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14 Sep 2022

Episode 1 – Securing Food and Nutrition in 2022

Global food systems are fragile and millions of people around the world are at risk of hunger, even starvation. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on incomes, supply chains and economic growth, plus the ongoing effects of climate change and the war in Ukraine have brought us to a point not seen since the 2008 food crisis. The most vulnerable countries are those facing balance of payments crises at the same time as their populations are struggling with rising costs and falling incomes. But efforts are underway to secure food and nutrition in 2022 and to build resilience. In this edition of the IFA Podcast, Dr. David Nabarro, the World Health Organization's Special Envoy on Covid-19 spoke with IFA CEO/Director General Alzbeta Klein about the evolving nature of the food crisis and what is being done to help – including, short- and medium-term measures to get fertilizers, seeds and nutrient use efficiency advice to farmers, especially smallholder farmers in poorer communities.

Alzbeta Intro:

Hello everyone, welcome to today’s IFA podcast on securing food and nutrition in 2022. My name is Alzbeta Klein, I’m the CEO / Director General of the International Fertilizer Association (or IFA).

When the war in Ukraine broke out in February this year it became clear, very fast, that we were heading for a food crisis. Covid-19 and the effects of climate change had already weakened food systems. I’m remembering a headline from the Financial Times, ‘How Russia’s war in Ukraine upended the breadbasket of Europe.’ That’s a breadbasket that feeds millions of people. And the World Food Program, which is the United Nations' humanitarian food-assistance organization, gets 40% of its wheat from Ukraine.

Today we will discuss the evolving nature of the food crisis and examine short-term response measures. We will also look to the future and how we can make agricultural systems more resilient.

I have the great pleasure of welcoming Dr. David Nabarro to this podcast. David is the World Health Organization’s special envoy on COVID-19. He is also the former Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change. He has more than 30 years’ experience of public health, nutrition and development at country, regional and global levels. David is also the Strategic Director of the social enterprise, 4SD. Based in Switzerland, it provides training and mentoring leaders for sustainable development. David, thanks for joining us today. So, tell us David, how did you get involved in food and nutrition security issues?


Alzbeta, it is an absolute delight to be with you and to be participating in this International Fertilizer Association podcast. I'm actually originally a medical doctor. And after I qualified, and it was rather a long time ago, I went and spent quite a lot of my early life working in South Asia and in the Middle East as a doctor. I was particularly focused on children, and I discovered, it was pretty obvious in retrospect, that children's health is hugely influenced by what they consume, and in particular, their nutrition. And so, more and more, I got focusing on nutrition. What leads to good nutrition? What also leads to poor nutrition? And then, how do children's nutrition features link back to what happens in their households? To the diets that their families are eating? To the way in which they produce it if they live in rural areas? And all in all, within five years of my getting into child health, I was involved in food, food security and nutrition as an issue. And that stayed my passion just about ever since. Then, that's me, a medical doctor, nutritionist and now focusing on food systems issues, because they're so incredibly interconnected.


So, David, this is a great start. So, you focused on children's health, you probably focus on stunting and lack of nutrients that this provides. How would you see the situation today? Even before COVID-19, we had quite a high level of stunting in several parts of the world. We had malnutrition issues in many parts of the world. Where were we a couple of years ago? What was the baseline there we started before COVID-19 hit?


Thank you very much Alzbeta. Actually, the levels of child undernutrition in our world do relate quite directly to what’s happening to food prices on world markets. In 2008, when food prices shot up over three or four months, and there was a real challenge about access to rice, the subsequent consequences did include a massive rise in the number of children who are undernourished. Almost a doubling reaching up to a billion out of the 7 billion population in our world experiencing undernutrition. And what we’ve seen in recent years is that things have been becoming challenging yet again.

I think the major shocks include advancing climate change, plus COVID-19 with its tremendous impacts on how the borders were closed and so on and then followed by and associated with a number of serious conflicts. And taken together, even in 2021, we were seeing food price rises. We were seeing increases in people's difficulty with accessing nutritious foods for their households. And it was coming in many parts of the world, particularly in places like east of Africa, where there have been successive droughts, but all together, linked to the shocks and the challenges faced by society and in the increases in poverty.

