Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Q&A: COVID-19 pandemic – impact on food and agriculture

Q1: Will COVID-19 have negative impacts on global food security?

Q1: Will COVID-19 have negative impacts on global food security?

Both lives and livelihoods are at risk from this pandemic.

Though in some countries the spread of the pandemic has been slowing down and cases are decreasing, in others, COVID-19 is resurging or continuing to spread quickly. This is still a global problem calling for a global response.

Unless we take immediate action, we risk a global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults.

This is due mostly to a lack of access to food – as incomes fall, remittances are lost, and in some contexts, food prices rise. In countries already affected by high levels of acute food insecurity, it is no longer a food access issue alone, but increasingly a food production issue.

COVID-19 has struck at a time when hunger or undernourishment keeps rising. According to the latest UN estimates, at a minimum, an additional 83 million people, and possibly as many as 132 million, may go hungry in 2020 as a result of the economic recession triggered by the pandemic.

This would be in addition to the 690 million people going hungry now. At the same time, 135 million people suffer from acute food insecurity and in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

When people suffer from hunger or chronic undernourishment, it means that they are unable to meet their food requirements - consume enough calories to lead a normal, active life - over a prolonged period. This has long-term implications for their future, and continues to present a setback to global efforts to reach Zero Hunger. When people experience crisis-level, acute food insecurity, it means they have limited access to food in the short-term due to sporadic, sudden crises that may put their lives and livelihoods at risk. However, if people facing crisis-level acute food insecurity get the assistance they need, they will not join the ranks of the hungry, and their situation will not become chronic

It is clear: although globally there is enough food for everyone, too many people are still suffering from hunger. Our food systems are failing, and the pandemic is making things worse.

According to the World Bank, the pandemic's economic impact could push about 100 million people into extreme poverty.

Soaring unemployment rates, income losses and rising food costs are jeopardizing food access in developed and developing countries alike and will have long-term effects on food security.

Furthermore, the pandemic may plunge national economies into recession, and countries ought to take urgent measures to mitigate the longer-term impacts on food systems and food security.

There is a serious concern that producers might not being able to plant this year, or not plant enough, as normally. If we do not help producers to plant this year, this will translate into a lack of food later this year and in 2021.

Equally urgent is the compounding threat of the pandemic on existing crises - such as conflict, natural disasters, climate change, pests and animal diseases - that are already stressing our food systems and triggering food insecurity around the globe. 

Recent Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analyses point to a worrying deterioration of acute food insecurity in countries already suffering from other crises.

To avert a food emergency, there is an urgent need to: protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive, mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system, protect and even ramp up food production as much as possible, and looking beyond the pandemic, building back better, more resilient food systems.

FAO believes that much can be done to pull people back from the edge now.

Q2: Whose food security and livelihoods are most at risk due to the pandemic?

Q2: Whose food security and livelihoods are most at risk due to the pandemic?

According to the latest UN estimates (SOFI 2020), almost 690 million people went hungry in 2019 - up by 10 million from 2018, and by nearly 60 million in five years. High costs and low affordability also mean billions cannot eat healthily or nutritiously.

Across the planet, the report forecasts, the COVID-19 pandemic could tip as many as 132 million more people into chronic hunger by the end of 2020.

At the same time, at the end of 2019, 135 million people across 55 countries and territories were estimated to be experiencing crisis levels of acute food insecurity according to the 2020 Global Food Crises report released in April. In addition, 75 million children were stunted and 17 million suffered from wasting in 2019. This is the highest level of acute food insecurity and malnutrition at crisis levels since the first edition of the report in 2017.

More recently, a July 2020 analysis by FAO and WFP identified 27 countries – no world region is immune - that are on the frontline of impending COVID-19-driven food crises, as the pandemic's knock-on effects aggravate pre-existing drivers of hunger.

The analysis warns these "hotspot countries" are at high risk of - and in some cases are already seeing - significant food security deteriorations in the coming months, including rising numbers of people pushed into acute food insecurity.

This is why, FAO is particularly concerned about the pandemic’s impacts on vulnerable communities already grappling with hunger or other crises – including the Desert Locust outbreak in the Horn of Africa and beyond, economic shock/insecurity in Yemen or the Sahel, for example – as well as countries that rely heavily on food imports, such as Small Islands Developing States, and countries that depend on primary exports like oil.

