the fragility of the world's agrifood systems and offers solutions for dealing with sudden shocks

FAO foodsafetySupporting the development of small and medium agri-food enterprises and cooperatives helps maintain diversity in domestic agri-food value chains - FAO. (Image source: Adobe Stock)

According to a new report published by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), without proper preparation, unpredictable shocks will continue to undermine agrifood systems. FAO further said that countries need to make their agrifood systems more resilient to sudden shocks of the kind witnessed during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has emerged as a major driver of the latest rise in global hunger estimates.

This year’s SOFA report  is titled “Making agrifood systems more resilient to shocks and stresses” and provides an assessment of the ability of national agri-food systems to respond to or recover readily from shocks and stressors. It also offers guidance to governments on how they can improve resilience.

According to FAO data, there are approximately three billion people who cannot afford a healthy diet at present. The SOFA 2021 report estimates that an additional one billion people would join their ranks if a shock reduced incomes by one-third. Moreover, food costs could increase for up to 845 million people if a disruption to critical transport links were to occur. Examples include extreme weather events and surges in plant and animal diseases and pests.

FAO said that even before the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, the world was not on track to meet its commitment to end hunger and malnutrition by 2030. And while food production and supply chains have historically been vulnerable to climate extremes, armed conflicts or increases in global food prices, the frequency and severity of such shocks are on the rise.

“The pandemic highlighted both the resilience and the weakness of our agrifood systems,” said FAO director-general QU Dongyu at a virtual event for the launch. 

The report also presents country-level indicators of the resilience of agri-food systems in more than a hundred countries, by analysing factors such as transport networks, trade flows and the availability of healthy and varied diets. While low-income countries generally face much bigger challenges, its findings show that middle-income countries such as in Asia are also at risk. Even high-income countries such as Australia are at risk from a shock because of the long distances involved in the distribution of food. For nearly half of the countries analysed by FAO experts, the closure of critical network links would increase local transport time by 20% or more, thereby increasing costs and food prices for consumers.

Based on the evidence of the report, FAO recommends that governments make resilience in agrifood systems a strategic part of their responses to ongoing and future challenges. FAO opines that the key here is diversification - of input sources, production, markets and supply chains, as well as of actors – since diversity creates multiple pathways for absorbing shocks. Supporting the development of small and medium agri-food enterprises, cooperatives, consortia and clusters helps maintain diversity in domestic agri-food value chains.

FAO states that another key factor is connectivity. Well-connected agrifood networks overcome disruptions faster by shifting sources of supply and channels for transport, marketing, inputs and labour.

Finally, enhancing the resilience capacities of vulnerable households is critical to ensure a world free from hunger. This can be done through improved access to assets, diversified sources of income and social protection programmes in the event of shocks.

“The SOFA report reflects FAO’s efforts aimed at increasing resilience and sets out new indicators to help Members measure the resilience capacity of their agri-food systems and identify gaps for improvement.” Qu said.