Food Security in the Face of the Covid-19 Pandemic

June 16, 2020

The key to food security is continuous and systematic access to food that is sufficient in quantity and quality.

Note: This blog is part of Lustig, N. & Tommasi, M. (2020). El COVID-19 y la protección social de los grupos pobres y vulnerables. UNDP. (Forthcoming)

At the time of the emergence of the Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), nearly 900 million people worldwide lacked access to adequate and sufficient food. This is why the present challenge to food security is particularly serious. Within this population lacking sufficient food, at least 155 million people suffer from severe food deficiencies, and their situation may be critically aggravated by the advance of the pandemic. 

The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) has just been published, providing timely data on acute hunger problems around the world, with details by region and country. It notes that the COVID-19 pandemic may cause a further deterioration in the situation of populations with acute or critical food security. The GRFC points out that due to COVID-19 their number may increase significantly, particularly in around thirty countries, mainly in the Sahel, in the Horn of Africa, including South Sudan,[1] as well as in sub-Saharan countries, such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Republic of Zimbabwe. In the Middle East, there are severe hunger problems in Yemen, Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan. There, action must be taken to provide prompt and direct food aid before the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbate the situation and lead to real famine. 

But the problem is not limited to these highly critical areas; it is much more widespread since a large population is also in a clear situation of “food stress” and, while the situation of this population is less critical, it also requires attention. This list extends to many other countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and even some in Latin America, especially Haiti, some regions of Central America, in the so-called “dry corridor” of Central America in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and also in Venezuela, especially in border areas where a large number of displaced people suffer from chronic food shortages. Problems of food security extend beyond these critical areas and arise in impoverished neighbourhoods of large cities, where COVID-19 has decimated jobs and incomes.  

The key to food security is continuous and systematic access to food that is sufficient in quantity and quality. In the case of COVID-19, the problem of access is not so much due to a lack of availability of food (the global supply is abundant) but rather to an abrupt and catastrophic drop in income (and employment). This is the situation in many developing nations, but it is also seen in more developed countries.

The impacts of COVID-19 on food security are global and systemic, but there are also local impacts that need to be taken into account. A paradox of food security is that the poorer and the more vulnerable a population, the more necessary it is to tailor the response to meeting their food needs at the local level. The interaction with markets of these population groups is tenuous and erratic. This is a fundamental consideration when it comes to taking action and deciding how and where to implement different types of support.

At this juncture, we must first look at the world food market. We must acknowledge that there are currently no problems with agricultural supply. In general, the world has had and continues to expect good harvests in 2020. Fortunately, agricultural markets do not show—at least not as yet—major shocks, and are clearing normally.

The problem is on the demand side, in the access to markets which is the key food security variable. The necessary isolation (quarantine) and social distancing measures, associated with periods of panic, have decimated the employment and income of millions of people, particularly those engaged in services such as tourism, transport and restaurants, sports centres and entertainment. Trade has also suffered, especially small and micro-enterprises, together with informal and self-employed workers who are suffering not only from sudden unemployment but an acute lack of income to meet their most basic needs, beginning with food. Finally, there is the population of displaced persons and migrant workers, especially agricultural workers who will suffer immediate impoverishment while also placing at risk the harvests of the crops they help to pick. Remittances to their families in their countries of origin have ceased to flow, at least partially.

These short-term negative effects will be amplified by the widespread impact of economic collapse, entering a vicious circle that once established will not be easy to break. The latest calculations by the leading multilateral agencies point to a very pessimistic scenario. The G20 countries are all entering a deep recession and, on average, the fall is estimated to be around -5 or -6%. It is now no surprise that 2020 will record the worst economic performance in almost a hundred years.

Economic responses to the collapse are swiftly being deployed in many countries, with the support of multilateral agencies. These primarily take the form of fiscal and financial relief. Here we will mention only those strictly related to agriculture and food.

As already noted, there is no supply problem and the problems on the demand side mainly relate to the fall in jobs and income. In this context, the possibility of interruptions to food value chains must be noted. In order not to compromise food security, it is necessary that these chains remain intact, in terms of inputs, crops, and foods ready for consumption. The food system is a sector universally recognized as essential and it must continue to move freely.  Agriculture is an activity that can respond well to the crisis and therefore supporting its value chain is vital. This is the main message to be conveyed.

 It is therefore necessary to keep markets open, and not to interrupt them artificially with tariff barriers, quotas, border closures, or to increase the costs of logistics and transport chains. At the same time, governments must also ensure that payment and financing chains are not cut. Accessible credit to support agri-food activities is essential. To this end, we need to consider extending the subsidies and transfers that were already being provided in most countries. Finally, let us not forget that direct food aid, such as that provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), will also be needed in many countries.  

It will be equally important to promote and protect so-called “short value chains”, even if their effects are in the medium and longer term. These are production centres and markets operating at regional level, often connecting small towns in rural areas. Such short chains can activate local and regional markets and generate a stable and sufficient food supply. However, they require some protection and support because supermarkets and other distribution centres often cut these chains by failing to purchase or distribute their production. Private-public alliances will be important to this protection and support, together with government purchasing to provide certainty to this type of production. Local food security is vital for remote and marginalized rural areas.

Finally, in the medium and long-term (but beginning now) it is necessary to implement in developing nations a comprehensive programme to relaunch small family farming, including traditional forms of local and even family-based food sufficiency. All this requires public assets, strategic seeds and inputs, credit, affordable financing and liquid guarantees; in other words, reasonable risk management that does not inhibit productive momentum. There is still time to act, and we must do so now, without hesitation.

[1] In East Asia and some countries in the Middle East, the current situation is aggravated by a huge plague of locusts, the worst in twenty years, which is decimating crops.