Now, just to complete the story, things have really deteriorated this year for hundreds of millions of people with difficulties with accessing the food they need, because prices have risen higher than ever. And they're only just starting to stabilize. But I want to stress that this has been an issue that has been evolving for some years now, which means that it's going to be quite difficult to resolve too.


Right. Right, David. So, for our listeners, there are a couple of things that I think in this equation of food insecurity and malnutrition. One is just the pure lack of calories, and one is the nutrients that people need. So, with the situation of COVID-19, I can imagine that just getting calories in, getting the wheat out of Ukraine and therefore getting it to places where it's needed is one thing. The second part is obviously nutrition and micronutrients.

And I'm thinking about it the right way? Are our listeners on the right track here?


You're talking to somebody who's spent quite a big chunk of the last 20 years working on nutrition as a global issue. I can quite understand people saying, well, all that it matters is people get fed. That's the vital thing, we shouldn't be worrying about whether they get the right nutrients and particularly the right amounts of protein and vitamins and minerals. I would say nutrients are everything. Yes, we need the food to be fueled to keep our bodies going. But there's no point in fueling a body, particularly of a young child, if that child is not getting the nutrients needed for good health, development, and really achieving their full adult potential. So, I'm going to put a big focus on human nutrition as being one of the key outcomes of well-functioning food systems. And I'm also going to say that right now, with hundreds of millions of people facing greatly increased costs of living, it's proving to be difficult for them to ensure that their children get the nutrition they need. And for me, the big challenge right now is women's and children's nutrition, deteriorating because of the increased cost of living and the difficulty with accessing nutritious foods all around.


Thank you, David. This is even worse than some of us probably imagined. But one thing is just the breakdown of the supply chains after COVID-19, which I'm sure are contributing to the cost of nutrition. The second part is the energy crisis that we're going through right now, and as we all know, energy is food. So how do you see the development after the Global Crisis Response team work on this issue? What is the situation today, two years after COVID and with Ukraine?

David So, the UN Secretary General pulled a group together in the middle of March and he said to this group, called then the Global Crisis Response Group, what can we do internationally to reduce the likelihood that the war in Ukraine and other conflicts will further damage the nutrition, health wellbeing of people all over the world? How can the world respond to these perturbations in food, in energy and in finance systems, so that poorer people can be protected? And that work has led us to, first of all, look at which are the countries in our world which are most exposed to these system breakdowns? And then secondly, who are the people who are most vulnerable to the impact of these changes? And where do they live?

And so, we are currently analyzing countries in terms of their exposure, looking at the same time at their financial strength and also at the extent to which they're impacted by high energy prices. It's a very differentiated picture. The challenges faced by people in sub-Saharan Africa are profound and are linked mostly to challenges with access to food, and also, access to what's needed to produce food, particularly fertilizers. And we find that simultaneous impact of access to fertilizer challenges and difficulties with accessing food at an affordable price are affecting farmers everywhere, affecting food systems everywhere and in some places, even creating the possibility that in coming months and years, we will face actual shortages of some key food commodities.


Thank you, David. So, what I'm thinking about, as you were explaining the situation, we have basically not one crisis, but two crises, which is the immediate food crisis and then the future food crisis because of the lack of seeds and plant nutrients and others. How do you see that playing out? Even if we were to debottneneck supply of grains and oil seeds out of the Black Sea, what does it mean for the harvest, for the next and the one after that harvest for the world?


Well, first of all, thank you for really referencing the challenge of food grains and oil seeds and so on that have been stuck in Ukraine. Because what this has done is it's taken quite a chunk of key foodstuffs out of the world market and has had a direct impact on global prices. And that in turn has compounded the difficulties being faced by countries that import a lot of their food. They've suddenly faced a great big increase in their import bills and in turn, that that makes it harder for people in the countries to access the food they need.

