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Publication | 2021

The State of Food and Agriculture 2021 (SOFA)

Key messages

  • To preserve their functionality and ensure the food security, nutrition and livelihoods of millions of people, agri-food systems must become more resilient to increasing shocks and stresses of diverse origins, both biophysical and socio-economic.

  • Because agri-food systems are complex – including primary production, food supply chains, domestic transport networks and households – and involve many interlinked actors, a shock in any component can spread rapidly throughout systems.

  • The fragility of agri-food systems can affect large numbers of people: already 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet and an additional 1 billion would join their ranks if a shock reduced their income by one-third. Food costs could increase for up to 845 million people if a disruption to critical transport links were to occur.

  • Of the five distinct resilience capacities agri-food systems must have – to prevent, anticipate, absorb, adapt and transform – absorptive capacity is critical in confronting unforeseen shocks and is complementary to risk management of shocks that can be anticipated.

  • Key to building the absorptive capacity of agri-food systems is diversity in food sources (domestic production, imports or existing stocks), diversity of actors in food supply chains, redundant and robust transport networks, and affordability of a healthy diet for all households, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable.

  • Risk management strategies for shocks such as droughts, floods and pests – including multi-risk assessments, timely forecasts, early warning systems and early action plans – are key to help all agri-food systems’ actors prevent and anticipate major disruptions to systems and avoid human suffering and costly recovery interventions.

  • Enhancing the resilience of food supply chains requires government support to develop small and medium agri-food enterprises, cooperatives, consortia and clusters, as well as social protection programmes.

  • Resilience capacities of rural low-income households, in particular small-scale producers whose livelihoods are increasingly vulnerable to climate shocks and depletion of natural resources, can be significantly strengthened through education, non-farm employment and cash transfers.

  • Ensuring economic access to sufficient food for a healthy diet at all times is a key dimension of agri-food systems’ resilience. Policies and investments that reduce poverty, generate decent employment and expand access to education and basic services, as well as social protection programmes when needed, are essential building blocks of resilience.

  • Building resilient agri-food systems should be a key policy objective and must ensure that all agri-food systems’ components function well over time. This requires mainstreaming resilience in agri-food policies and greater coordination across all relevant sectors and layers of government institutions to ensure policy coherence.

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The resilience of agri-food systems is measured, using a set of indicators, across the four dimensions that are key when dealing with a disturbance: (i) the robustness of primary production; (ii) the availability of food; (iii) physical access to food; and (iv) economic access to food.

Findings indicate that, while a large part of the world population lives in countries where food
can be sourced and made available quite flexibly, there is substantial scope in many countries for improving economic access to healthy diets, especially when incomes are affected by a shock.

The availability of food in general appears far less vulnerable to shocks than consumers’ economic access to food. Thus, for agri-food systems to become more resilient, the factors driving up the cost of food must be addressed.

I n terms of the capacity of the primary production sector to absorb demand shocks affecting domestic and export markets, findings indicate a significant contribution from domestic market diversity to countries’ overall absorptive capacity.

Although most innovations originate in more advanced economies, globalization accelerates their adoption across the world. Supermarkets, refrigeration, mobile phones, computers and e-commerce have all been essential in transforming agri-food systems. The process of innovation in food and information technologies is enhancing human capital and local capacity to manage multiple risks and adapt to changing realities.

Planning and investments are needed to ensure resilience of food supply chains with all their five main capacities: to prevent, anticipate, absorb, adapt and transform in the face of shocks and stresses. Investments in infrastructure (roads, storage and emergency systems)  and economic support mechanisms are essential.

Empirical findings from 35 countries highlight assets, farm and non-farm income diversification, and access to education and basic services such as sanitation as important determinants of household resilience.

Collective action, networks and cooperation a mong small-scale producers and other value chain actors, such as producer associations and cooperatives, are fundamental for resilient rural livelihoods.

Agroecology, climate-smart agriculture and biodiversity conservation can contribute to building resilience to climate shocks and generating rural livelihoods, while improving environmental sustainability.

Regular and predictable risk-informed and shock-responsive social protection instruments, complemented by productive support programmes, can enable households to better manage risks and engage in more profitable, sustainable agricultural activities. Insurance or emergency schemes can also provide critical supplies – such as seed for farmers and cattle
for herders – after a disaster hits, to provide protection and kick-start their recovery.