Resource Mobilization

2020: A year of compounding crises

Pests, conflict and natural disasters during the COVID-19 pandemic are fatal combinations for our food systems

11/07/2020 - 

The weeks following the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease have been filled with grave challenges and uncertainty. As the effects of border closures and movement restrictions become more visible in some countries and are slowly lessening in others, attention must be drawn to a vital component of global health that is under threat of crisis: our food systems.

As the Chief Economist of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Maximo Torero, said, “We fully agree with governments that first has to be health and the measures they are taking have to be supported. But we also believe that second will come food.” We have already seen how the pandemic is affecting both the supply and demand of food. We have a limited amount of time to minimize the damage this will have on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Disease outbreaks in recent memory, such as the 2014 Ebola outbreak, have shown us how infectious disease crises have both direct and indirect negative impacts on food security. In addition to blocked transportation routes, impeded access to markets and labor shortages, the Ebola crisis in west Africa led to a significant drop in food production, with more than 40 per cent of agricultural land going uncultivated. The market disruptions resulted in domestic rice and cassava price increases of more than 30 per cent and 150 per cent respectively.

In already food insecure regions, the unprecedented health crisis is already compounding the damage of other ongoing crises, starting with exacerbating economic challenges but also increasing the pressure on food systems that were already devastated by fast-spreading pests, conflict or natural disasters. A year with multiple shocks, such as 2020, will only lead to more devastation, unless we act fast.

A lurking economic recession

The World Bank estimates that the pandemic could push half a billion people into extreme poverty. Differing from the Great Recession, which primarily affected rich countries, the “Great Lockdown” of the COVID-19 pandemic is having negative effects on all economies in the world. Developing countries and Small Island States are disproportionately vulnerable to economic devastation. Food supply chains, fiscal revenues, labour markets, tourism and incomes from most economic sectors have been drastically affected. Widespread workplace closures and layoffs are already taking their toll, especially in communities where poverty is prevalent.

Movement restrictions could further reduce informal labourers’ access to farmlands and therefore their wages and livelihoods. Moreover, millions of migrant workers involved in agriculture and food production are now immobile because of border closures. The pandemic will also reduce the amount and regularity of remittances migrant workers send back home to their families, many of whom rely entirely on these funds for their day-to-day needs. The novel coronavirus disease is also attacking the livelihoods of populations who live in rural areas and depend on agricultural production, fishing or pastoralism to survive because they are facing severe labour shortages.

A Global Food Crisis Looms

Sustainable, heathy diets containing sufficient vegetables and fruits are crucial, as populations that are undernourished are more susceptible to contagions. “As the number of infections in vulnerable countries grows – among populations who are already malnourished, weak and vulnerable to disease – a ‘crisis within a crisis’ could emerge,” said Dominique Burgeon, Director of Emergency and Resilience Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Countries with high levels of food insecurity are generally the most vulnerable to, and less prepared for, a health crisis. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 135 million people across 55 countries were already threatened by acute severe food insecurity due to pre-existing shocks and crises. At present, over 300 million children who rely on school nutrition programs as one of their primary sources of food, are highly vulnerable to the consequences of school closures. Numerous families are already struggling to put food on the table, some for the very first time in their lives, while worries about the future weigh heavily on their hearts.

A joint, flexible response is key to protect livelihoods and food systems

It cannot be stressed enough: this novel virus not only affects the most vulnerable nations, it affects the entire globe. Both developed and developing nations are being hit hard. If there is one silver lining of the pandemic, however, is that it is clearer than ever that we are all in this together. Now is the time for a collaborative and agile response in order to protect our food systems from this unprecedented global threat.

Keeping in mind that without food there is no health, our priority should be to protect lives and to sustain livelihoods now, rather than working to overcome irreparable loss and rebuild economic stability later. Only together can we win this battle, and when we do, we will come out stronger and more united to build a world where every child, woman and man have access to daily nutritious food.