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The Impact Of COVID On Food Security

“The United Nations World Food Programme has warned that the world faces up to 265 million people suffering from acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, which is nearly double the number predicted prior to the pandemic.”

By: Adi Gaskell, Contributor

The early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic were typified by empty supermarket shelves as people flooded stores to try and secure supplies for what they believed would be hugely uncertain circumstances.  It was a surge in demand that caught many retailers napping.  It was a situation that abated, however, as both consumers began to gradually digest the stores they had hoarded up, and retailers began to adapt to the unique circumstances they found themselves in.  After a slight drop in demand, things gradually returned to normal, and supply fears drifted away.

So does this mean our fears about food insecurity were overblown?  Will we face sustained food shortages as a result of the pandemic?  As always, the answer is a complex one.  

“While the immediate term looks secure because of existing food reserves, the actual impact of the pandemic will likely be felt in the coming months,” says Andre Laperriere, the Executive Director of GODAN – Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition. “This is because the lockdown and economic restrictions have disrupted key areas including access to seasonal labour, supply chain including agricultural raw materials, and the trade routes for imports and exports.”

It’s true that global agricultural markets have remained pleasingly resilient and stable during the pandemic, and have notably performed better than trade more generally.  We have seen production levels for rice, wheat and maize, which make up the three most widely consumed staples, at all-time highs in recent months.  Despite this, the challenging economic circumstances around the world have depressed prices, and therefore rural income has struggled.

Calming the markets

In those heady early days of the pandemic, there were mooted plans for export restrictions to try and protect domestic supplies, but these are largely unwarranted and would harm food security globally.  Indeed, the likes of the World Bank have been campaigning for collective action to ensure that global food markets remain open and vibrant.

The risks from food insecurity are largely felt at the national level, with disruptions to domestic food supply chains combining with a fall in income to create strong tensions.  Indeed, the United Nations World Food Programme has warned that the world faces up to 265 million people suffering from acute food insecurity by the end of 2020, which is nearly double the number predicted prior to the pandemic.

From a production perspective, there are also risks associated with large potential losses as consumption patterns change and incomes fall.  Despite the fact that food insecurity is typically not driven by food shortages, the disruption in supply of key inputs, such as seeds, fertilizers, and labor nonetheless impact supply levels.

The risks of food insecurity are at their gravest in a number of areas in the world, including states affected by conflict, extreme weather events, such as droughts, high levels of poverty, and currency depreciation.

Healthier foods

As well as concerns around food security, there have also been growing concerns about the healthiness of the food we eat.  Research from Chatham House estimates that companies lose around $38 billion per year from obesity and undernutrition of staff.  With Covid-19 underlining the importance of a healthy diet to mitigate and remove many of the underlying health conditions that have made people so vulnerable to the virus, it’s clear that change is needed.

Firstly, healthy food needs to be made more affordable, with an estimated 3 billion people around the world priced out of eating healthily.  This is exacerbated by much of existing public expenditure on agriculture going on subsidies for crops, such as maize and palm oil, which are frequently used in the unhealthy food industry rather than nutritious food, such as fruits and vegetables.

Public investment could also be made to shore up local food supply chains so that smaller and more sustainable producers of nutritious food are connected to consumers who need them most.  There have already been a number of e-commerce initiatives launched in the wake of Covid across lower income countries that could provide a foundation to build upon.

There is also a growing market for ‘food hubs’, which bring food from producers to commercial customers, or even direct to consumers.  Such marketplaces help to support local food economies in both rich and poor countries alike.

Inspiration can also be found from the likes of the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, who work to improve the consumption of nutritious food.  They have a program that aims to boost investment in nutritious food firms in low- and middle-income countries.  These often small- and medium-sized businesses often struggle against larger players, yet can be a vital cog in the regional economy.

As with so many aspects of our life, Covid-19 has afforded us an opportunity to reflect on the kind of food system we want.  It’s encouraged us to not only strive for a food system that is resilient to disruptions posed by pandemics, climate change, and conflicts, but to strive for a food system that is capable of providing nutritious as well as plentiful food to feed the planet.  The pandemic has highlighted the desire for courageous leadership from the public, and now is the time to ensure we have an economy that is both nourishing and flourishing.

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Strategic Media Partner