For example, The Sudan has recorded its highest ever number of people experiencing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity, at 9.6 million people between July and September 2020. (IPC forecast – June-December 2020)

In Somalia, the numbers in crisis or worse are expected to almost triple compared with pre-COVID-19 estimates (FSNAU, May 2020).

In Afghanistan, 13.2 million people are acutely food insecure (in IPC 3-4), representing an increase of around 1 million since the implementation of COVID-19-related measures (IPC forecast – May-November 2020).

Also, countries significantly dependent on primary commodity exports (food, raw materials, fuels) are and will be affected by the significant reduction of demand from developed countries. Countries in Africa can't export their produces (oil, cotton, for example) so their revenues will continue falling. Also, it has been harder for small islands and territories because tourism, their major source of revenue, has been closed down and will probably continue like this or significantly slow down until a vaccine or a treatment becomes available. Small islands and territories are also in many cases oil export-dependent. They also depend on remittances, which have been reduced by 20%, are vulnerable to climatic shocks, and depend on food imports. 

Vulnerable groups also include small-scale farmers, migrant and informal workers, pastoralists, and fishers who might be hindered from working their land, caring for their livestock, or fishing. They will also face challenges accessing markets to sell their products or buy essential inputs, or struggle due to higher food prices and limited purchasing power. Informal labourers have been  hard hit by job and income losses in harvesting and processing.

Millions of children are also missing out on the school meals they have come to rely upon, many of them with no formal access to social protection, including health insurance.

In addition to agriculture, other sector-specific effects are also expected – for example, fish provide more than 20 percent of the average per capita animal protein intake for 3 billion people, more than 50 percent in some less developed countries, and it is one of the most traded food commodities globally. Thus, the impact on the livelihoods of fisher communities, food security, nutrition and trade, especially in those countries, which rely heavily on the fishing sector, is expected to be significant.

Developing countries are particularly at risk as COVID-19 can lead to a reduction in labour force, and affect incomes and livelihoods as well as labour intensive forms of production (agriculture, fisheries/aquaculture). Of particular concern is sub-Saharan Africa where most of the countries experiencing food crises are, and where the pandemic is spreading at crucial times for both farmers and herders – when people need access to seeds and other inputs, and to their farms to plant.

Q3: What are the implications of the COVID-19 situation – now and in the future – for food production, agricultural and fishery/aquaculture supply chains and markets?

Q3: What are the implications of the COVID-19 situation – now and in the future – for food production, agricultural and fishery/aquaculture supply chains and markets?

The food supply chain is a complex web that involves producers, consumers, agricultural and fishery inputs, processing and storage, transportation and marketing, etc.

At the onset of the crisis, the food supply chains were strained as many countries imposed restrictions on movement of goods and people across and within borders.  As a result, the challenge was not availability of food but easy access to it.

Next, anxious over all the uncertainties linked to food supply, some countries restricted food exports, making this situation even more challenging.

These protectionist measures were partly introduced to avoid driving up local food prices as weakening of national currencies made it more advantageous for food producers to export rather than sell domestically. The resulting food price inflation could have had significant consequences – making poverty worse and leading to social and political unrest. 

Fortunately, excessive protectionism was avoided and many of the initially imposed restrictions have been removed, with countries adopting overall a restrained and reasonable approach.

Globally, food supply has been adequate, and markets have been stable so far. For example, global cereal stocks are at comfortable levels and the outlook for wheat and other major staple crops for 2020 is positive.

However, disruptions to the food supply chains remain, situations vary, and there are still many unknowns.

Food production:

Although reductions in production of high value commodities (i.e. fruits and vegetables) is already likely, they are not as yet noticeable because of the lockdowns and disruption in the value chain.

In countries already affected by other crises, FAO’s on-the-ground surveys being undertaken indicate that small-scale producers are facing mounting challenges accessing inputs – such as seeds and fertilizers - because of rising prices of these inputs; severely reduced household incomes; and/or lack of availability of these inputs in markets.

While we don’t yet know the extent of these implications on national production, in some countries like in Afghanistan, an FAO survey carried out with the Government anticipates a decrease of over 50 percent of foods such as cereals, fruits, vegetables, and dairy products this year. Over 1300 people across 18 provinces of Afghanistan participated in the survey, including: farmers, traders, processors / milling unit owners, and agricultural staff.  

