The food on your table starts with a seed. Everyone knows that. But as the depth of the COVID-19 crisis settles in, there is not enough attention being paid to the basic questions: Who puts the seed in the ground? What help do they need to get there? What can the world do to ensure that we don’t miss planting season and spread a global food crisis on top of COVID-19?
The food on your table also starts with women. Women till the soil, sow the seed, feed the children, and take care of the sick. Women produce 70% of Africa’s food.
As the pandemic spreads, the risks to their health – and their family’s health – and the burden placed on these women will increase dramatically. Ebola and other public health emergencies have shown clearly how outbreaks threaten the foundation of our food chain. If the women or their families are ill, they cannot plant. If farmers cannot use migrant workers – who plant the wheat in Canada, the onions in California, and the cocoa in Cameroon – they cannot plant. If cross-border trade dries up, farmers cannot get the supplies they need to get those seeds in the ground.
It is also clear that the effects of crises fall disproportionately on women.
This is why the conversation must move beyond the public health response and start with the seeds. It’s also why there is an urgent need for a global public/private partnership to support this effort. Global corporations are critical to the world’s agricultural supply chains – and to getting food on the table in every country in the world. Their resources are a necessary part to support this effort.
This is not just a problem in the Global South. Food is at risk of rotting in fields across Europe and the UK alike. The armies of migrant workers who pick them are simply not present. This is going to be both a critical need and a significant opportunity. Once the German ‘immunity passport’ and other robust and reliable serological tests are available for immunity, there may be a need for a Feed the World corps – a farm-focused version of the American Work Projects Administration. Guaranteed minimum wage for critical agricultural work. It might both help mass unemployment, and reduce food insecurity – which would be a huge economic positive. Solving the migrant worker challenge is a critical first step for every country.
But there is a global and longer-term dimension. What can the world do now, to secure the entire season of food production during the COVID-19 pandemic? There are four concrete ideas that build on local knowledge and use existing infrastructure. These ideas are built on long histories of working with farmers – but a guiding principle for this response should be to listen. If people ask farmers what they need, they will answer – and they know best:
1. Provide cash to all farmers – but especially women farmers. The world has learned a lot about cash programming in recent times – and thought through how that works in the context of COVID-19. We should leverage that learning to target female farmers. One option worth exploring could be to leverage existing village savings and loan associations (VLSAs). Eight out of ten VLSA members earn less than $2 per day, while six out of ten VSLA members earn less than $1 per day. Providing cash assistance through VLSAs might erase debts incurred during the pandemic if farmers were unable to work and free up resources for them to purchase the seeds and agricultural tools they need to plant and cultivate.
2. Do not cancel existing orders and honour existing payment terms. Cancelling existing orders will dry up cash in an already squeezed supply chain, and people will lose jobs, and farmers may lose their ability to secure resources for planting. Brands should agree to take delivery and pay for crops that have been sowed and produced, even if there may be challenges to harvesting, packing, and shipping because of restrictions.
3. Work with suppliers to develop a substantive COVID-19 risk mitigation plan to protect farmers’ health and pay attention to special risks and the roles of women. Standard humanitarian interventions, such as handwashing best practices and basic health training, could be rapidly adapted to protect migrant workers, women farmers, and women in farming households. Commitments from suppliers to ensure that WHO recommendations for physical distancing, and handwashing should be in place, as should measures to support vulnerable/at risk workers.
This should include specific steps to protect women’s time – mitigating caregiving burdens by providing childcare and healthcare. If women are pulled from the fields to take care of grandparents or kids who cannot be in school, nations will go hungry.
4. Secure the seeds. Governments and MNC’s must work with local businesses and local supply chains to get seeds and other agricultural inputs to farmers in time to get in the soil. Governments in the Global North can play an influential role ensuring that the World Bank, IFAD, FAO, WFP, and other relevant actors support and prioritise such schemes.
These proposals are a starting point. There is an urgent need for a globally scaled, yet highly localised response that understands different crop cycles, different cultural arrangements, and different needs. But the principles are the same – states and governments will need to work with global corporations and local corporations alike, at the service of communities, to provide support.
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected everyone, leading to competition for attention and resources. But we cannot forget that our food starts with a seed. We cannot lose sight of the women who feed the world, at the time when they most need us.