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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).

Impacts on Food Access and Utilization

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.

Impacts on Food Availability and Stability

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.


What can policymakers do to ameliorate the impacts of COVID-19 on local and global food security?

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.

About Authors/Citations

Citation of the original paper: Laborde, D., Martin, W., Swinnen, J., & Vos, R. (2020). COVID-19 risks to global food security. Science, 369(6503), 500-502.

Sara Gustafson is a freelance writer.


by Alan de Brauw, Berber Kramer, and Mike Murphy

Photo by World Bank

This story is part of the EnGendering Data blog which serves as a forum for researchers, policymakers, and development practitioners to pose questions, engage in discussions, and share resources about promising practices in collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data on agriculture and food security.


Male emigration from rural areas could potentially become empowering for women, as it could change the distinctive roles men and women often play in agricultural production. This theme was pertinent as we developed a survey related to the Bangladesh Agricultural Value Chains (AVC) project. AVC planned to use inclusive value chains development primarily to enhance productivity and food security, but we agreed that the program could have positive gender outcomes if outmigration of male household members indeed strengthened women’s position in agriculture.

With that in mind, as part of our survey on jute value chains in the southern Delta of Bangladesh, we collected detailed gender- and task-disaggregated household and wage labor data instead of the normal, smaller set of statistics that are typically used to estimate labor costs in production; normally, agricultural production modules tend to ask about the total amount of household and hired labor, and total labor cost.

Gender disaggregated labor data

First, gender-disaggregated labor data revealed extremely strong gender segmentation in production of jute. A unique part of the survey was detailing labor inputs into specific tasks of the jute production process. For each type of field and post-harvest activity, we asked our respondents to specify:

  • how much male and female household labor they used for this activity;
  • how much male and female labor they hired;
  • what wages they paid to male and female laborers;
  • and whether they faced any difficulties in finding labor.

Figure 1 illustrates the degree to which there is gender segmentation of tasks in jute production. While male household members are involved in virtually every stage of production, female household labor is predominantly used for post-harvest activities. We observe even more pronounced gender differences in hired labor: male labor is hired for multiple stages of jute production, whereas female labor is effectively hired only for weeding and stripping the fiber from the stalks. In focus groups, women reported it was considered unsafe and inappropriate for them to work in the fields; hence their focus on post-harvest activities within the compound.

Interestingly, we observed an increase in the share of labor provided by women in households where other women had moved out, but not in households where men had moved out - and where in theory there would be more labor demand.

Figure 1. Share of Labor by Task in Jute Production, by Gender and Type, Bangladesh AVC Surveys


Second, we find a strong and persistent gender gap in wages paid to casual laborers (Figure 2). Male wages (green bars) are substantially higher than female wages (purple), regardless of production stage. Even for tasks often done by women, such as weeding and stripping, men are paid significantly more. And despite our hypothesis that over time, norms would become more accepting of women’s involvement in cash crop production, the gender wage gap worsened from 2017 to 2018. Neither outmigration of household members nor changes in perceived difficulties in finding labor are associated with changes in the gender wage gap.


Figure 2. Average Hourly Wages, by Gender and Task, Bangladesh AVC Survey


Finally, female outmigration, not male outmigration, is associated with an improvement in women’s empowerment in agriculture. We fielded the project-level Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (pro-WEAI) for a subsample of households. The questionnaire was completed by both a male and a female respondent. We use this data to link changes in household labor availability (members moving in or out) and in the availability of hired labor (i.e., whether a household reports difficulty finding labor) to changes in women’s empowerment. Women were generally less empowered than men, but this gap became smaller when another female member left the household. In these households, we also observed a modest but significant increase in the share of labor provided by women in jute production. Empowerment did not improve when a male member moved out, or when the household reported difficulties finding (mostly male) hired labor, perhaps because gender roles prevented women from taking over formerly male tasks.

Reflecting on these findings, what do we learn? Disaggregated data allowed us to:

  1. Examine gender roles in agricultural production, which in our case revealed limited opportunities to empower women through field-based tasks;
  2. Highlight gender gaps in the rewards from participating in the production process, with women earning substantially lower wages than men, even if doing the same tasks; and
  3. Nuance the hypothesis that outmigration enhances women’s position in agriculture; we found this hypothesis only to be true when female, not male, household members left.

What would we do differently if we could, or what else would we do? First, it would be interesting to deepen our understanding of the labor search process, and the role that gender plays here. For example, we could have asked whether households had difficulty finding male or female labor to hire and collected more detail on the demand for male versus female labor. Further, it would be also valuable to collect sex-disaggregated data on day laborers to better understand the stark differences in hiring and wages.

We would also like to see more research on how male versus female outmigration affects rural labor markets, and how this interacts with existing gender norms. As our research shows, while gender roles in agriculture may evolve with increased migration, it doesn’t happen rapidly. In traditional societies like Bangladesh, gender segregation continues to be the norm and gaps in labor use, wages, and empowerment persist. Better understanding these dynamics and nuances through analyzing sex-disaggregated data is key for inclusive value chains development. Related links:

Related links

About Authors

Alan de Brauw is a Senior Research Fellow, Berber Kramer is a Research Fellow, and Mike Murphy is a Senior Research Analyst in the Markets, Trade, and Institutions Division of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).

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