In battling COVID-19, countries shouldn’t lose sight of sustainable development

COVID-19 is threatening to plunge millions of people into poverty and worsen global hunger, undermining the long-running push for sustainable development, warns a new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report, COVID-19, the Environment and Food Systems, calls on states to use their response to the coronavirus to build more sustainable, resilient food systems and monitor their recovery efforts against sustainable development targets.

“There is a real concern that focusing resources on mitigating the acute impacts of COVID-19 could reduce resources for sustainable development programmes in general, crowding out important initiatives in 2021 and beyond,” says the UNEP’s Salman Hussain, who coordinated the report. “The world needs consistency and coherence between emergency relief and long-term objectives for sustainability, resilience and equity.”

The Sustainable Development Goals, adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015, contain 17 targets designed to combat poverty, bolster healthcare and improve education while safeguarding the environment.  The pandemic is threatening to reverse decades of progress towards those goals. Up to 100 million people could be pushed into extreme poverty this year because of COVID-19, which would mark the first rise in penury since 1998, said the report. proposes several ways to curb the virus and promote economic recovery while supporting sustainable development and bolstering food systems.

1. Align pandemic responses with global agreements

Wherever possible, emergency fiscal measures to prevent a global recession must align with the overarching Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris climate change agreement.

2. Ensure food security

Measures to mitigate the pandemic and promote economic recovery will only be successful when food security is guaranteed. Producing food nearer to where it is consumed and improving transportation networks can help minimize food loss and waste, a pressing global problem.  

3. Facilitate the movement of farmworkers

This would help ensure demand for their services can be better satisfied. This must take place in parallel with measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among farm workers and food processors by improving working conditions.

4. Promote a green recovery

Measure the environmental impacts of COVID-19 recovery policies and take opportunities to leapfrog to green investments. Promote nature-based solutions to bolster the biodiversity that underpins sustainable food systems.

5. Recognize that win-win opportunities exist and capture them

Restoring habitats and degraded land, along with climate-smart agriculture, can have a positive impact on reducing greenhouse gases and improving food security. Environmental clean-ups, sustainable investment in agriculture, safeguarding natural resources and improving energy efficiency all have the potential for positive short-term stimulus effects.

6. Improve the efficiency of water infrastructure

In developing countries, this can be done by reducing illicit water extraction and incentivizing water-efficient agriculture. Water scarcity can reduce food security and increase competition for water. COVID-19 has underlined the importance of clean water for sanitation.

7. Better regulate the meat and animal trade

This would reduce the chances of a new pandemic, protect endangered species and support rural livelihoods.

8. Apply a food systems approach

Evaluation tools such as the TEEBAgriFood Framework should be used to ensure ecosystem services are valued, human and social capital is included in assessments and a full value chain assessment is applied.

9. Adopt a One Health approach

Planning by international agencies and member states should ensure that human activities do not adversely affect the health of plants, animals and the ecosystems on which humans depend.  

The new report is part of a series designed to help countries build back more sustainably from the pandemic. The first publication in the series, Building a Greener Recovery: Lessons from the Great Recession, was launched last month.