What is needed to safeguard food from future pandemics?

Lessons from COVID-19 ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit

As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens food security, experts are calling for drastic changes to the global food system. Nenad Stojkovic, Flickr
31 August 2021
31 August 2021

More than a year has passed since COVID-19 started to plunge the world into chaos, exposing the vulnerabilities and inequalities of a global food system that was already struggling to provide access to healthy diets and adequate nutrition for billions of people.

Yet these systemic weaknesses have shown themselves to be predictable and offer key insights into preventing hunger crises from worsening during future pandemics. Scenes of closed wet markets, empty supermarket shelves, disrupted supply chains and rotting farm produce have also prompted people all over the world to reconsider their relationship with food and appreciate its vital role in human health and social well-being.

In the run-up to the UN’s first Food Systems Summit on 23 September in New York, experts are calling for sweeping changes to the current food system in order to fix existing weaknesses and to boost its resilience to future pandemics. Such changes are critical to put the world back on track to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. This transformation involves addressing the major drivers threatening food security and nutrition, while recognizing their impacts on human health and the environment.

In order to inform policymakers at the summit – along with the UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) and the Nutrition for Growth Summit later this year – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently released a report titled The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021, which provides a sobering overview of the pandemic’s impact on global hunger and malnutrition.

High school students eat a socially distanced lunch during October 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allison Shelley, EDUimages
High school students eat a socially distanced lunch in October 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. Allison Shelley, EDUimages

Against the backdrop of COVID-19, the number of people suffering from chronic hunger in the world rose by as much as 161 million in 2020, the largest single-year increase in decades. After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the prevalence of undernourishment climbed 1.5 percentage points in just one year, reaching a level of around 9.9 percent, meaning that between 720 million and 811 million people faced hunger in 2020, according to the FAO report.

Before the pandemic, around 3 billion people were unable to afford or access a healthy diet, one that includes foods from several groups and has greater diversity within food groups. As a result, about 22 percent of children in 2020 were affected by stunting, 6.7 percent suffered from wasting and 5.7 percent were overweight. In more than 200 countries, COVID-19 has led to school closures, thereby cutting off access to school-feeding programs for an estimated 370 million children and affecting related food supply chains.

To address the global food system’s persistent deficiencies, which have been further exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, FAO recommends six pathways:

  • integrating humanitarian, development and peacebuilding policies in conflict-affected areas;
  • scaling up climate resilience across food systems;
  • strengthening resilience of the most vulnerable to economic adversity;
  • intervening along the food supply chains to lower the cost of nutritious foods;
  • tackling poverty and structural inequalities, ensuring interventions are pro-poor and inclusive; and
  • strengthening food environments and changing consumer behavior to promote dietary patterns with positive impacts on human health and the environment.

The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), which runs nutrition programs in 10 focus countries across Africa and Asia, has developed the Keeping Food Markets Working (KFMW) program to help sustain core food systems, workers and markets during the COVID-19 emergency. Its goal is to mitigate the risk of collapse of the countries’ food systems and to sustain the availability and affordability of nutritious food.

“Clearly none of us – governments, development agencies, businesses and civil society – are doing enough to end the hunger crisis, but we know what to do, where to do it, what it will cost, and what it will achieve,” says Lawrence Haddad, GAIN executive director.

Farmers in Maharashtra, India
To protect food supplies, it is essential to first protect farmers and other workers in the food sector. Amol Sonar, Unsplash

What is needed?

An additional USD 33 billion in public spending and donor contributions per year would be enough to lift 490 million people out of hunger by 2030, keep greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture in line with the Paris Agreement’s target to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and double the incomes of 545 million small-scale farmers, according to Haddad, citing research from Ceres2030.

According to Haddad, to keep food systems operating effectively during pandemics, there are five groups most in need of protection:

  • Low-income consumers who are vulnerable and marginalized: Social protection programs must do better to reach them and work for them.
  • People working in the food system on low wages, without contracts, sometimes as forced labor: If their nutrition status is depleted, they are more likely to fall ill, causing the whole food system to grind to a halt.
  • Smallholder farmers: They need access to knowledge, inputs and finance to make sure the next harvests are not adversely affected by food system limitations and repercussions of the pandemic, allowing them to grow food, boost livelihoods and create “green” jobs.
  • Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs): Limitations in transport and the movement of people, compromised incomes of their customers, stricter hygiene measures and restrictions, and the inability to obtain inputs and ship food during lockdowns have increased their risk of going bust. SMEs are the backbone of the global food system in terms of food supply, employment and income, and they need to be protected in times of a pandemic, for example through tax breaks, soft loans, and technical assistance to meet hygiene standards and safety requirements.
  • Merchants and workers in food markets, which need to be kept open and safe: This means new protocols for distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE), sufficient PPE supplies, new market infrastructure and enforced food safety standards. If food markets are closed, then everyone suffers.
Farmers' market in Melbourne, Australia
Farmers’ markets are growing in popularity, but promoting local produce may not necessarily be the best way to strengthen the food system. Somi Jaiswal, Unsplash

Short or long supply chains?

Supply chains are a key aspect of the global food system. Local markets often imply rather short chains, while urban and international markets are essentially served by national and global supply chains. Longer chains may supply food that cannot be produced locally and, given economies of scale, provide cheaper food for consumers. The longer a chain, the more complex the business relationships and logistical operations, according to Dietmar Stoian, lead scientist for value chains, private sector engagement and investments at World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

During the pandemic, lockdown measures and other disruptions have affected local and global chains alike, he says. However, shorter chains from farm to fork might be a viable pathway for nutritious perishable foods – such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and fish – which are at greater risk of wastage and price hikes when borders are closed and further restrictions are put in place for the movement of people and goods.