When we're talking about it amongst ourselves, we tend to refer to what's happening right now as a food access crisis, meaning that there's probably not an overall shortage of the foodstuffs that we need in the world today. In fact, there may well be plenty of food to go around. But the difficulty is that there are certain groups of people in all countries who just can't get it. They particularly can't get the nutrition that they need. And why is that? Because the amounts of cash that they have in their pockets are just insufficient to continue accessing the nutrition they need, because the cost of the basic food basket on which they depend has increased by 30% to 50%, over the last few months. So, in French, it's called "pouvoir d'achat"- power of purchase. The power of purchase of the cash in people's pockets, for a mix of reasons is just declined. And the result is that essentially hundreds of millions of people get poorer. And because they get poorer, a whole stack of things just become more and more difficult. Harder to educate their children. Harder to work for good health care. Harder to move around because travel costs are so expensive. And so, it's a food crisis that's within an overall cost of living crisis, which is essentially hundreds of billions of people getting poorer.

The second thing that may happen in the months to come is that actually because of fertilizers being in short supply and some farmers just have been unable to get the fertilizer they need for their planting or finishing, we may end up with actual, total, overall shortages of certain key foodstuffs. Now, everybody's working super hard to try to prevent that because, a world shortage of some key food commodities could be a huge, huge problem. It does mean that we're going to have to learn to eat alternative food staples, perhaps from the ones we're used to. It does mean that we have to learn to get more local production in places that haven't done it before. So, taken together, access problem now, because of poverty, potential availability problem in the coming months, really because of fertilizer access has been so difficult.


That's very dark, David. So, it sounds like we have more or less a distribution and a financial crisis today and we may have a future crisis of shortages. So, we at IFA looked at some 94 countries, which is home to well over 1.6 billion people. And when we looked at it, what they are exposed to? They are exposed to financial crisis. They're exposed to energy shortages. They're exposed to food shortages. And it's very hard to disentangle the three because they all go hand in hand. So, you described a little bit of how we got here.

What I'm interested in is how do we get out of here? How do we actually start disentangling it and making sure that people eat today, and that people have enough to eat six months from now at the next harvest?


In the UN Global Crisis Response Group, we see the food, energy, fertilizer and financial challenges faced by countries as pretty well inseparable. At the same time, we also recognize that they are interdependent. So, it's really hard to help a country with a lot of food being imported, to handle the increasing cost of food imports associated with reductions in availability of foreign exchange, because of depreciation of their currency is linked to existing debts that they might have. I mean, how can that country be helped unless there is a solid effort to assist with debt service payments and to enable them to access the foreign exchange needed to purchase the food that their people need.

And so, what it does mean is that the dealing with the current food access crisis requires attention to the financial challenges faced by some of the world's poorest and most indebted nations. Indeed, there are around 43 countries in the world that are facing quite difficult situations with servicing their debt. Many of these countries are those which have to import a lot of food facing higher import costs. To help them, it is essential that the world can give them access to cash to deal with what we called fiscal constraints, so that they can make these imports. So, it's finance now to resolve the food access crisis that is so strong. But when it comes to looking ahead to the future, we need to think very hard about how to increase access to key fertilizers and other inputs for food production, so that there's not an absolute shortage in the coming months.


So, it's not just the question of the purchasing power of a population, It is almost a purchasing power of a country and balance of payments of countries, right? Because we have seen the case of Sri Lanka, in the recent past that couldn't import plant nutrients, couldn't import much of anything, because of the balance of payment crisis. And we have seen the direct impact on population on the level of hunger, on the level of malnutrition. So, this is really serious. It's a micro crisis of what is in consumers pocket, but as you rightly pointed out, it is also a global macro crisis because of so many countries in high level of indebtedness. So let us now pivot a little bit into the Global Crisis Response Group that you were chairing, and I was very happy that my company managed to contribute some of it. Can you share with us main findings and recommendations from the group?


Thank you. Really very important when we are dealing with problems with food in today's world to keep trade open. You see, what tends to happen when food suppliers get short is that quite often, a government will say we're going to restrict exports. As soon as a country places a ban on exports, other countries may decide to follow suit. And then if there is a domino effect of several countries banning exports, what goes on? Prices go up. And of course, there is some speculation on the markets, which perhaps occasionally pushes prices up higher and so, we get incredible volatility. And now, that has been known for a long time. So, there's a lot of effort by the Global Crisis Response Group to keep markets open. That's why the United Nations Secretary General also worked hard to get the grain and oil seeds that are stuck in Ukraine to come out, to get them onto the market. And we're so excited that although it's taken a bit of time to get going, as a result of the agreements that have been made to establish the Black Sea Green Initiative, that actually yes, the food is moving, and we we've seen prices come down. And we've seen with the help of the World Food Programme and others, that key grain shipments are beginning to get into countries that are short of food.

