COVID-19: Global Food and Nutrition Security and its Impacts on the Poor

April 17, 2020

Colin Chartres

CEO, The Crawford Fund and Honorary Professor, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU

Recently, there have been a few opinion pieces and commentaries on how the current COVID-19 pandemic may affect global food and nutrition security and also Australia’s foreign aid. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has examined a number of implications of COVID-19 on global food security, poverty and trade.[1]  Here, our CEO, Dr Colin Chartres highlights some of the impacts of most concern and what their implications are for foreign aid programs. A shorter opinion piece has also been published by the DevPolicy blog here. On the basis of our early analysis, The Crawford Fund argues that water, agriculture, nutrition, food security and health are inextricably linked and should be given a high foreign aid priority now and in a post COVID-19 world.

Water Issues

Food, health and water are inextricably linked.  As the virus moves to low-income countries and water scarce regions, we’re deeply concerned about the future of sustainable development and the impact it could have among vulnerable populations with no access to basic water services. It is pertinent to point out that many of the world’s poor do not have access to running water and soap, the first line of defence against COVID-19.  A recent commentary[2]  quoting UN-water reports that 2.2 billion people around the world do not have safely-managed drinking water, while 4.2 billion go without safe sanitation services and three billion lack basic handwashing facilities. Furthermore, an estimated 896 million people use health care facilities with no water service and 1.5 billion use facilities with no sanitation service. These conditions present a constant source of stress and disease, particularly for vulnerable and marginalised communities where people sometimes need to skip bathing to save water for cooking.  These startling figures emphasise the need to maintain focus on water, sanitation and hygiene programs (WASH).

Labour issues

Whilst many developed and emerging economies have relatively resilient food production and distribution systems, links to sophisticated international value chains and significant stockpiles of key staples, this is not often the case in developing countries. In many cases food supply depends on recent and forthcoming harvests and is dependent on there being adequate healthy labour to deliver the food from the field to the market. Shenggen Fan, who stepped down from the IFPRI DG’s position last year commented COVID-19 is a health crisis. But it could also lead to a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken.”  These comments were based on observations of how devastating disease outbreaks such as the Ebola epidemic in Africa can be for fragile food systems.[3],[4]  Fan points out, for example, that when the Ebola epidemic hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014, rice prices in those countries increased by more than 30 percent and the price of cassava, a staple in Liberia, skyrocketed by 150 percent. While we have heard of issues in Australia around availability of visa holders for our agri-labour requirements, the impacts of insufficient labour availability, either through ill-health or the feminisation of farm labour, can be the cause of hunger and severe malnutrition. Such price and food availability shocks certainly hit the poor and impact both food security and nutrition in populations already living on the margin.  And as a longer-term impact, the correlation between food security and national security is a direct one, as recent history shows.

Trade and supply chain issues

In general, poorer countries are particularly prone to food security shocks arising from drought, economic perturbations, such as the global food price crisis of 2008, agricultural pest and disease outbreaks and human health epidemics.  Drought, exacerbated by climate change often has widespread impact in developed and developing economies.  However, in some of the latter, there are good correlations between rainfall and national GDP, which demonstrate the importance of the agricultural sector to the overall economy.  We only have to look back 12 years or so to see what happened when a range of factors conspired to raise global commodity prices with resultant regional food scarcities, food riots and knee-jerk policy responses that further curtailed trade in key commodities.  Agricultural pests and diseases including cereal rusts, animal diseases like African Swine Fever, and the current East African locust outbreak[5] (a plague of locusts spreading across the region and may move to other parts of Africa if nothing is done early enough; threatening the livelihood of poor masses. According to the UN, an average swarm, which contains up to 40 million insects, can travel up to 150 km in a single day and can devour enough food to feed 34 million people within that time.),  can also easily shock smaller countries and threaten their food security and nutrition.  So, it is conceivably possible that if COVID -19 takes hold in many African and South Asian countries, and particularly in their rural communities, the impacts on food and nutrition security could be significant.  A key issue with the Ebola outbreak was not only associated with the availability of labour, but also with borders and trade routes closing because of fear of the disease.  This severely limited access to seeds, fertilisers and insecticides and overall movement of food.  Fan pointed out that all of these resulted in 40% of the land not being cultivated as the epidemic progressed. 

In Australia, we are yet to ascertain whether restrictions on movement will have a major impact on fruit and vegetable harvesting, but there is anecdotal evidence from China that restrictions on people movement may have lifted commodity prices and African Swine Fever impacts have seen the price of pork increase by over 135%.[6]  However, these kinds of restrictions can lead to shortages and price rises, which if replicated in poorer communities in developing countries may have profound impacts on food and nutritional security.  As the Syngenta Foundation points out, people already with poor nutrition and health will also be more severely affected by COVID-19.

