"There's enough food in the world for everyone, but not everyone can access it"
In addition to the urgent humanitarian action needed in Ukraine, the Global Programme Food Security (GPFS) of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) also emphasises the need to strengthen systemic approaches to healthy and sustainable food systems. In certain regions, hunger and malnutrition are increasing exponentially because of crises. Alessandra Roversi of the GPFS answers our questions.
Farmer Serhiy saw his grain field destroyed by a Russian shell in the village of Ptyche, eastern Donetsk region. © Keystone
How is the war in Ukraine impacting on the global food situation in concrete terms? Are any products missing?
There's enough food in the world for everyone at the moment, but the point is that not everyone can access it. Many regions in Africa and the Middle East depend on wheat imports from Ukraine and Russia, two of the world's largest wheat producers, as well as barley, rapeseed and sunflower – which are now stuck in silos. And because of various commercial and financial issues, the historically high prices we are now seeing have actually already been rising for two years. Although other countries also have grain stocks, there isn't much information about global stocks and some countries have recently imposed export restrictions and bans. So what we're talking about isn't how much food or how many calories are available, but how to ensure stable and long-term access to food that is genuinely healthy and nutritious.
In real terms, what we're talking about is how to fight hunger and malnutrition. So for example, should we step up emergency humanitarian aid or agricultural production instead?
This is a very complex issue, and there is no quick fix. What we need is for emergency food aid to be complemented by systemic action, which takes longer to deliver results. When it comes to agrifood systems, we encourage more diversity in its broadest sense. A system that lacks diversity can collapse more easily when faced with shocks, whereas a dynamic system with more variety is more robust and adaptable. That's why our projects are particularly focused on developing diversity throughout the chain – from production systems, supplies, seeds, know-how and skills, financing, revenue streams, peoples' diets, market access and research goals to participating in decision-making.
The GPFS works on all these different structural aspects of food insecurity. Our partners are active at governance level to ensure that stakeholders are included in the decision-making processes affecting them: what foodstuffs are produced, who produces them, who they are for, and under what conditions. Structural injustices and a lack of respect for human rights, particularly the right to food, as well as the absence of stakeholder inclusion are the underlying causes of hunger and malnutrition.
What measures are being taken by the SDC in Ukraine right now?
There are different priority needs with different timeframes that need to be considered. For the time being, Swiss Humanitarian Aid is providing food and equipment to Ukraine and neighbouring countries, as well as deploying specialists from its Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit. These activities do not detract from other food insecure areas where Switzerland operates. The Swiss government has committed an unprecedented amount of additional funding for the Horn of Africa and the Sahel and is continuing to monitor the situations in Yemen and Somalia.
How does the GPFS prioritise its work in such a complex situation?
What we do is to complement Switzerland's humanitarian engagement in Ukraine and other food insecure regions by working to consolidate actions over the long term. For example, together with our implementing partners on the ground and hundreds of farming families taking part in out projects we promote agroecological production techniques by providing information about using local varieties of durable and nutritious cereals and vegetables. Such projects are carried out over the space of several four-year phases. The goal is not only to increase efficiency, yields and profitability, but to create resilient local systems that can absorb shocks like, for example, the repercussions of the conflict in Ukraine.
Before this latest shock, what was the GPFS's assessment of the global food situation?
All crises reveal how dysfunctional our food and agricultural systems are and how they are damaging both human and planetary health. The shocks generated by this new conflict in Ukraine have turned an already precariously balanced system on its head. The conflict in Ukraine is unfortunately one more in a series of overlapping crises that have been going on for a number of years.
After a few years of progress, since 2015 the number of people suffering from hunger has been increasing. Climate change impacts on natural resources and, therefore, also affects agricultural production in many parts of the world, some of which are already suffering because of internal or international conflicts. And of course the Covid-19 pandemic has undermined supply chains, making access to food even more difficult for already vulnerable populations, who now find themselves in an even more precarious situation. Tackling the social and economic consequences of the pandemic has also absorbed considerable state funds, with governments unable to meet all needs.
What does this mean for the most vulnerable?
Right now, people are having to make short-term choices on a daily basis – like buying fewer healthy foods or skipping meals. It's usually the women who go without to make sure there’s enough for the rest of the family. Rising prices make safe, nutritious and quality food virtually unaffordable for the most vulnerable families and communities, especially women and children. The long-term implications of this have not been properly considered, but are worrying indeed. If immediate action is not taken to rectify this situation, these vulnerable groups will fall into a never-ending cycle of chronic malnutrition – with serious consequences for children's physical and cognitive development, poverty, income distribution and development outcomes for decades to come.
The GPFS also represents Switzerland in certain international institutions and organisations. What is the Swiss position on the current crisis situation? How is this advocated in these multilateral bodies?
There are other divisions that are also part of Switzerland's multilateral exchanges. Ours mainly deals with the UN agencies in Rome that focus on agriculture and food. We have, for example, contributed to negotiations in the Committee on World Food Security, which has the advantage of including, in addition to its member states, two more mechanisms – one for private sector representatives and one for civil society and indigenous peoples. This multi-stakeholder committee provides policy recommendations and guidance on key issues such as agroecology, including and employing young people in the agricultural sector, gender equality and women's empowerment, and reducing inequalities in order to improve food security and nutrition. Switzerland always plays an active role in these negotiations.
The work of the committee demonstrates how we need a multi-sectoral response to crises, both at national and international level. We have to break down the silos between agriculture, health, nutrition, climate and the environment. This approach may indeed be complex at times, but it is crucial if we are to truly meet the needs of the world's most vulnerable people.
Some of the partners the SDC divisions and other FDFA departments work with:
The SDC works with the World Food Programme, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross to coordinate solutions and maximise the impact of our activities for all beneficiaries.
Switzerland is also active in New York and closely follows the Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance mechanism set up by the UN secretary-general.
We also take part in the Global Alliance for Food Security, which was set up by the G7 and its German presidency together with the World Bank and aims to facilitate the exchange and coordination of the different approaches of both bilateral and multilateral donors.