- As the economic fallout from the pandemic has set back decades of progress against malnutrition, food security has come to the forefront of global issues, giving a new impetus for topics such as climate change and agricultural innovation.
- Our analysis found that non-profit organisations, particularly UN-affiliated ones such as the Food and Agriculture Organisation, have managed to raise awareness around food security and put it under the mass media spotlight.
- However, not many non-profit spokespeople emerged as influencers in the media debate, meaning that organisations could do more to position experts as opinion leaders and focus on conveying competence – key comms challenges in the non-profit sector.
Food security – the access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food – seemed not so much under the media radar before the pandemic. But like many other issues in which the fragility of our systems was brought to light, Covid has put food security at the forefront, as the world experienced interrupted production and disruptions in food distribution and delivery.
As a result, there have been many media reports about growing levels of food insecurity, reversing years of development gains and affecting vulnerable households in almost every country. The mass media has focused especially on low- and middle-income countries since they spend a larger share of their income on food than people in high-income countries.
These concerns have started a broader debate around food security in general, with many media outlets noting that the global population will reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, demanding 70% more food than is consumed today, while available arable land is not increasing. Furthermore, as erratic weather patterns will hinder food production, the issues of climate change and agricultural innovation is now higher on the agenda of governments and international organisations.
Policies, climate change and innovation
Unsurprisingly, Covid’s impact was the largest topic in the media debate around food security, as we found out after analysing 4,766 articles published between June 2020 – June 2021 in top-tier English-language outlets.
Many of the articles pointed out that even before Covid reduced incomes and disrupted supply chains, chronic and acute hunger was on the rise due to various factors including conflict and socio-economic conditions. This crisis has been further accelerated: Covid led to a significant number of people running out of food or reducing their consumption.
Journalists noted that a major concern in the debate is nutrition, which is vital to the successful functioning of the immune system, especially when combating Covid and other diseases. Most media reports concentrated on developing countries where people already deal with common diseases such as malaria, HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and diarrhea.
A number of publications stressed that food insecurity is exacerbated for children in particular because of school closures, which prevent millions of children from receiving school meals five days a week. Studies showed that the economic fallout from the pandemic has set back decades of progress against the most severe forms of malnutrition and is likely to kill 168,000 children before any global recovery takes hold.
As the mass media followed the efforts of handling these problems, Policies and initiatives was another major topic in the conversation. Some opinion pieces pointed out that food security is much more than an agricultural issue and deserves action across government, while others argued that food security policy requires close regional solidarity in the form of strategic cooperation and coordination.
There were also a number of reports on national initiatives – for example, China stepped up its focus on food security, putting greater pressure on its regions to boost grain yields and support its domestic seed industry.
Canada was in the news for announcing an additional $100 million in funding under the Emergency Food Security Fund, while the government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) – one of the four provinces of Pakistan – approved its first food security policy, taking lead over the other three provinces. KP’s Chief Minister Mahmood Khan declared food security the province’s biggest issue.
As climate change was recognised as one of the main drivers of global hunger, aside from conflict, this topic received renewed attention in the media. As a whole, media coverage of climate change dropped dramatically during the pandemic: a global monitoring project that tracks media coverage of climate change found reporting on this issue down 59% from January to April 2020.
Environmental communication during the pandemic seemed largely absent due to one crucial factor: the inability to hold physical protests, which meant that environmental activism became much less visible in mainstream media.
But within the food security debate, climate change has been high on the media agenda, as it was blamed for undermining agricultural production, particularly for smallholder farmers living in the earth’s more fragile environments. A number of media stories noted that more than 80% of the world’s most food-insecure people are being hit by extreme weather such as drought and flooding, while changes in climate are affecting the production of staple crops-wheat.
Similarly, the topic of Agricultural innovation was also boosted by the food security conversation, as agri-tech is perceived as a key answer to the food security threat that future generations face. The most commonly mentioned innovations included bio-innovation, gene editing, robotics, big data, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
As an example for bio-innovation, for instance, journalists pointed to the possibility to produce a beef burger patty entirely from plants. Gene editing has been used to eliminate gliadin genes in wheat, while robots such as strawberry harvesters are already capable of picking as much as 25 acres in three days, a job that is currently being done by a crew of 30 people.
A related topic was the Socio-economic factors of food security, as food purchasing power has been deteriorating and affected the quality and type of foods that can be purchased. Reports noted that socio-economically disadvantaged groups with low levels of income and education tend to consume less nutritious food, leading to suboptimal health outcomes. Some publications asserted that indigenous peoples are particularly vulnerable.
