A farmer carries his harvest in Assam state, India.

Why the world needs another food summit

A rise in hunger from the pandemic has forced a need to rethink the global food system. India offers one example for reform.

India is now home to 1 in 3 new coronavirus cases around the globe. But that is not India’s only burden. It also accounts for nearly 60% of the global increase in poverty caused by the pandemic. The COVID-19 recession in India has increased the number of poor people – or those living on less than $2 a day – by 75 million.

Yet despite the grim numbers, the South Asian nation has done something quite well over the past year. It has managed to feed most of its 1.3 billion people, a result of more than a half-century of reforms aimed at ending the country’s history of famines.

While the world rushes to help India deal with the pandemic, it also has something to learn from India’s ability to find new ways to combat hunger.

A new report from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) gives one reason food kept flowing during the crisis. “India’s rapid policy actions and effective coordination across national, state, and local institutions helped buffer the initial shocks to health and nutrition programs. This success reflects India’s decades of investments in social-safety-net infrastructure, particularly recent investments in direct and cash benefit transfers,” the report states.

Such lessons will be needed in 2021. The United Nations estimates the number of people vulnerable to severe hunger will nearly double because of the pandemic. And the COVID-19 crisis has exposed many weaknesses in the global food system. As a result, the U.N. plans to hold the Food Systems Summit 2021 in September to transform how the world produces and consumes food.

Compared with food summits going back to the 1970s, this one offers a new conceptual shift, writes Julie Howard, an adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Instead of a focus on simply growing more food, it holds “the possibility of reshaping the global food system to become more productive, resilient, sustainable and healthy.”

Besides India, a number of countries have responded well in providing food during the crisis. “Although income losses caused serious, potentially persistent declines in food security and nutrition, food supply chains proved more resilient than expected,” states the IFPRI report. “Also importantly, as food systems’ central role and capacity for adaptation were demonstrated, the momentum needed to change our food systems for the better increased in 2020.”

That momentum will be on display this fall, when world leaders gather in New York for the food summit. By then, India hopes to be on top of the pandemic. As it is, it can offer lessons on how it constantly innovates in agriculture and in other aspects of the food supply. In times of crisis, those lessons pay off.

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