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COVID-19 impacts on food security: an opportunity to address old problems?

last modified May 14, 2020 06:12 PM
By 2050 the global population is expected to increase up to 9.8 billion people (UNDESA, 2017). Accordingly, food production will have to increase by 60 percent for food requirements to be met (FAO, 2015). This poses a big challenge for food systems as they have to achieve this sustainably. With the global scenario having changed drastically due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these already existing food security concerns have been heightened. The pandemic threatens to add to the 820 million people living in chronic hunger, as the measures adopted to stop the spread can hinder food production as well as people’s ability to purchase food.

COVID-19 is affecting the food supply chain by inhibiting the acquisition of key inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, and by creating logistical hurdles that disrupt the supply chain. On the one hand, cereals production is largely unaffected as high yields are expected this year, unlike the 2007/8 crisis where the supply was diminished due to climatological conditions (Torero, 2020). Because cereals are capital intensive crops which mostly rely on machinery to be harvested, the mobility restrictions do not affect their production. Instead, the restrictions create logistical problems along the supply chain, including transportation and distribution hurdles, such as restrictions on vessels. These problems affect cereal exporter countries, as their income depends from those exports, as well as food importer countries, such as Small Island Developing States, who are unable to meet their food security requirements because of mobility restrictions preventing imports. Similarly, food importer countries can also be affected by increased prices given a decreased supply.  

On the other hand, high-value food exporter countries are directly affected by the restrictions because these crops are labour intensive. Lockdowns and health conditions decrease the labour available to harvest and distribute food, which results in food waste. In particular, COVID-19 responses restrict migrant labour, particularly that of seasonal workers, on which many countries’ food security relies. Additionally, mobility restrictions can prevent access to markets, particularly for smallholders who might not be able to get the permits that many countries are granting their essential sector workers. Their exclusion from markets furthers inequalities between them and large-scale farmers, and can push them into poverty. 

Furthermore, the arrival of COVID-19 in countries on differing timelines has prevented a globally coordinated response, and has resulted in countries taking isolationist policies. For instance, Russia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Cambodia and Vietnam have banned the export of some crops, which disrupts the global value chain, as currently countries are highly interrelated and depend on each other for key inputs to achieve food security (Hendrix, 2020; Torero, 2020). Trade restrictions such as the ones adopted by these countries can lead to food insecurity by reducing the global supply of food, mainly considering that some of them, such as Russia, are major exporters of food staples (Torero, 2020). 

Beyond food supply, COVID-19 also creates consumption changes as restaurants have been shut down and people advised to limit their trips to the grocery stores. Both of these changes reduce the demand for food and change consumption patterns towards non-perishable goods. This consumption change can result in food waste as producers of perishable goods are unable to find the same volume of consumers. For instance, small producers in Peru had to discard 15 tons of white cocoa pulp because the demand had decreased considerably, and they were unable to export it or find consumers (La Republica, 2020). Similarly, the global economic crisis is jeopardising nearly half of the world’s livelihoods (ILO, 2020), which decreases people’s incomes and budgets designated for food consumption. Consequently, this will be translated into a decreased demand, particularly for high-value crops. Countries’ that are heavy high-value food exporters, such as Peru and Ghana, will see a decrease in their foreign exchange reserves, which can also affect their capacity to import food, and thus can threaten their food security. 

Both changes in the supply and demand of food can affect people’s livelihoods, particularly those of the rural population. For instance, poverty is likely to increase as food producers are unable to sell their produce or acquire inputs to continue food production. In particular, informal food producers will find it harder to access social benefits such as unemployment insurance, financial incentives, or food baskets. Notably, an increase of food prices (FAOa) can also threaten people’s food insecurity, especially of those who were already in poor and vulnerable situations. Additionally, mobility restrictions and a general pause to the economy can decrease or stop migrants’ remittances, which can hinder the livelihoods of those in rural areas as remittances make up an important part of their incomes. Moreover, the direct effects of COVID-19 on farmers’ health affects their productivity, decreases labour on the fields, and results in decreased supply and family income. Overall, the impacts of COVID-19 have the potential of pushing vulnerable people into poverty and food insecurity. 

Addressing the impacts of COVID-19 not only minimises negative effects, but also provides an opportunity to rethink current frameworks around food supply and distribution chains, as well as social policies. Firstly, addressing logistical problems disrupting the supply chain calls for less trade restrictions that impede food exportation. This can open up the door for regional trade that allows for the diversification of input sources, and ensures food security in a logistically simpler way. Already, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have signed an agreement to start working towards ensuring food security in the region (FAOb). This can create a long-lasting partnership that has positive effects outside of food security, and creates incentives for other industries.  

Furthermore, improving internal logistical hurdles calls for innovative solutions such as establishing collection points in rural areas. Collection points decrease interactions between producers as they could drop their produce in one location for it to be taken to the market, rather than individually transporting it, thus increasing the concentration of people and the probability of spreading COVID-19. While this can be used presently as a way of minimising risk and ensuring the continuation of food supply chains, collection points can also create a mechanism to increase market access for smallholders usually deterred from reaching wider markets because they cannot meet large aggregated demands from, for instance, restaurants or supermarkets. However, by aggregating their demand they would no longer be limited to local markets or subjected to the prices set by the middlemen, as by organising amongst several producers, they could have a stronger bargaining power. A network to connect the supply from smallholders with the demand can empower them and be a step towards overturning oppressive structures that disempower agricultural workers. Empowering the sector could also allow for changes in the way it is perceived, thus increasing its social value and making it more attractive for young workers. This can also be a step into modernising farming and enhancing its productivity to be able to feed the expected population in 2050, which entails improving food value and supply chains, and decreasing food waste. 

Responses to ensuring food security in light of COVID-19 also need to address the impacts on rural livelihoods through social protection programmes. These mechanisms need to be implemented to protect people’s incomes, ensure their food security, and prevent negative coping strategies such as selling land or assets. Similarly, they also need to support the production of food through providing key inputs, which can avoid a decrease of food productivity in the future. Ensuring both food production and consumption is harder in rural areas because often people are informal and hard to reach. To tackle this, countries need to rethink their targeting strategies and reform some of their existing social protection programmes, such as lifting conditionalities, or excepting people from meeting certain requirements to access them. 

Overall, while COVID-19 threatens food security, particularly in food importing countries and for the poor and vulnerable, there are several mechanisms that can be implemented to prevent this. In particular, these mechanisms can be an opportunity to re-imagine the normalcy that governed food systems, and shift from a globalised, industrial and hierarchical structure and interactions between providers and buyers, towards a more localised consumption, that relies on smallholders and empowers them through collective action to reach more distant markets and increase their incomes. Finally, the COVID-19 response also creates an opportunity to rethink the porosities within countries’ social policies and programmes, such as limited targeting and reach, and ensures that these are covered moving forward.

Article by Daniella Salazar Herrera. Please find Daniella's profile on our website.

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