Non-profits shape the narrative
We used Commetric’s proprietary ‘media conversation impact score‘ metric to identify the organisations with the biggest impact on the media discussion around food security.
We determine an organisation’s media impact in the context of a topic by looking at its media influence score calculated in terms of coverage by high-profile media outlets, topic relevancy score measuring its contextual relevance, and media visibility as measured by the number of mentions.
We found that the most influential organisation was the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), a specialised agency of the United Nations that leads international efforts to defeat hunger and improve nutrition and food security.
In 2012, when Director-General José Graziano da Silva took office, FAO developed a new communication strategy and put comms at the heart of its mission to help build consensus for a world without hunger. As part of the new strategy, FAO established a dedicated Office for Corporate Communication (OCC) and streamlined key functional responsibilities relating to media relations and social media.
One of the Office for Corporate Communication’s main objectives was to boost FAO’s presence in the global media, ensuring a uniform public voice for the organisation in matters relating to the fight against hunger. Its new thought leadership efforts led to favourable results, according to the organisation’s measurements: the total number of FAO mentions in online media articles increased by nearly 630% from 2006 to 2018.
Our media analysis shows that FAO’s higher media conversation impact score has cemented its leadership during Covid. Most recently, the organisation was quoted for its 2020 “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” report, which confirmed the trend from past editions: the number of people affected by hunger globally has been slowly on the rise since 2014.
Together with the World Food Program, the food-assistance branch of the United Nations, FAO released reports that predicted that the world will face the worst food crisis in at least 50 years. This in part made the World Food Program the second most influential organisation in the conversation. The Programme was also quoted for estimating that an additional 130 million people could fall into the category of being food insecure over and above the 820 million.
Meanwhile, the World Food Programme also partnered with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to empower youth innovators in food security and provide them with capacity-building programmes in entrepreneurship and innovation to increase their employment opportunities.
By the way, UNICEF was the most often mentioned organisation in the debate around: for example, it warned that the pandemic threatens to cause “irreversible” damage to children’s education, that child marriages rose during the crisis, that child poverty is to remain above pre-COVID levels for 5 years in high-income countries, and that the pandemic impacted the psychosocial well-being of children.
Other UN-affiliated bodies in the debate included the United Nations Security Council, charged with ensuring international peace and security, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, to strengthen the international response to complex emergencies and natural disasters, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an intergovernmental body of the United Nations.
International organisations focusing on economics, such as the World Bank, Economist Intelligence Unit, African Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), were also impactful in the discussion. For example, the World Bank found that a significant number of people are running out of food or reducing their consumption, which threatens gains in poverty reduction and health.
In the meantime, the media interest in Canada’s strong food security policies put on the map organisations like Food Banks Canada, a charity representing the food bank community across Canada, and the Breakfast Club of Canada, an organisation dedicated to providing services and funding for community-based school breakfast programs.
Non-profit spokespeople lag behind
Even though the food security debate was largely shaped by non-profit organisations, the most influential spokespeople came predominantly from national governments, who were quoted extensively across all topics in the conversation, especially Covid’s impact and Policies and initiatives.
Due to Canada’s focus on food security during the pandemic, Canadian government officials had a large share of voice. For example, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced an additional $100 million in funding to food banks and food security organizations, while Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, said that the mental health of farmers and food workers is a major preoccupation of hers.
This was also a concern for Daniel Vandal, Minister of Northern Affairs, who said that the government is committed to working together with Inuit (indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada and Alaska) organisations, who have been doing essential work to get quality food into the communities in most critical need. Similarly, Marc Miller, Minister of Indigenous Services, recognised that the pandemic has put additional pressure on many First Nations.
Apart from Canada, other prominent government representatives in the conversation came from the United Arab Emirates. For example, Mariam Almheiri, Minister of State for Food and Water Security, said that the UAE’s leadership has provided unstinting support to enhance the country’s food security system, while Sheikh Mansour bin Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Chairman of Dubai ‘s Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management, said that the emirate is reaping the benefits of the hard work and dedication of the past decades.
As mentioned, representatives of international organisations were not as big a part of the discussion, and UN spokespeople were not quoted as often. One of the most often quoted UN representatives was UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, who stressed that the pandemic has devastated livelihoods and threatened decades of development progress.
