Build-back-better from COVID-19 with sustainable agri-food supply chain in developing countries

The novel COVID-19 pandemic has been detrimental not just as a health crisis but also an economic and a humanitarian crisis. The nationwide lockdowns due to the spread of COVID-19 has forced developed and developing countries to halt their economies. With respect to its impact on the global food system which also considers the pre-and post-production of food as well as its distribution and consumption interrelationship with political, social and environmental dimensions, this economic slowdown has greatly affected the progress towards achieving the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The pandemic’s confinement measures and logistical disruptions limits the mobility of workers to perform their duties to operate food production. Workers are not able to farm and harvest their produces, and movements of produces along the supply chain are delayed. This affects sustainable development on many fronts; i) income instability for farmers, ii) with lower income, their access to nutrition is reduced which risks their food insecurity, iii) farm owners´ access to farm inputs are limited which affects their production, iv) supply chain delays also risks food wastes, v) food wastes affects the environment as the inputs used to produce and harvest have essentially gone to waste and that rotten food itself produces methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide, and vi) greenhouse gas generally affects human health.

Share of developing countries agri-food exports to world total agri-food exports from 1989 to 2018.
Data Source: Authors’ calculations based on UNCOMTRADE data

The impacts caused by COVID-19 on agri-food supply chain and the food system in entirety demonstrates precisely the dire need to advance the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Recovery strategies must therefore be targeted to pursue goals that also reflects the quality of life, especially of the vulnerable stakeholders involved in agri-food supply chains, beyond public healthcare. This is in line with the United Nations push to incorporate the SDGs in the COVID-19 economic recovery strategy. This crisis has in fact re-enforced the interdependence of the world, where the response to the pandemic cannot be de-linked from the SDGs and that it requires a stronger collective multi-stakeholder approach to achieve the common global goal.

The recent UNFSS Discussion paper no. 8 elucidates the long-standing causes of concern caused by agri-food supply chains and how these have been aggravated by COVID-19. The issues raised here are especially important to developing countries, as almost one-third of the world´s exports in agri-food products come from developing countries.

This paper illustrates the opportunities of turning to sustainable development to redress COVID-19 in developing countries with recommendations to facilitate sustainable agri-food supply chain in developing countries:

  1. Aligning national goals to the SDGs: Leveraging sustainability standards as a common trade tool –a policy response to ascertain sustainability criteria throughout the agri-food supply chain
  2. Linking social protection in agricultural settings in order to support farmers – as farmers are most affected by such external shock in the agri-food supply chain
  3. Harmonising global coordination along supply chains – to strengthen global cooperation and to reduce logistical delays causing food wastes and environmental harm
  4. Enhancing market competitiveness in agri-food supply chains – as a development opportunity to promote economic growth for developing countries
  5. Developing local sustainability capacity building programmes – in order to transform conventional agri-food supply chain towards a more sustainable pathway

Download the full paper here.

The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.