Squaring the circles: Feeding a world in a pandemic and climate change

The header image is a painting titled 'Maasai Herding' by Kenyan artist Kahare Miano.


Delia Grace, a veterinary epidemiologist and food safety expert on joint appointment with the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), in Kenya, and the University of Greenwich’s Natural Resources Institute, in the UK, was a member of an expert panel at the 2021 Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, organized by Germany.

This year’s forum, held virtually earlier this month (18–22 Jan 2021), attempted to determine ‘How to Feed the World in Times of Pandemics and Climate Change?’.

The topic of Grace’s particular panel session—‘Building Forward Better—For ONE Climate-Resilient and Healthy WORLD without Hunger’—was inspired by just how much the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our world.

Carin Smaller, director of Agriculture, Trade & Investment at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), began her moderation of this session by setting the boundaries to the discussion. (Go here to watch this session.) 

‘One of the shocking effects has been the alarming rise of hunger in the world as a result of the economic downturn. What we’re interested in exploring in this panel is the intersection between the health crisis, the hunger crisis and the climate crisis.

'What we want to know is how can agriculture and food systems—particularly the role of agricultural research for development—contribute to better managing the intersection between these three crises.’

Maria Flachsbarth, parliamentary state secretary in Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), introduced the session. Her presentation, excerpted below, is worth absorbing in full.

'The COVID-19 pandemic has been a clear signal to us all that we must not continue with business as usual in the way we live and the way we run our economics.

'We have reached our planet’s boundaries. . . .

'[M]ore than 130 million people may have been thrown back into poverty and hunger in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic. . . . It is very likely that new global pandemics . . . will become more frequent. And we must not forget that antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is already posing a threat to our health across the world.

Group of five inked drawings by Eduardo Kingman.


'Recent research has confirmed that a world without hunger is possible and affordable. Agriculture has a key role in this.

'It has to facilitate food security for all and at the same time use resources sparingly and protect the global climate. We have to stop the destruction of natural resources of our world. We live in it and make our living from it.

'Agriculture must not cause lasting damage to the resources on which it depends. In order to produce sufficient healthy food for all in a sustainable way, we need a transformation of the agricultural sector and the global food system towards more sustainability and resilience. 

‘In our efforts, we are putting a special focus on rural development, especially in Africa. We invest in people, providing special support to women with regard to equal access to land. . . . A special focus is being placed on the rights of women and other marginalized groups such as indigenous people. 

‘We believe that sustainable agriculture means giving greater attention to the complex interactions between humans, animals and the environment. This is why we pursue the One Health approach in our development cooperation. We are not only making it part of our health programs but also of our programs for climate action and environmental protection and resource conservation, education food security and sustainable agriculture.

Logo of the German-funded One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre for Africa (OHRECA), which was launched in 2020 and is based at ILRI, in Nairobi, Kenya.


‘For instance, a One Health Research, Education and Outreach Centre for Africa, OHRECA, has been established at ILRI, in Nairobi, with our assistance. This will help to strengthen cooperation across disciplines. With this effort we can build on our long-standing support for the international agricultural research system—CGIAR—of which ILRI is a member. That system is currently undergoing fundamental reforms towards a greater focus on results in ‘big lift’ areas, for instance, climate resilience, One Health and crops to end hunger.

‘We also believe that sustainable agriculture means environmental sustainability. We have to protect soil, water and forests and use our finite natural resources in a sustainable manner. In our food security and sustainable agriculture programs, we are giving special support to small- and medium-sized actors along agricultural value chains. In parallel, we are raising awareness of sustainable ways of using natural resources. . . . 

‘Innovation and research are important drivers for sustainable transformation of the global food system. International public agricultural research  is a part of the engine of innovation. We therefore have high expectations of the “One CGIAR” reform process. In future, a reformed CGIAR is to develop innovative solutions for sustainable agriculture more effectively and more quickly. We expect all the CGIAR centers to play an active and constructive role in this process.

‘A transformation of the global food system also requires reinforced international cooperation. The World Bank’s new “Food Systems 2030 Trust Fund” for sustainable food systems is precisely this kind of effort. It takes up an important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic—the One Health approach has been mainstreamed in its work.

‘This is an innovative effort. It has our full support. The BMZ has become the first donor, providing 15 million euros. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the European Union have promised to make contributions, too. I would greatly welcome broad international support for the fund.

‘We are also proving support to the UN Food Systems Summit that is planned for the second half of this year and giving advice to partner governments as they prepare for the summit. At the summit, we will push for decisive, coordinated action and for systematic, innovative solutions for environmentally and socially sustainable food systems.

'We have only nine more years to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals for humanity as envisaged by the 2030 Agenda.

'This is very little time to meet a very big challenge, such as the sustainable provision for healthy food for all.

'So let us do better at moving ahead together, doing everything we can to ‘build forward better’ a world without hunger.

A market in Kenya in April 2020 (photo credit: Sambrian Mbaabu, World Bank via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Following Flachsbarth’s introduction, Martien van Nieuwkoop, global director for the World Bank’s Agriculture and Food Global Practice program, gave a filmed keynote speech, in which he made the following remarks.

On the effects of the crisis

‘We have responded by scaling up our safety net programs—protecting jobs and livelihoods, making sure that inputs are available for the next planting season, and keeping markets open and trade flowing. . . . What is needed is a scaled up approach to One Health. We have built that into our 14-billion-dollar health sector COVID-19 response.’