One of the most often cited representatives of the economic organisations in the debate was Martin Fregene, African Development Bank Director of Agriculture and Agro-industry, who said that increased food supply resulting from additional grant funds will lead to more jobs, improved quality of life, and reduction of malnutrition in many impacted communities.
There were also a number of experts and academics in the discussion, some of whom argued that “food security” is an inadequate term and we should be focused on “nutrition security” – a term that emphasises access, availability and affordability of foods that promote well-being and prevent or treat disease, not just foods that provide calories.
For example, Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, said that food security and nutrition need to be viewed as one issue, rather than in two distinct silos, and that this should happen at all levels, including government, health care, nonprofit groups and within the fields of research and innovation.
Corporate representatives were the smallest group of stakeholders in the conversation. Among the most vocal ones was Tim Glenn, Chief Commercial Officer of Corteva Agriscience, an agricultural chemical and seed company that was the agricultural unit of DowDuPont prior to being spun off as an independent public company. Glenn was prominent within the Agriculture innovation topic, saying that agriculture sits at the heart of food security, and technology solutions are key to helping farmers produce more food sustainability.
However, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations TS Tirumurti was the most influential spokesperson in the conversation, as we found by determining the spokespeoples’ influence score, which measures their visibility in top-tier online media outlets. It is a metric similar to Google’s Page Rank and it applies a mathematical method to measure both the quantity and quality of connections between an influencer and the media outlets.
TS Tirumurti was quoted for saying that India remains strongly committed to the cause of global food security and that even in the midst of the pandemic, the country provided food aid in the form of thousands of metric tonnes of wheat, rice, pulses and lentils to several countries across the world.
Tirumurti told UN and member states that the global community has a moral obligation to act in situations where there are credible reasons to believe that millions of people are in desperate need of assistance: “Food assistance alone surely cannot be a long-term sustainable solution to food insecurity.”
Tang Renjian, China’s Minister of Agricultural and Rural Affairs, followed Tirumurti for stating that China’s modern seed industry has yielded remarkable results and that the country is self-sufficient in the seeds of two main grain crops, rice and wheat, while the domestic supply of the seeds of corn and soybean is also guaranteed.
Unsurprisingly, the most influential non-profit representative was Qu Dongyu, Director-General of FAO. He was quoted in the Policies and initiatives topic for arguing that we must work very hard to limit Covid’s damaging effects on food security and nutrition: “We need to be more country-driven, innovative and work closely hand in hand.”
He was also cited in the Agricultural innovation topic as he claimed that agroecology, digital technologies and innovation all form part of the holistic redesign of the world’s agri-food systems to make them more efficient, more inclusive, more resilient and more sustainable.
How can non-profits use comms to further their agenda
Based on our analysis, here are a few things non-profit organisations could do to generate more engagement:
- Position experts as key opinion leaders. There has never been a time when scientists had such a large share of voice in the mass media. This is true about social media as well: for instance, Twitter not only started labeling misleading tweets about Covid-19, but also started amplifying medical voices. Since March, it has verified hundreds of Covid-19 experts globally, including scientists and academics. There’s been a growing group of scientists and public-health officials who are increasingly active and drawing large audiences on social media. They say they feel a moral obligation to provide credible information online and navigate the conversation away from proponents of conspiracy theories around vaccination that have gained a substantial share of voice across social media platforms.
- Realise the importance of powerful brands. In fact, some researchers argue that branding is more critical in the non-profit sector than in the for-profit one: in business, customers invest financial resources in return for a tangible product or service, while in the non-profit sector, donors invest financial resources assuming that their money will be used to achieve meaningful but often intangible social goals, and they do not necessarily receive something particular in return. Therefore, reputation and a sense of purpose and connection become critical differentiators in the non-profit world.
- Reach new audiences with environmental, social, and governance (ESG) messaging. Our recent research shows that comms professionals should move beyond purpose and focus their efforts on ESG – a much more specific and tangible concept with better defined KPIs which is yet to gain full momentum, especially on social media. Be among the first to utilise the power of social media and engage a wider circle of stakeholders in a more informal fashion, particularly on Instagram, a platform that has much higher engagement rates with many key stakeholders and where ESG topics such as climate change are very popular among millennials.
- Focus on building trust and conveying competence. While business, government, and the media increased in trust overall, non-profits have had a decrease in trust, according to Edelman’s 2021 Trust Barometer, but are still trusted more than governments and the media. However, businesses are now seen as the most trusted institution around the world. Edelman’s research shows businesses are more trusted because they are seen as both ethical and competent, while non-profits are seen as ethical, but less competent.