Reduced food production may have serious implications for food availability. If planting is reduced, so too are harvests, which means farming families themselves, often among the most acutely food insecure, as well as their communities, will not be able to access sufficient nutritious food down the line. 

Fisheries and aquaculture:

In the fisheries and aquaculture sector, the implications can vary and be quite complex. For wild-capture fisheries, the inability of fishing vessels to operate (due to limited or collapse of market as well as sanitary measures difficult to abide to on board of a vessel) can generate a domino effect throughout the value chains in terms of supply of products, in general, and the availability of specific species. In addition, for wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture, problems in logistics associated with restriction in transportation, border closures, and the reduced demand in restaurants and hotels can generate significant market changes – affecting prices.

Livestock:

The pandemic is impacting on livestock sector due to reduced access to animal feed and slaughterhouses’ diminished capacity (due to logistical constraints and labour shortages) similar to what happened in China.

In countries already affected by other crises, emerging evidence from FAO’s assessments highlights the livestock sector is particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic.

For example, in Zimbabwe, supplies of animal feed have been disrupted by containment measures and feed companies’ inability to access raw materials and staff. In Afghanistan, the nomadic Kuchis have been severely impacted due restricted access to pasture, lack of adequate fodder/feed and increased prices of the same, coupled with diminished access to assured veterinary services. Close to one-third reported that their transhumance was either blocked or limited, resulting in some localized tension.

Transport:

Blockages to transport routes are particularly obstructive for fresh food supply chains and have resulted in increased levels of food loss and waste. Fresh fish and aquatic products, which are highly perishable and therefore need to be sold, processed or stored in a relatively limited time are at particular risk.

Transport restrictions and quarantine measures are likely to impede farmers’ and fishers’ access to markets, curbing their productive capacities and hindering them from selling their produce.

Shortages of labour could disrupt production and processing of food, notably for labour-intensive industries (e.g. high-value crops, meat and fish).

Markets:

The closure of restaurants and street food outlets removes a key market for many producers and processors that may produce a temporary glut or trigger upstream production cuts as can be seen in the fish and meat sectors. In some developing countries, urban supply and demand for fresh produce are both in decline due to restrictions and aversion behaviour by traders and consumers.

Q4: How will the pandemic affect food production and demand globally (especially of major food commodities)?

Q4: How will the pandemic affect food production and demand globally (especially of major food commodities)?

At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a significant increase in demand.

Production and demand vary across major food commodities. For example, in spite of uncertainties posed by the pandemic, FAO's first forecasts for the 2020/21 season point to a comfortable cereal supply and demand situation.

World total meat production, on the other hand, is forecast to fall by 1.7 percent in 2020, due to animal diseases, COVID-19-related market disruptions, and the lingering effects of droughts.

The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to heavily affect seafood markets, particularly fresh products and popular restaurant species this year. On the supply side, fishing fleets are laying idle and aquaculture producers have drastically reduced stocking targets.

The pandemic is set to severely hit, in particular, global shrimp and salmon production. In India, for example, farmed shrimp production is expected to fall by 30-40 percent.

Also, worldwide demand for both fresh and frozen shrimp is declining significantly, whilst demand for salmon is expected to drop by at least by 15 percent in 2020. Retail sales, in particular, of fresh salmon and trout have fallen greatly, and this will not recover for some time.

Overall, food markets will face many more months of uncertainty due to COVID-19, but the agri-food sector is likely to show more resilience to the pandemic crisis than other sectors.

More information on the latest forecasts for production and market trends in 2020-2021 for the world's most traded food commodities here.

More longer-term, according to the OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2020-2029 (July 2020), the pandemic is expected to depress demand in the next few years and could further undermine food security.

Q5: How is the pandemic affecting or will affect food prices?

Q5: How is the pandemic affecting or will affect food prices?

Global food prices continued rising for the second consecutive month in July (latest analysis), led by vegetable oils and dairy products. However, meat and rice prices declined.

For more info on global food prices for most commonly traded food commodities, see here.

At local level, in markets, especially in countries already affected by hunger and other crises, some food commodity prices are increasing mainly because of local logistical problems or import difficulties.

For example, in Afghanistan, food price has increased of up to 20 percent (June estimates). In Yemen, a 35 percent increase in food prices has been recorded in some areas since April. In Sierra Leone prices of major food commodities have already risen well above their long-term average. In Syria, significant price increases (as much as 40-50 percent in food staples) and some shortages in basic goods have been reported since the middle of March.

