Even before COVID-19, the threat of climate change was affecting the ability of West African food systems to deliver healthy, sustainable, and nutritious foods. In a recent paper published in Nature Food, an international team of researchers provide evidence-based policy recommendations to support West African governments in reforming food systems to make them more resilient.

It is estimated that 51 million people in West Africa may face severe hunger due to income losses resulting from the COVID-19 crisis. According to Zakari Ali, first author of the study and project lead at the Nutrition Theme of the MRC Unit The Gambia (MRCG) at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), the pandemic has exposed the weaknesses of food systems in the region and has led to increased funding support from local and international organizations. 

This presents a real opportunity for governments to invest in food systems in a way that has long term impacts after the pandemic before there is a re-balance of funding in the development community.

The authors note that COVID-19 has drawn attention to the crucial importance of urgently improving the resilience and sustainability of food systems - especially with climate change impacts adding to the equation. To this end the study identified five priority areas for building a resilient food system including: leveraging COVID-19 investments in food systems for lasting impacts; innovations such as “climate smart” agriculture; equitable regional trade policies; integrated early warning systems; and ensuring a healthy agricultural workforce.

The researchers however caution that while the world has the knowledge and tools to address food system problems, the necessary transformations often cut through traditional policy silos. It will therefore be of crucial importance that government departments work together in developing, selecting, and implementing solutions, while taking note of context-specific co-benefits and addressing potential co-harms of each solution.

“We have seen the governments of West Africa use their experiences from the Ebola epidemic from 2013-2016 to tackle the COVID-crisis. The first wave of lockdowns, market closures, and restrictions on regional trade may have been successful in keeping infection rates low, but the measures had significant impacts on local food prices and the livelihoods of day-wage and informal workers and pastoralists,” explains IIASA researcher Amanda Palazzo, one of the study authors. “Integrating existing early warning systems for food prices, crop diseases, and weather with up-to-date border closure information, can help to provide countries with early warnings for potential food crises. In addition, the pandemic has also highlighted the critical importance of considering environmental footprints (including those connected to zoonotic spillovers like Ebola and Lassa Fever) in agricultural trade policies.”

The authors conclude that these strategies and policies underscore the interconnectedness of the environment, food systems, and public health and that this linkage is set to become even stronger under projected climate and environmental change. Food system policy should therefore consider and carefully map out the possible trade-offs to other parts of the system that would require a coordinated, intersectoral government effort.

The study was conducted as part of a Wellcome Trust two-year funded project on Food System Adaptations in Changing Environments in Africa (FACE-Africa) led by MRCG at LSHTM The Gambia with partners based at LSHTM-London, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) Research Program, West and Central Africa, Mali; MRC Cambridge, UK; and IIASA. The project was launched in January 2020 in The Gambia and focuses on food systems, climate change adaptation, and mitigation in the Gambia as a case country for West Africa and is part of FACE-Africa’s aim of working with West African food system stakeholders and providing locally relevant recommendations for sustainable food system reform in the region.

Adapted from a press release prepared by the MRC Gambia at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


Ali Z, Green R, Zougmoré RB, Mkuhlani S, Palazzo A, Prentice AM, Haines A, Dangour AD, & Scheelbeek PFD (2020). Long-term impact of West African food system responses to COVID-19. Nature Food DOI: 10.1038/s43016-020-00191-8


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