CFS Alerts on the Serious Long-Term Impacts of COVID-19 on Global Food Security

9 April 2020

With a growing number of countries entering ongoing shutdowns, businesses temporarily closing and increasing economic turmoil, the current COVID-19 pandemic is likely to have serious short- and long-term implications for many aspects of our life, including our ability to produce and access enough food.

On March 24th, the Committee on World Food Security’s High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) published a paper looking at the potentially extremely serious impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition (FSN). Here are some of their insights and recommendations.

Global food availability and prices

Given the global lockdowns, the current COVID-19 pandemic is already directly disrupting food systems in the short-term by affecting food supply and demand. In the longer term, potential impacts on food production in major food producing and exporting countries (e.g. China, the EU and the USA) could have very negative implications for global food availability and prices.

Although food producers may still see demand, disruptions to agri-food supply chains and markets may make their livelihoods much less secure. Additionally, most food producers today, especially in the developing world, engage in non-farm and off-farm activities to support their livelihoods and raise capital for investments in their farms. The current reduction on farmworkers’ ability to travel to their employment could have a direct effect on people’s access to food today and in the immediate future.

Ultimately, the impact on global food availability and prices will depend on the length of the outbreak and the severity of containment measures put in place. In addition, some country-level policies, such as export restrictions, may create food shortages and price volatility, amplifying the effects of the crisis on food security and nutrition at the global level, especially for low- income and food-insecure countries. (Recent reports suggest some countries are already beginning to stockpile food).

Current competition between priorities for government resources can lead to tensions between healthcare and food security priorities. To help counter some of the huge upcoming challenges, the report calls on governments to support food supply chains and avoid disruptions in food movement and trade to ensure that they function as smoothly as possible in the face of the crisis. The panel also warns that it is essential that both workers and inputs, such as fertilizers, necessary for agricultural production be able to circulate in the coming months, when most of the world’s production occurs. National governments should also support local communities and citizens to increase local food production (including home and community gardens) through appropriate stimulus packages.

The poor will be hit hardest

With an estimated 821 million people undernourished between 2016 and 2018 on average, 12.9% of the population of low-income countries undernourished, and poor nutrition causing nearly 45% of the deaths in children under five (approximately 3.1 million children each year), the state of food security and nutrition was already extremely alarming.

These figures are unfortunately expected to get significantly worse as a result of the outbreak, especially for many of the poorest and most vulnerable groups such as migrants, the displaced, those in fragile states or affected by conflicts. Overall, the anticipated slowdown of economic growth is expected to increase hunger and malnutrition, thus slowing global efforts in achieving SDG2 targets.

In the absence of responsive social safety nets and income assistance, the working poor will see their ability to access nutritious food decline in many situations. Many households will downshift to so-called “inferior goods” as a cost-saving measure, as well as more shelf-stable goods, which could be more processed and less nutritious foods in industrialized countries, or less processed and arguably more nutritious foods in less industrialized countries. However, these too have a cost in terms of enhanced demands on women’s time and labour to process these foods.

The worsening of the food security and nutrition situation could also have additional negative impacts by facilitating the progression of the pandemic by weakening immune systems, especially of those most vulnerable to the economic impact of the crisis. Additionally, with agencies at the government and international levels working at full capacity to address the COVID-19 crisis, critical resources could be drawn away from existing food security crises.

To counter some of these urgent threats, the report calls for governments to prioritize the most vulnerable and affected by COVID-19 and its impacts, such as the elderly, the ill, the displaced, and the poor, and put in place social protection mechanisms that incorporate provisions on the Right to Food, both in terms of quantity and nutritional quality. Additionally, the specific role of women in health and food systems should be recognized, as food producers, processors and carers.

Conclusion

Clearly, we are at very serious risk of entering an extended period of great food security and nutrition instability. To ensure agri-food supply and access to nutrition for the growing number of undernourished and vulnerable, it’s crucial that governments act to prioritize agricultural production now, assuring that farmers have the manpower and inputs they need to grow enough food. IFA and all its members are working hard to support them by ensuring the continued supply of fertilizers.