In times of COVID-19, experts give suggestions for strengthening Colombia’s food system
On Friday, May 29, a national dialog was held: “Colombia’s food system in times of COVID-19,” organized by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. Experts spoke about the need to digitize agriculture, educate the consumer, and promote associativity in marketing. They also made a call to continue conducting research, strengthening rural extension, and supporting local production and consumption. If that can be done, it will be one of the good things that has emerged from the pandemic.
Digitization throughout the entire system, consumer education, associativity in marketing, protocols for biosecurity, reduction of losses and waste from production to consumption, and the strengthening of urban and peri-urban agriculture will make Colombia’s food system more efficient. This was one of the major conclusions that came out of the national dialog on the country’s food system in times of COVID-19, organized by the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT on Friday, May 29.
Participating in this virtual dialog were Alan Bojanic, Representative of the FAO in Colombia, Marcela Urueña, Vice Minister of Agricultural Matters of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Ángela Penagos, Director of Rimisp (Latin American Center for Rural Development) in Colombia, Mauricio Parra, President of the National Network of Markets, Mark Lundy, leader of Food Environment and Consumer Behavior, of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, and was moderated by Jesús Quintana, Director of the Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT for the Americas.
The panelists analyzed what the social, economic, and environmental impacts of COVID-19 have been in the various links of production, distribution, and consumption, how the food system is currently functioning, and how it could be strengthened during and after the pandemic.
Big challenges throughout the chain
We must approach the problem as a system, in a holistic manner. This gives us a perspective of its complexity, about how each one of the links (production, distribution, marketing, consumption) is related. It is very important to recognize these connections and use them as a starting place for our work. We must also recognize that this crisis came to rural areas as well, and is attacking the countryside. The problem is not the lack of food production– the farmers are still working; nevertheless, the distribution networks are not functioning effectively and a lot of food is going to waste. A forceful response is necessary in order to avoid wasting food,” maintained Alan Bojanic.
The greatest difficulty that we identify at this time is oriented more toward consumption than production. What worries us is that we have a food system where the great majority of consumers access their food through neighborhood stores and small supermarkets, especially for fresh foods, and these, in turn, depend on markets. However, the large majority of the population depends on daily work in order to have access to food, thus the demand is affected by the lack of money, and we have to look for solutions to this.
The challenge is in the way we distribute our food, mainly in the urban zone, without taking any importance away from this same effect in the rural zones. We have to take a close look at the food systems connecting the urban and rural areas. We have made some progress in the understanding of this integration, but we must keep going. The short marketing circuits should go hand in hand with mechanisms of regional distribution, a more coherent management of the territory, and this should be included in the new development plans and the plans for agricultural extension.
To georeference the harvests, characterize the soils for crop planning, avoid over supply and over demand, which translates into effects on the price of the product. When there are excessive harvests, the waste increases and the price falls. This needs to be attacked at the roots, [we need to] know the logistics of the supply line from the first mile.Mauricio Parra
Change of diets
The experts agree that, during the pandemic, diets are changing and more emphasis is being placed on the consumption of non-perishable foods, which becomes an even greater problem of malnutrition and a challenge to improve the delivery of healthier markets. The key is sustaining the demand, for people to be able to access foods and especially fresh products, and do so urgently, in the most vulnerable zones of the national geography.
The countryside in one click
“The traditional agricultural model must be changed. We have to grow the virtuality because, given the situations of crisis like the one we are living in, the arrival and departure of foods in the cities is limited,” declared Mauricio Parra.
And digitization is one of the key responses throughout the food system, including the overcoming of digital illiteracy and the lack of connectivity that is still present in rural areas, so that they can access new markets, production technologies, and information channels. This new wave creates an obligation to be much more digital, starting with agriculture, with an investment in rural zones in digital communication networks, connection, and infrastructure.
According to the vice minister of Agricultural Affairs, Marcela Urueña, the Ministry of Agriculture is promoting digital strategies that seek to strengthen the competitiveness of rural producers.
Social distancing represents a change, a new normal in the way we relate to each other, and this presents a new paradigm for the way in which supply and demand relate, supported by virtuality. We have a new strategy to relate the point of production and the consumption of perishable foods through already established virtual platforms, an evolution of agriculture by contract to build and strengthen the relationships between supply and demand, through virtualization. In addition, we point out the strengthening of short marketing circuits at points where the agricultural offer is concentrated.
Marcela Urueña Gómez
The Vice minister emphasized that the hopes of her portfolio are pinned on strengthening agricultural extension in order to contribute productivity, profitability, and competiveness, and on a wrap-around financing and risk-management strategy that redesigns agricultural financing and credit instruments so that they can be adjusted to the needs of the producers.
Those who were invited to this national dialog agreed that there is an opportunity emerging in the regions and cities to redesign the food system — a new, sustainable system, more efficient, with lower costs of transaction, new channels and mechanisms of distribution, and one which guarantees the supply of healthy foods. Different ways of seeing the system need to be proposed, in order to understand how it is functioning now and how it will function in the future.
To sum things up, Jesús Quintana, Director of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT for the Americas, issued a call to keep investigating, to strengthen rural extension, and to support local production and consumption. In this last aspect, we can all contribute. If we do it, it will be one of the good things that the pandemic leaves us with.
See below the complete recording of the national dialog about food systems in Colombia.