Agenda 2030 Graduate School blog

Lund University Agenda 2030 Graduate School is a global, cutting-edge research school and collaboration platform for issues related to societal challenges, sustainability and the 2030 Agenda. The 17 PhD students from all faculties at Lund University enrolled with the Agenda 2030 Graduate School relate their specific research topics to the Sustainable Development Goals. In this blog the PhD students of the Graduate School discuss topical research and societal issues related to the 2030 Agenda.

Elephant(s) in the room

Statue of elephant at museum surrounded by people. Photo.
Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash. Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, Washington DC.

Posted on 12 May 2020 by Juan Ocampo.
I would like to thank Anna Stubbendorff for the content in regard to food security; I take responsibility for the rest.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Agenda 2030 Graduate School or Lund University. The present document is being issued without formal editing.

Entry 2

This post is part of the blog series Times of crisis: Interdisciplinary series and is composed by collaborative posts, informative videos and a discussion episode. Each content can be read or watched independently, which means they don´t follow a specific narrative thread or are prerequisites for understanding the whole series. However, if it catches your interest we recommend you to read and watch them all you will get a more holistic perspective of a creative, but researched based, exercise. If you find it interesting you are welcome to watch the complete product and please comment or reach out.

You can find the complete second episode of the series Times of crisis: Interdisciplinary stories here, and Anna Stubbendorff’s presentation in regard to Food Security here. Feel free to comment and reach out.

It was six [wo]men of Indostan,
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind

John Godfrey Saxe’s (1816-1887) version of Blind Men and the Elephant

During the process of using data to observe different perspectives of the COVID-19 crisis, several questions in regard to health and nutrition were raised. Without any experience in the topic, we felt the need of a more experienced mind, but where could we find someone with this knowledge? The answer was inside the Agenda2030 Graduate School. This is the story of how we collaborated with Anna Stubbendorff.

The collaboration with Anna started with a coffee under the sun, one of the advantages of being in Sweden during these uncertain times. Even though each country had a different way of approaching the issue, one of the interesting circumstances under the COVID-19 is that it has crossed the frontiers between the North and the South, making it an issue where no one (and this time really no one) could be left behind. Death only has frontiers in Jose Saramago’s books, and during this pandemic, for many, death becomes an elephant in the room.

While we shared with Anna the reflections in regard to unemployment, undernourishment and morbidity, I understood the importance of including her expertise in the discussion.  The initial idea of linking nutrition with morbidity was to be able to “compare”, so to speak, health and economic aspects during the crisis. This was meant to be made by observing the effect that undernourishment had on the morbidity rates of populations in risk. However, what we learned from Anna, is that this is just a consequence of a much complex problem; this is when I found a second elephant in the room.

Anna reflected on the different effects that a crisis had in undernourishment, specifically through food security. The lack of food security increases the risk of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality, thus for people infected by Covid-19 good nutrition might make the difference between life and death. The concept of food security is based on 4 pillars: (i) the availability of food, (ii) the access of food, (iii) the utilisation of food, and, (iv) the stability of the previous three pillars. As Anna explained, the food supply chain (FSC) is a complex web that involves several processes and stakeholders and, as the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) has pointed out, the FSC will be tested during this COVID-19 times.

As the virus spreads around the world there are countless ways the food system can be affected.  FAO stated that  “We risk a food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system.” To prevent a crisis, we need to understand how the pandemic might affect the food system and which groups are of greatest risk of food security. Food security is threatened by COVID-19 in different ways. Restriction in transportation, border closures and quarantines led to both labour shortages at harvest time, whilst other farmers were unable to bring their produce to the market. Moreover, the access to sufficient/diverse and nutritious sources of food might decrease because of disruptions in the food supply chain. Hopefully this can be prevented during the pandemic.

During this crisis, there are several actors that have higher risks along the supply chain.  From an economic perspective, small-scale farmers, pastoralists, fishers, or informal laborers might not be able to work on their land or get supplies. But also, let’s think about the countries going through other crises like desert locusts’ outbreak in the Horn of Africa, the insecurity in Yemen, Colombia or Syria, or the refugee’s camps.  And the list could go on and on. Was this another elephant in the room?

The FAO has suggested several ways on how countries should prepare for this crisis. For example, by boosting their social protection programs via social assistance, use of food banks and facilitate donations from individuals, NGOs and others. Likewise, governments should also inject funds in agriculture and small business and enable mobile payment systems to prevent disruptions in food supply chains. Digital technologies have a role to play to facilitate the interface between supply and demand, which could be helpful in trade of perishable products, fruit, vegetables and seafood.

The COVID-19 crisis will have effects in many aspects of our daily lives. Health, economy, education, and privacy are just some of the different parts of this complex world we live in. Ironically, it is just when we look closer at a problem, as the blind people in the story, that we start to make sense of the many elephants in the room. Or at least I hope so.