A recent study of the pandemic’s effects on community forest enterprises (CFEs) in Cameroon found that transport costs for most activities doubled for all enterprises, labor supply was reduced by more than 72 percent for CFEs dealing in perishable products and global commercialization costs increased by 100 percent.

“In cases where the problem is more about distribution than a shortage of food, the right policy needs to be in place to facilitate the transportation of food from major production basins to consumption areas,” says Divine Foundjem, an agricultural economist specializing in value chain development at ICRAF in Yaoundé, Cameroon. “This means when governments limit the movement of people, some consideration needs to be given to food.”

During pandemics, the storage of non-perishables and the processing of perishable products need to be improved in order to make enterprises more resilient, according to Foundjem. He also recommends easing movement restrictions on food businesses so that consumers can secure their supplies and calls for more assistance to farmers who need advice on how to effectively produce and supply food in such times.

However, shorter supply chains are not necessarily the best way to strengthen the food system. Each actor in these chains plays an important and often specialized role, relying on this activity for their livelihoods. Farmers lack the expertise and necessary resources to perform the distribution and retail roles, according to Foundjem.

“I wouldn’t encourage shorter value chains to prevent disruptions from lockdowns or other virus-containment measures,” he says. “Instead, I would advise that strategies be put in place to facilitate the supply of food from villages to urban centers with limited movement of people. This is possible today with the Internet and mobile telephones.”

The best way to mitigate supply risk, deal with uncertainty and build resilience is the diversification of production systems, value chains and diets, rather than focusing exclusively on shorter chains, according to Haddad.

“If a region is served mainly by long value chains, there will probably be good risk-mitigation value in shorter value chains: shorter in terms of geography and time,” he says. “But shorter value chains aren’t necessarily better – it will vary from context to context and food to food.”

These thoughts are echoed by ICRAF’s Stoian, who is leading a global study on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on agri-food value chains.

“We do not find a clear-cut picture regarding the resilience of local food supply chains compared with global value chains,” Stoian says. “Rather, some chains proved resilient as their actors had adjusted their business strategies and started to implement mitigating measures in response to previous shocks, such as the global food-price crisis in the late 2000s. Other chains showed less resilience, particularly when pre-existing conditions were exacerbated by the effects of the pandemic.”

Yemen
More than half the population of war-torn Yemen, or 16 million people, is currently facing high levels of food insecurity. Rod Waddington, Flickr

Economic drivers of food insecurity

Governments also need to look beyond supply chains and counter the economic downturns that contributed to recent setbacks in food security and nutrition, according to the FAO report. Social distancing and lockdown measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 resulted in deep recessions, exacerbating inequality and reducing the incomes needed to buy affordable, nutritious food.

Other drivers threatening food systems during the pandemic include conflict and violence in regions affected by war, drug trafficking and other crises, as well as climate-related disasters around the globe. Their combined effects have worsened the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, as seen in locust outbreaks in East Africa (Kenya and Somalia) and South Asia (India and Pakistan) as well as droughts, cyclones or flooding in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan.

“Hunger is not only driven by a deficit of income and food, but also by a deficit of peace,” Haddad says. “Governments need to be held accountable for not using food as a weapon in conflict situations and for upholding the right to food in all contexts, but especially in conflict contexts.”

In 2020, in countries affected by economic downturns combined with climate-related disasters and conflict, increases in undernourishment were more than five times greater than in countries only affected by economic declines, according to the report.

Empty supermarket shelves
Supermarket shelves lie empty in London, England, March 2020. John Cameron, Unsplash

Consumer behavior

As we have learned from the COVID-19 crisis, consumer behavior plays a significant role in food system resilience during pandemics. Panic buying and stockpiling packaged food are common in times of crisis and have led to unequal food distribution to people who can afford to make bulk purchases. The practices can be mitigated by purchasing restrictions and government appeals for orderly conduct.

Nutrition in high-income countries tends to improve during lockdowns as home cooking becomes the norm. This is generally healthier than dining out, which often involves higher levels of salt, fat and sugar. Pandemics also prompt people in the Global North to focus more on food products that strengthen the immune system, such as fruits and vegetables, to help prevent serious illness when a deadly virus is in circulation.

However, low-income countries in the Global South suffer in times of a pandemic from a reduction in quantity and quality of diets when livelihoods are placed in jeopardy and supply chains are disrupted. Diverse sources of nutrition, food safety and the prevention of food loss are the main challenges in these regions, while food wastage also needs to be addressed in some low-income countries, according to FAO.

For example, a recent study on household food consumption and wastage in Peru and Brazil during the COVID-19 pandemic found that there was a need to inform and educate consumers about good practices, especially those related to sustainability. Survey respondents in both countries said they had discarded food during the pandemic, even though they planned their shopping with the intent to reduce wastage.

“Insights and experiences in handling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on agri-food value chains can provide a boost to global food system transformation, if handled properly,” Stoian concludes. “Combined efforts by value chain actors, government agencies and NGOs are needed to address poor infrastructure, limited services, inequitable business relationships and inadequate access to finance. This will get us a long way toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and preparing for future pandemics.”


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