by Sara Gustafson
Photo by World Bank
While no major food shortages have followed on the heels of COVID-19 as of yet, a new article by IFPRI researchers published in Science finds that agricultural and food markets around the world are still feeling the effects of the pandemic and related lockdown measures.
Restrictions of movement have led to labor shortages, and food demand has changed in favor of less expensive and less nutritious foods as schools and restaurants shut down and swathes of people saw a loss of income. In addition, several countries imposed food export restrictions in the early months of the pandemic, disrupting trade for commodities like wheat and rice. Due to all of these impacts, the paper argues that the COVID-19 pandemic has directly and indirectly affected all four pillars of food security (availability, access, utilization, and stability).
The IMF has forecast a 5 percent drop in the global economy in 2020. This poses a significant threat to poor households around the world, who are already particularly vulnerable to income shocks and subsequent food insecurity. Early models suggest that between 90 and 150 million people could fall into extreme poverty as a result of the pandemic. Much of this increased poverty will occur in Africa south of the Sahara and South Asia. Recent surveys in Ethiopia have shown that poor households are struggling more with income losses than with shortages of available food — only 20 percent of surveyed households had enough savings to meet their food needs for more than 30 days.
Increasing poverty will have negative consequences for nutrition as well as for food security. As poor populations struggle to maintain their access to food in the face of rising poverty, many will shift their food baskets to rely more heavily on cheaper, less nutritious foods. Poor households spend nearly 50 percent of their total incomes on non-staple foods like fruits, vegetables, and animal proteins and dairy. As incomes decline, many of these households will likely reduce their consumption of these healthy foods and rely more heavily on staple foods such as wheat, rice, or maize and on cheaper processed foods. While consumption of staple foods and processed foods can help people maintain their caloric intake, it reduces their dietary diversity, consumption of critical micronutrients, and overall nutritional well-being. The impacts of lowered nutritional status will be particularly significant for children, whose growth and cognitive development depend strongly on proper nutrition.
While COVID-19’s biggest impacts are being seen in the realm of food access, the pandemic is also affecting food availability and stability. Due to national and regional differences in agricultural value chains, these impacts vary between low-income and higher-income countries.
In high-income countries, staple food production is largely mechanized; these value chains have seen less disruption from COVID-19-related social distancing measures and other practices. Production of non-staple foods, such as fruits and vegetables, in these countries depends more heavily on people, and often on seasonal migrant workers. These value chains have seen more disruption as a result of the pandemic as people’s movements have been restricted.
Non-staple value chains in high-income countries have also experienced some supply disruptions. Meat processing plants in both Europe and the United States have faced closures due to infected employees, and disruptions in international air transport have disrupted the supply of products such as horticultural exports from Africa.
In low-income countries, agriculture as a whole tends to be less mechanized and more dependent on human labor. Restrictions of movement will have greater impact on labor supplies in these countries, with potential for subsequent reductions in food production. In addition, these countries face more significant disruptions in transportation due to less well-developed infrastructure; these have caused disruptions in the supply of farm inputs and in food distribution to markets, stores, and end consumers.
In terms of stability, some policy measures taken in response to the pandemic can do more harm than good overall. For example, export restrictions can lead to instability in available food supplies, as well as to unpredictable food prices. Both wheat and rice prices have experienced increased volatility since the start of the pandemic; this volatility can also lead to uncertainty regarding supplies and can reduce agricultural investments, hampering future productivity.
Social safety nets form one crucial pathway to help reduce the detrimental effects of the pandemic on food security. Expanded or enhanced cash transfer programs have been adopted in many countries and allow consumers to better maintain their access to nutritious foods.
Policymakers should also exempt agricultural inputs, farms, food processing, and food distribution channels from lockdown measures to ensure stable and sufficient food supplies. This would also entail the guarantee of health measures to protect food value chain workers and increased collaboration with providers of agricultural inputs, such as seeds, fertilizer, and financing.
Governments should also avoid knee-jerk responses such as export restrictions on food and agricultural products in order to keep trade flows open. This would ensure stable food supplies and reduce food price volatility.
Monitoring and surveillance systems for zoonotic diseases like COVID-19 should also be increased along the food value chain in order to prevent future pandemics.
Finally, the paper emphasizes that in order to enact these and other beneficial policies, low-income countries will need increased assistance from high-income countries and international organizations. By increasing both aid and cooperation, countries can help ensure that the global health crisis does not become a global food security crisis.
Sara Gustafson is a freelance writer.