So, in these early days of the global pandemic, we cannot be sure what will happen, but in a worst case scenario some food shortages and price rises will be inevitable with consequential impacts on the poor in developing countries.  The FAO points out that The estimate of wheat production in 2019 has been kept nearly unchanged from the previous month at 763 million tonnes, 4.2 percent higher than in 2018 and the second highest on record.  Global rice production in 2019 is largely unchanged, month-on-month, at 512 million tonnes (milled basis), down 0.5 percent from the 2018 all-time record high”[7].  Thus, whilst we can hope that in the longer term we may not be facing a global food supply crisis, distribution of food could become a challenge if there is widespread ill-health affecting supply lines, or if traditional exporting countries impose bans.  An ominous decision was pointed out by the Chicago Council[8]; “On Wednesday 25 March 2020, the Government of Vietnam took a first step in banning its rice exports. In a statement, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc advised he had directed the ministries of trade, finance and agriculture to review the country’s rice stocks, with a view to determine if domestic supplies were sufficient during the coronavirus outbreak. In the meantime, exports would not proceed.”

Purchasing power and prosperity

Unlike recent welcome support provided to the less fortunate in Australia, we hear few reports of similar strategies in the developing world. If the world stays in economic recession, or even enters a depression post the current pandemic, the purchasing power of the poor in the developing world will inevitably decline because of job losses and other factors including national revenue losses due to lower oil and commodity prices. This will inevitably impact nutrition and food security for the world’s 815m already undernourished.

Some reflections

The available evidence and history indicate that whilst global food production and stocks do not suggest widespread shortages, as usual the poor in developing countries may be severely impacted by COVID-19 because of:

  • Lack of access to water to promote WASH facilities
  • Significant population numbers already in poor health due to undernutrition and obesity and its co-morbidities.
  • Labour shortages.
  • Travel restrictions that impact harvesting.
  • Reduced purchasing power of the poor in the face of rising food prices.
  • Trade restrictions that increase food prices, and
  • Focus and funding being moved away from agriculture and food production because of mounting health funding requirements.

If the world is to respond to these issues, it is vital that aid focus and funding remains on agriculture and lifting people out of poverty.  Furthermore, given the linkage between COVID-19 and wild animal markets it seems vital that there be more emphasis on understanding and monitoring potential zoonotic diseases and as such greater interaction between human and animal health practitioner and researcher communities. Robyn Alders[9] recently pointed out, “Human health is intimately linked with animal, plant and environmental health. Systems thinking using One Health and Planetary Health lenses will be crucial to redesigning global and national systems that can keep us safe, well-nourished, healthy and actively contributing to community well-being.”

In terms of practical on-ground responses other than emergency food aid, which may also be needed, the international agricultural aid community need to do more to assist farmer communities make their production systems more robust by assisting with organisational opportunities that promote cooperation with respect to seed and fertilizer purchasing, adoption of sustainable agronomic and irrigation practices, and building product value chains that benefit producers and consumers.  Research, as supported by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, is well advanced in many of these areas, and we need to look at mechanisms of facilitating technology transfer that include access to appropriate finance and private sector roles.

Much of the Crawford Fund’s training, mentoring and ‘NextGen’ activities are aimed at building capacity for food and nutrition security. Whilst we are unable to mount on-ground mentoring, volunteering, student award and teaching programs at present, we are looking at ways that some of our work can continue virtually via the internet.  We are also in the early days of planning how we can mount modular Master Classes in sustainable intensification of agriculture that will include the above system components and tackle some of the key issues that limit profitability for smallholder farmers, who have most to lose in the face of the current crisis and future systemic shocks.  Furthermore we are reviewing how international agricultural research can give improved early warnings of emerging zoonotic diseases.

We aim to do this with a coalition of partners from within Australia, international centres and the private sector.  We are considering how to best deliver such classes while travel restrictions remain.

One thing is for certain and that is in our view, globally we must not lose focus on food and nutrition security if many of the UN Sustainable Development Challenges that focus on the poor with respect to water, food, nutrition and health are to be met.

Stephen Howes from ANU recently pointed out that, whilst the impact of COVID-19 domestic economic response measures on Australia’s aid budget could offer an opportunity to further cut foreign aid, the current review of aid programs could also offer an opportunity to re-emphasize the importance of health programs[10]

On the basis of our early analysis The Crawford Fund argues that water, agriculture, nutrition, food security and health are inextricably linked and should be given a high foreign aid priority now and in a post COVID-19 world.