On the root causes of the crisis

‘We are launching with the help of Germany a major effort to put in place an investment framework and implementation support mechanism to mainstream zoonotic prevention and preparedness.’

On opportunities offered by the crisis

‘Many policies are contributing to environmental degradation. There is a window of opportunity to discuss with governments how to repurpose public support so that it contributes to better nutritional and environmental outcomes.’

On World Bank conclusions for the UN Food Systems Summit

‘We adopted a few years ago a food systems approach in the way we engage with the agriculture sector. . . .

'If you factor in the hidden costs of the global food system, particularly when it comes to health effects and environmental effects, the global food system is actually subtracting rather than adding value.

'We have a global food system that is not fit for purpose and at the same time is facing many daunting challenges moving ahead.

'By 2050 the global food system will have to produce 56% more food to feed. 9.8 billion people at the same time that the carbon footprint needs to be reduced by 75% to be in line with the Paris Agreement at the same time that additional deforestation and [agricultural] area expansion need to be avoided.

'We think that a food system can contribute to healthy people, healthy economy and a healthy planet—to healthy people by providing healthy diets; to a healthy economy by contributing to inclusive growth (we know that growth in agriculture tends to be more inclusive than growth in other sectors); and to a healthy planet by providing nature-based solutions.

'The good news is that if the global food systems makes those transitions, there are huge economic benefits to be generated.

'At the same time, significant financing needs to be made available to make those transitions happen.

'That’s an important agenda for the Food Systems Summit—how to line up the financing so that those transitions will happen.

‘. . . Currently the global food system is producing enough food to feed everybody. You see rising food insecurity in a world of plenty. . . . But with a rising world population, we do need to produce more food. Innovation has an important role to play in that. Right now countries are underinvesting in innovation.

'Given the daunting challenges that the global food system faces, clearly business as usual will not be sufficient. For that reason, the bank is very much engaged and is one of the founding members of CGIAR, to which we have been a continuing donor since its inception in 1971 . . . .’

As member of the expert panel that was then asked questions, ILRI's Delia Grace began by sharing what she hopes the on-going COVID-19 pandemic will bring about.

‘We’ve had a very hard and sharp lesson, which is not necessarily a good thing, but if we do things better in future, then it can be a good thing.’

'One of the lessons from my perspective is how diseases that escape from food systems can create enormous burdens—health burdens, wealth burdens, psychological burdens. I hope this will motivate people to invest more into preventing the next pandemic.



Asked whether she agrees with Martien van Nieuwkoop that agriculture can contribute to the broader health agenda, and in particular this One Health approach, Delia Grace said the following.

‘I think I would be even stronger than Martien and say not that agriculture can contribute to the broader health agenda but that it does contribute. It’s feeding us. Not everyone is being fed, but more humans are being fed better than has ever been the case in the last thousand years. Agriculture is feeding our animals, too, so it is doing a very good job in providing us with food. 

‘Where agriculture is doing a bad job is in using up too much of our planet, too many of our scarce resources. That is allowing the killing of too many wild animals, the loss of too many natural resources. And that is allowing these pandemics to regularly, regularly, regularly spill over and kill humans and animals. And it’s not just humans—we’ve got African swine fever getting out of control at this moment.

'Basically, every three or four years we’ve been through pandemics—in recent decades we’ve been through SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome], we’ve been through MERS [Middle East respiratory syndrome] and we’ve been through avian influenza. That’s where we need to do better.

'We need One Health. We need to better understand how the health of humans is completely dependent on the health of animals and the health of ecosystems.

'We have to start from the bottom up to get ecosystems healthy, to get animals healthy, and then you won’t get so many humans sick.

‘I want the ministries of agriculture and health [and environment] to work together. They are already working together more than they ever have, but they could do a lot better to work together.

‘In brief, it’s One Planet—and One Health.’


Asked about how to get everything done that needs to be done, Delia Grace responded with the following remarks.

‘Agriculture is complicated. You can’t do opposite things at the same time and succeed in both. It’s one thing to say we have to reduce our carbon footprint. It’s another thing to say we have to feed a lot more people a lot better. There are trade-offs involved in this.

‘I’m a vet by training and have been in 50,000 pig units, which sometimes are not pleasant places to visit. But when you do the sums, individually, those industrially raised pigs produce less of a carbon footprint than two pigs kept in somebody’s back garden. Likewise, industrial poultry has one of the lowest carbon footprints of meat production and also has, without any doubt, the highest levels of animal abuse, of poor animal welfare. . . . It’s easy to agree that we want good things—we want to be kind and to have good food and to cut our climate footprint—but it’s complicated and we end up having to do things that many people find very difficult to accept.

‘A perfect example is GMO. Survey after survey about use of genetically modified organisms shows that many, many people don’t want it. And yet they want to have a lower carbon footprint. They want to have animals that work less. They want to grow food in soils contaminated with salt or not enough water.’

'How do we square all these things? That’s where we need researchers to help tackle the hard problems and to educate the public that these are indeed hard problems—wicked problems . . . .'


Cover of a Jul 2020 seminal report from ILRI and the United Nations Environment Program, with Delia Grace as the lead author.

Other members of this expert panel held at the 2021 virtual Global Forum for Food and Agriculture were:

Visit the GFFA webpage to hear from them as well and to watch the whole of this—and every—session of this year’s forum.

Read the communiqué of the Berlin Agriculture Ministers’ Conference this year.

ILRI’s Animal and Human Health program has a portfolio of product lines in zoonoses, emerging infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance, food safety and herd health.