FAO is concerned about the medium and longer-term consequences of the pandemic. The significant slowdown of all economies of the world and specially of the most vulnerable ones  - as unemployment rates have risen, and COVID-19's economic impacts will be felt more - will make countries, especially food import-dependent countries, struggle to have the needed resources to buy food.

Resources:

 

Q6: What is the pandemic’s impact on the global economy?

Q6: What is the pandemic’s impact on the global economy?

There are several sources of effects over the global economy.

First, markets are more integrated and interlinked, with a Chinese economy that contributes 16 percent to the global gross domestic product. Thus, any shock that affects China now has far greater consequences for the world economy. 

Second, the supply shocks due to morbidity and mortality, but also the containment efforts that restrict mobility and higher costs of doing business due to restricted supply chains and a tightening of credit will affect economies leading to a reduction of economic growth or an economic recession.

In June, the OECD cut its forecast for global economic growth in 2020 to -6.0%, unemployment climbs to 9.2% from 5.4% in 2019. They also projected a double hit scenario where economic output will plummet to 7.6% before climbing back to 2.8% in 2021. The World Bank projected the global GDP growth to decline to -5.2% under which scenario 89-117 million people are pushed to extreme poverty in 2020. Finally, June’s update of IMF showed a decline in global GDP growth to -4.9% implying a cumulative output loss of $12.4 trillion.

Third, the demand will also fall due to higher uncertainty, increased precautionary behaviour, containment efforts, and rising financial costs that reduce the ability to spend.

Finally, there is a significant devaluation of the exchange rate with respect to the US dollar, which will also affect the import dependent countries.

Global food markets are not immune to these developments. However, they are likely to be less affected than other sectors that are more exposed to logistical disruptions and weakened demand, such as travel, manufacturing and energy markets (Source: Market Monitor, AMIS, March 2020). But given the complexity of the food value chains and the importance of trade and transportation, these could make them extremely vulnerable.

While COVID-19 likely represents a deflationary shock for the global economy, reflected in early moves by the FAO Food Price Index, in the short term the real cost of a healthy diet may rise because of the increase in the cost of perishable commodities, which would have a particularly adverse impact on lower-income households and raise the price of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Q7: What are FAO’s recommendations to mitigate the risks of the pandemic on food security and nutrition?

Q7: What are FAO’s recommendations to mitigate the risks of the pandemic on food security and nutrition?

To minimise COVID-19's damaging effects on food security and nutrition while transforming global food systems to make them more resilient, sustainable and equitable, FAO calls for immediate action in seven key priority areas:

Q8: How should we support farmers and farmer organisations in the next months to protect them and prevent the health crisis becoming a food crisis?

Q8: How should we support farmers and farmer organisations in the next months to protect them and prevent the health crisis becoming a food crisis?

To support farmers and their organisations in the coming months, it is important to allow movement of seasonal workers and transport operators across domestic and international borders. Another good practice would be to identify collection centres closer to producers, for example develop storage facilities like warehouse receipt system platforms where farmers can deliver their produce without the need to go to markets. If possible, allow local markets to remain open, while putting in place strict physical distancing measures within and outside markets. If feasible, relocate markets to larger premises, while ensuring the appropriate infrastructure is in place to maintain quality and food safety.

More information and policy strategies during this pandemic can be found here.

Q9: How has FAO responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?

Q9: How has FAO responded to the COVID-19 outbreak?

At the onset of the pandemic, FAO has advocated for countries to: keep international trade open; increase intra-regional trade; scale up social protection programmes; keep agricultural supply chains alive; maintain agricultural activities – so that countries avoid the mistakes of the 2007-2008 financial and food crisis.

This played an important role in excessive protectionism being avoided and many of the initially imposed restrictions being removed, with countries adopting overall a restrained and reasonable approach.

So that countries can take informed decisions and lessen COVID019’s impacts, FAO has been providing information on food value chains, markets and food prices, and putting forward analyses and solutions.

We have also stepped up our work in countries already hit by food and other crises where COVID-19's impact could be devastating. This includes: expanding cash and voucher programmes; improving hunger data collection and analysis so that organisations can respond more effectively; maintaining food production, including through scaling up activities so that farmers can take advantage of coming plating seasons; ramping up support to post-production activities, like harvesting, storage, small-scale food processing and conservation, and linking producers to markets to ensure food supply chains stay functional; and, awareness raising so that people keeping food supply chains alive are not at risk of COVID-19 transmission.

