After COVID-19, a rural revolution can drive sustainable recovery

Anil Salunkhe, a farmer, feeds strawberries to his cow during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Darewadi village in Satara district in the western state of Maharashtra, India, April 1, 2020. Picture taken April 1, 2020
Farming skills and self-sufficiency must be at the heart of every country's sustainable recovery plans
Image: REUTERS/Rajendra Jadhav
  • When this crisis is over, we will have a chance to reshape the world.
  • The recovery must begin by ending hunger and food insecurity.
  • Developing agricultural infrastructure is the key starting point.

After coronavirus, nothing less than a revolution in rural sustainable development can prevent another crisis.

Like our ancestors, we must learn to heed the call of the land, the rhythm of the seasons, the social bonds that hold us together. Developed nations and the developing world must value their farmers, healers and teachers. This virus has shaken the very foundations of our societies. How we build on those foundations is up to all of us.

In developing countries in particular, where the collapse in commodity prices, tourism and remittances has already had a devastating impact, the virus has exposed a genuine threat to food security through its disruption of international supply chains. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) found that the pandemic will significantly increase risks to food security and hinder humanitarian assistance operations. Even before the virus struck, at the end of 2019 the Global Network Against Food Crises found that 135 million people across 55 countries and territories experienced acute food insecurity.

When this virus passes, we will have an opportunity to remake the world. To build sustainable, resilient and harmonious societies, we must begin with the food on our tables – where it comes from, how it reaches us, and what it means to us. No one should live with the fear that they or their family will go hungry. No one should fear that the food and drink on which they live could put their health in danger. Our gardens of flowers could also accommodate fruits and vegetables.

It must start with education, which goes further in shaping the world of the future than any other intervention. The next generation of workers, political leaders and opinion formers must be trained and literate in the new priorities for the post-virus world. We must value agriculture, horticulture, hygiene and caring skills above all else. That should be reflected in our children’s curricula and educational funding. As co-chair of the UN Global Accelerator Programme, I want to use this platform to encourage young entrepreneurs to take up this mantle.

National governments, including Switzerland’s, will need to create attractive schemes for students from different walks of life to attract them to semi-urban and rural development areas.

The role of semi-urban and rural communities in sustainable development is not a new agenda. My own father, S. P. Hinduja, was among the first to champion this concept at the UN, and I picked up the theme when I addressed the UN General Assembly in 2014. In countries like India, we urged Governments and development agencies to build and develop semi-urban and rural communities centred around the family. As we navigate this crisis, a rural revolution can point the way to a sustainable future. It is vital that those privileged to have had an international education return to their communities to help with this work.

Even before the pandemic, millions of people worldwide were affected by food crises
Even before the pandemic, millions of people worldwide were affected by food crises
Image: World Food Programme's 2020 Global Report on Food Crises

Developing skills in farming and a move towards self-sufficiency in domestic food production must be at the centre of every country’s plan for a sustainable recovery. This will require a reversal of previous trends towards ever greater urbanization and detachment from our food supply. UN research shows that as farming systems have modernised and intensified, the amount of land available for farming has been growing ever more slowly. On current trends, arable land will grow at a rate of 0.4% in countries for which data is available, despite improvements in irrigation and farming technology.

Qu Dongyu, director-general of the FAO, has already called on nations to "strengthen local production and shorten food supply chains". Noting the potential for improved technological infrastructure to improve agricultural efficiency, Qu says: "The crisis opens an opportunity to accelerate food system transformation... New business models are needed. It is the time to speed-up e-commerce in agriculture and food systems across the globe."

Switzerland’s world-leading private banking sector can and must take the lead here and provide much-needed financing in this area. I have instructed my bank, Hinduja Bank Switzerland, to develop this field so that it may become a reality for our clients across the world with India as our starting point.

Rural development and lower population density can be compatible with continued economic growth and sustainability. Developing agricultural infrastructure will create employment opportunities across the skills spectrum and will sustainably deploy the natural capital of less-developed countries. My father’s visionary approach of so many years ago has today become the reality and the truth of our future.

As we all suffer at the hands of a common enemy, we must show compassion for one another – and consider what it is we value in society. We must call on national leaders and the heads of international organisations to clear their minds, listen to nature, and reflect on what we have learned in this crisis. Home to the WHO, WTO and so many other international bodies and financial institutions coordinating a response to this crisis, Switzerland will have a central role in building a new understanding.

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