So that effort to get the markets working right is hugely important. Then of course, we see that many, many governments are saying we also need to build up our own local production capacity, so we're not so dependent on imports. It may mean encouraging people to shift their dietary preferences. It may mean we have to put new land under cultivation. Of course, we hope that they won't cut down forests to do that so, we really want them not to damage the environment. But we understand that resilience is key.

Thirdly, of course part of the problem and I have to say this, I hope you won't mind me saying that fertilizer is caught up in a lot of what's going on at the moment and particularly the conflict in Ukraine. Because fertilizer comes out of Ukraine, comes out of Belarus, comes out of Russia, intends to be processed in Ukraine for I mean, ammonia moving from Russia, into Ukraine, and exported from Ukraine. So, these, these countries that are involved in the conflict are also hugely important to meet world fertilizer markets. So, actually fertilizers being a commodity that has really been hit very badly by what's going on, especially recently, so, the prices of energy have risen, and the prices of fertilizer have risen. They almost track each other, but there are some peculiarities on fertilizer.

And so, our conclusion is that we have to do two things. One is to make sure that every effort is made to keep as much fertilizer on the world markets as possible, so that there will not be shortages for farmers leading to possible cutbacks in production. Secondly, we would like to be sure that poorer farmers, what we call the smallholder farmers, can access the fertilizer that they need at an affordable price so that they don't go out of business. And it's particularly applies to farmers at the present time in Africa. So, these two areas of focus, the global fertilizer system got to be kept going and trying to keep as much as possible on the market, remembering there's no sanctions on fertilizer or food at the present time. But secondly, special efforts to look after smallholders in parts of the world where their lack of access to fertilizer could put many of them out of business.


David, thank you, you're highlighting a couple of really important points, which is what I think, what we call an optimization problem, right? If you optimize across a global marketplace, you're going to get better outcomes than when you optimize across a particular territory and that's why the policies that focus on optimization across one country and therefore restrict trade are so difficult. On the local production capacity, it's interesting what you mentioned, about putting more land under cultivation. We do have to be careful, however, be mindful of the biodiversity issues, and those are one of the critical constraints as we go forward on this. But what is absolutely critical and our highlighted for our listeners is your focus on smallholders. I think those are the ones that need to get access to fertilizer, access to seeds, access to be able to produce their own food. And here, the private sector is stepping up to help. For example, some of our members, OCP, Yara, ETG, are providing humanitarian deliveries sort of in a two for one style transactions to countries in Africa that are in planting season right now. You may have seen Ghana, Uganda and there is an effort to supply the same for Mozambique and Madagascar in the coming weeks, so that farmers can plant. So, this is the private sector, but we know that private sector is not going to do it all.

What do you think governments can do to facilitate that focus on smallholder so that they can grow food for the next season or next two seasons on their land?


So, fertilizer is becoming an increasingly precious commodity -more and more expensive. At the same time, some chemical fertilizers in many settings are essential, but I would like to see more and more efforts to ensure that they're used efficiently, and I'd like to see more and more efforts to encourage the use of organic soil nutrition solutions. It's all around this notion that fertilizer is becoming an increasingly precious commodity. But what do you do when you've got something that's essential, but precious and expensive? I mean, in all societies, what governments do is they provide some input to bring down the cost of this precious, essential commodity, but especially for people who are most in need, the poorest people with the landholdings where a certain amount of fertilizer is essential, but they can't afford to buy it. So, I'm a great, great believer that that is what has to happen in modern societies.