To carry out this work, FAO is scaling up innovative interventions such as providing cash assistance via mobile phones to vulnerable rural communities both to accommodate movement restrictions and contribute to efforts to prevent the spread of the virus.

FAO continues to provide access to quality data – the need for this emerged strongly since the onset of the pandemic. For example, FAO, The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and The Johns Hopkins Alliance launched a food dashboard, with data on the food systems of over 230 countries & territories. In July 2020, FAO launched the Hand-in-Hand geospatial data platform to help build stronger food and agriculture sectors post COVID-19. The platform boasts over one million geospatial layers and thousands of statistics for over ten food and agriculture-related domains.

In July 2020, FAO launched a new comprehensive COVID-19 Response and Recovery Programme, aimed at preventing a global food emergency during and after the COVID-19 pandemic while working on medium to long-term development response for food security and nutrition.

As part of this programme, FAO calls for immediate action in seven key priority areas:

FAO is also convening governments and multiple stakeholders in a call to action, providing technical advice and capacity development across a wide range of disciplines, and offering investment support to leverage all forms of partnerships and finance.  

Q10: What steps is FAO taking to protect its staff and to ensure that it will be able to continue to deliver on its mandate of fighting hunger?

Q10: What steps is FAO taking to protect its staff and to ensure that it will be able to continue to deliver on its mandate of fighting hunger?

Responding to the pandemic’s impacts requires careful operational planning given the potential rapid evolution of the situation on the ground. FAO’s attention will primarily focus on vulnerable rural and coastal populations whose agricultural and fisheries-based livelihoods are affected and on buttressing food security for people in places already experience high levels of hunger.

FAO will need to take into account different business continuity scenarios and ensure the safety and well-being of staff and beneficiaries. Program criticality planning is underway at country level to ensure this.  FAO’s activities have been planned with WHO and public health authorities at country level so that they are in line, and supporting containment efforts, and ensure the safety and well-being of staff and beneficiaries.

Our work to help countries and communities defeat hunger has not stopped. The virus has stopped some of us going to our workplace, but it hasn't stopped our work. (More info here).

Q11: What opportunities are there post COVID-19 to re-orient food systems? What are the lessons learnt from the pandemic?

Q11: What opportunities are there post COVID-19 to re-orient food systems? What are the lessons learnt from the pandemic?

This crisis has highlighted areas of inequalities of the food system and business cannot continue as usual. The Committee on Food Security (CFS) is currently working on the Voluntary Guidelines for Food System for Nutrition, to re-orient and transform the food system to be more resilient and sustainable. The CFS also published an Interim Issues Paper on the Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition that adds to the reflection. FAO is also actively working on how the food systems should transform to be able to cope with pandemics like COVID-19 but also to accelerate the progress of SDG2 and 1 but assuring at the same time all trade-offs on nature are minimized.

Q12: What role could major international food companies haves in addressing the impending lack of access to food in low-to-middle-income countries?

Q12: What role could major international food companies haves in addressing the impending lack of access to food in low-to-middle-income countries?

FAO has suggested that countries create a crisis committee to deal with the impact of COVID-19 outbreak on food supply, involving, among others, ministries of agriculture, livestock and food supply, transport, economy, trade, and so forth. To ensure that strategies are adequately and fully implemented by the market operators, it is critical that this crisis committee engages the private sector, through a broader multi-stakeholder advisory committee that includes representatives of all actors in the food supply chain. For more information, please refer to this FAO brief.

Q13: Will countries move towards policies that reduce their dependence on imports as a measure to improve their capacity to respond to eventual future crisis?

Q13: Will countries move towards policies that reduce their dependence on imports as a measure to improve their capacity to respond to eventual future crisis?

We expect vegetable production to become a lot more local, but do not expect changes to the movements of staple foods (rice, maize), fruits, meat, which already constitute the foods that get transferred the most globally. One area we hope to see improve is intra-regional trade, which will result in shorter food chains, will create more markets for farmers and improve access to both inputs (seeds, fertilisers) and outputs (food products).

Resources:

FAO policy briefs – sectors impacted by COVID-19

 

 

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