Why healthy food and its local production should be part of the response to  Covid-19

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When a pandemic occurs, among the questions that arise from the start is the impact it will have on public health, the economy and society. Other key questions touch on the response priorities of governments and households.

Food is at the heart of these two sets of questions. On the one hand, access to sufficient and nutritious food is threatened. On the other hand, focusing on food offers promising options for responding to the pandemic.

Reports from various countries highlight concerns about the impact of Covid-19 and pandemic response measures on food supplies, whether due to shortages, rising prices or lack of funds. Even in wealthy countries, concern over possible shortages has led to a build-up of inventories, while large-scale job losses leave many worried about their ability to feed themselves .

In some developing countries, the specter of hunger is looming. In July 2020, Oxfam reported that Covid-19 was worsening hunger in current risk areas, while creating new 'hotspots'. The report also suggested that the pandemic could be the "coup de grace" for many people. Those engaged in the informal economy are among the most affected, especially people living in urban areas who spend most of their daily income on food.

A recent report from the World Food Program (WFP) suggested that Covid-19 is worsening global food insecurity, as the economic impact of the pandemic is in addition to pre-existing food security concerns. An estimated 272 million people are food insecure due to the aggravating effects of the pandemic. In a subsequent interview, the WFP director expressed fears that millions of people "are walking towards famine" citing the pandemic as a key cause.

In recent years, we have carried out research in southern countries on food security, agriculture, public health and the environment. This experience leads us to believe that focusing on food would reduce the risks faced by households and countries, even in a pandemic situation where access to food is clearly threatened.

Dietary change as a response option

Dietary changes could provide opportunities to improve people's ability to cope with Covid-19, as the potential of nutrition to strengthen immune resistance to viruses is well established . A review of clinical trials highlighted the potential of nutrition to prevent or manage viral infections and advised using it to limit the impact of Covid-19. Another new review article echoed this call.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has sought to harness this potential by issuing dietary guidelines for the Covid-19 pandemic. These highlight the importance of eating certain foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans, fish, and unsaturated fats. They also recommend reducing the consumption of other foods, such as processed foods, salt, sugar, and saturated fats like those found in fatty meats or butter.

Two years ago, the Lancet Commission - a high-level group of experts from 16 countries - recommended a similar diet that it called the “healthy benchmark diet”.

This diet was designed based on a rigorous analysis of the available evidence and as a way to address the current problems of poor nutrition and unsustainable agricultural production. This analysis suggested that changes in diet and production could create “win-win” outcomes for human and planetary health.

The dietary changes suggested by the WHO and the Lancet Commission would require major changes in eating habits in most countries, raising the question of the accessibility of their target foods. Worryingly, a study on this issue suggests that such a diet may be unaffordable for much of the world's poor population. One potential solution would be to improve access to healthy food by promoting local production of target foods.

Rethinking farming systems

Covid-19 creates an opportunity to rethink farming systems to provide both a range of healthy foods and resilient, sustainable production. The pandemic leaves room for such shifts, between the emergency spending it requires and the recognition it brings to the need for change.

Changes that can contribute to both health and sustainability include diverse and integrated farming systems as well as reduced use of agrochemicals. Governments could encourage such a shift through smart subsidies to steer production towards sustainable practices and healthy foods. It could also help ensure that these foods are available and affordable.

One promising approach is the growing trend of food production in urban and semi-urban areas as an adaptation strategy. This has proven to have huge potential benefits as a source of food for communities affected by the pandemic, while also bringing other important benefits such as creating jobs for the poor and reducing food miles. .

Policy can create an environment conducive to the dissemination of such practices.

Some relevant questions about how food is produced are not addressed in the advice of the WHO or the Lancet Commission . These include:

(a) Do foods produced using technologies such as genetically modified organisms and growth hormones pose health risks ?

(b) Do organic foods offer healthier alternatives?

(& # 99) Do more natural production practices promise more sustainability and greater resilience to climate change?

These issues deserve more attention, especially in light of the growing evidence of the detrimental effects of intensive conventional agriculture, for example on insect populations .

Food and resilience to pandemics

The formal authorization of several vaccines has raised hopes that the Covid-19 pandemic can be stopped. However, the vaccination process will take time . In particular, the head of the United Nations humanitarian agency predicted that various poor countries would not make major progress in vaccination before the year 2022. At the same time, the recent emergence of mutant variants raises difficult questions, in particular of find out if the effectiveness of vaccines could be compromised

Given this reality, proper functioning of the immune system is essential. Policies promoting healthy eating are therefore a priority. For now, however, food insecurity tragically remains a problem for many, and access to healthy food is a particular problem. Programs to promote the local production of nutritious foods are therefore also necessary. Any initiative on food or local production could have relevance beyond the Covid-19 pandemic by strengthening the health and resilience of communities.

Such measures would be particularly relevant for sub-Saharan Africa, where food insecurity remains a major threat, Covid-19 cases continue to increase and access to health care is limited.

Improving food and local production represent promising response options to the Covid-19 pandemic. The available data suggest that these measures could improve the health and well-being of populations while strengthening their resilience to pandemics. These measures, which deserve more attention, could therefore complement public health measures such as social distancing and medical measures such as vaccination.

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