Look at me a medical doctor. There are some treatments that are just incredibly expensive that if people had to buy them with money out of their pocket, they wouldn't be able to afford it. So, you depend on governments or insurance to try to help those who need these expensive products, to get them on the basis of a more general contribution. And that's what I think has happened to fertilizer. That you reduce the cost for the end user, through the provision of finance to buy down the price. And that finance divide and the price couldn't be provided by a government, by a company by an international organization. Ideally, it should involve an effort of all of them. And I've watched as the International Fertilizer Association and some of its member companies have come together and said, yes, we're going to be part of an initiative to bring down the end-user cost of fertilizers, specifically for smallholder farmers. We'll link it to a very careful program on nutrient use efficiency, stimulating also, the better production of organic fertilizers and their efficient use. So, we get blends and that becomes the style of the future of fertilizer access in low-income communities.

You describe what's happening in Ghana and what's happening in Uganda. I'm seeing it pick up like a sort of snowball effect. The conventional language for it is social marketing. And what's great about it is you buy down the price, but it still goes out through the private distribution channels, I think it's great. And at the same time, you're trying to keep the small and medium enterprises on which rural agriculture is so dependent, continuing to function by maintaining the distribution of the private sector, or not creating an alternative or parallel system. And I'm really excited by what you're all doing on this.


This is very good to hear. What we don't want to do is destroy the market that we so carefully created over the past 10-15 years, because these agro dealers, these coops they have a role to play on the food systems. But on the other hand, as you rightly pointed out, fertilizer is pricey and it's very important, and therefore using it efficiently is as important as using it at all. So nutrient use efficiency definitely has to come in. So, David, we covered a lot of ground, but I'd like to go back to where we started, which is nutrition. And it's not just calories, it's nutrients. And that begs a broader question, how do we make our food systems better? And how do we make our food systems more resilient, so that the number of hungry people in the next 10-15 years will go down to zero?


Thanks very much. Indeed, I want to start by saying there's nothing standing in the way of all the world's people being able to access the nutrition that they need through the food that they eat in order to enjoy good health and well-being, whilst at the same time protecting our precious environment, our water our forests, our oceans and stopping them from being damaged with the loss of biodiversity. It's a soluble equation.

However, there are a number of structural challenges that make it hard to solve. For a start, the policies that underlie food systems development in many countries, have not traditionally been based on what's best for people's nutrition. The policies that underlie food and agriculture have not been based always on what's best for the environment or for the climate. And we're saying put environmental objectives, but climate objectives, nutrition objectives and most importantly, equity objectives right up at the top, when you are devising and then implementing food policies.

Now, last year, the UN Secretary General hosted a summit called the UN Food Systems Summit and he invited governments everywhere to come to the summit and say, we've thought hard about the future of our food systems, and this is the pattern we wish to follow. And actually 140 countries went through this process, encouraging all the different stakeholders to come together and work through what needs to happen, focusing all the time on what food systems we need by 2030. There was no shortage of brilliant ideas from 110,000 people, leading to strategic pathways to the future in more than 110 countries. And those pathways are alive, and they're being used and food systems transformation is happening. And it's happening all over the place, particularly in Africa, and we see it right, because there's an African Union common position, particularly in different parts of Asia, particularly in the Pacific in the Latin America. It's in many different regions.

Now, what really matters is that decision makers just prioritize what matters for people and the planet in the years to come and let the processes evolve, guided by those objectives what the UN Secretary General calls the areas of convergence, linked to climate, linked to sustainability, linked to equity and linked to resilience. Let these transformations happen. We will get to a really good place, there's enough energy at country level. But to do that, the various different forces, the power forces that keep a strong control on our food system, need to embrace this food systems transformation that's happening all over the world. It's a long, ongoing story Alzbeta. The International Fertilizer Association is very much a part of it. Because as a responsible trade association, you realize that your companies and the future of your companies depends on them being able to market fertilizer as a very precious, very valuable, but also a potentially threatening commodity that we need to use right for the good of people on the planet.


David, we're going to wrap up on those wise words. I am delighted to hear that there is nothing stopping us to make it work. There is nothing stopping us to help feed the world sustainably and make sure that the world is fed sustainably. Thank you so much for joining us and have a great day.

About the guest speaker

David is the World Health Organization’s special envoy on COVID-19. He is also the former Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Climate Change. He has more than 30 years’ experience of public health, nutrition and development at country, regional and global levels. David is also the Strategic Director of the social enterprise, 4SD. Based in Switzerland, it provides training and mentoring leaders for sustainable development.