The Covid-19 pandemic has entered its 2nd phase and is spreading rapidly and extensively around the world. This has profound implications for food security and nutrition. The unfolding crisis has affected food systems and threatened people’s access to food via multiple dynamics. We have witnessed not only a major disruption to food supply chains in the wake of lockdowns triggered by the global health crisis, but also a major global economic slowdown, which has resulted in lesser incomes and higher prices of some foods, putting food out of reach for many, and undermining the right to food and stalling efforts to meet the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) “Zero hunger.” The situation is fluid and dynamic, characterised by a high degree of uncertainty. According to the World Health Organisation, the worst effects are yet to come. Most health analysts have predicted that the virus will continue to circulate for at least one or two more years. The food security and nutrition risks of these dynamics are serious. Already, before the outbreak of the pandemic, according to the latest State of Food Security and Nutrition report (FAO et-al., 2020), some two billion people faced food insecurity at the moderate or severe level.
The complex dynamics triggered by the lockdowns intended to contain the disease are creating conditions for a major disruption to food systems, giving rise to a dramatic increase in hunger. The most recent estimates indicate that between 83 and 132 million additional people (FAO et al., 2020) including 38-80 million people in low-income countries that rely on food imports (Torero, 2020) will experience food insecurity as a direct result of the pandemic. At least 25 countries are at risk of significant food security deterioration because of the secondary socio-economic impacts of the pandemic (FAO and WFP, 2020). Food productivity could also be affected in the future, especially if the virus is not contained and the lockdown measures continue.
How Covid-19 is affecting
food security and nutrition:
Covid-19 has a direct impact on the respiratory system but it has not been proved with any major evidence that food itself is a vector of its transmission (ICMSF, 2020). The virus, and measures to contain its spread, has had profound implications on food security, nutrition and food systems, malnutrition (including obesity) and has increased vulnerability to Covid-19.
A number of overlapping and reinforcing dynamics have emerged that are affecting food systems, food security and nutrition so far, which also includes disruptions in food supply chain, loss of income and livelihoods, widening of inequality, and fluctuating food prices in local markets. There is also a high degree of uncertainty revolving around the virus and its evolution, so there can also be threats in future to food security and nutrition which may involve the potential for lower food productivity and production, solely depending upon the severity and duration of the pandemic and measures to control it. Due to the continuous lockdowns there have been major disruptions to food supply chains, which have affected the availability, pricing, and quality of food. The closure of restaurants and other food service facilities have led to a sharp decline in demand for various perishable foods, including dairy products, potatoes and fresh fruits, as well as various lavish foods like chocolate and novel foods. It was reported that in the pandemic-related lockdowns during March-June of 2020, food items were being dumped or ploughed back into the fields because of either collapsed demand or difficulties in making these foods available in the market. Farmers, who were without adequate storage facilities, including cold storage, found it difficult to hold their produce and get enough prices while selling.
The movement of food through the medium of international trade was heavily affected by lockdown. Interstate borders were closed and demand for certain food items dropped. Food producers who were reliant on selling their crops via distant export markets were highly vulnerable, particularly those based on perishable food and agricultural products. In the early months of the outbreak of Covid-19, some food exporting countries also imposed export restrictions on key staple food items like rice and wheat, which led to some disruptions in the global movement of these staples as well as higher prices of these crops relative to others. Certain countries, including those with high prevalence of food insecurity, are highly dependent on imported food and on commodity exports (FAO et al., 2019), which may make them particularly vulnerable to these types of supply chain disruptions. Many of these export restrictions were lifted by August 2020, although the risk remains that such restrictions might be re-imposed.
Disruptions in food supply chains were experienced when supply chain workers experienced high rates of illness, leading to shutdowns of some food processing facilities such as processed food, RTS Foods, Meat processing, and Perishable food items. Labour-intensive food production has also been especially affected by Covid-19 among food system workers, including production systems that rely on migrant workers, who faced severe hardships to travel back to their destinations. Some worked in miserable conditions on farms and in food production facilities, some of which had to close temporarily to contain outbreaks. These disruptions to supply chains effected upward pressure on prices of some scarce goods.
Effect on economic
recession and income losses
The Civid-19 pandemic triggered a worldwide economic recession and has resulted in loss of livelihoods and income on a global scale. The resulting drop in purchasing power among those who lost income has had a serious impact on food security and nutrition, especially for those populations that were already vulnerable. Those in the informal economy are especially affected. According to the International Labor Organisation (ILO), more than the equivalent of 400 million full-time jobs have been lost in the second quarter of 2020 with a number of countries enforcing lockdown measures. Developing countries like India in particular have been deeply affected. Global growth was expected to fall dramatically in 2020, with various estimates showing a drop in the range of 5 to 8 percent for the year (IMF, 2020; OECD, 2020). As food demand has contracted due to declining incomes, food producers’ and food systems workers’ livelihoods are further affected: food systems are estimated to lose 451 million jobs, or 35 percent of their formal employment. Similarly, the UN estimates that around one third of food system livelihoods are at risk due to the pandemic (UN, 2020).
As against other sectors of the economy, agriculture has surely shown more resilience. The country’s farmers have successfully harvested winter crops. Even sowing of summer crops has progressed well, despite constraints in timely supplies of inputs at reasonable prices. Since agriculture directly impinges on FSI, most of its operations are exempt from restrictions imposed due to the pandemic. Access to food wasn’t fully assured as a result of the decline in incomes and loss of livelihood after the pandemic and it was further impaired by socio-economic inequities. There were widespread disruptions due to restricted movements, ban on transportation, and border sealing. FSCs were exempt from lockdown, but only 6% of the total supply chain was organised. The role of PDS is critical in ensuring equitable access to food. The regional disparities within the availability of food grains and pulses are also a reason for skewed access to food.
The pandemic has revived food nationalism. It has made wholesale supplies of food cheaper whereas retail consumers face an increase in prices due to the disruptions of food supply chains (FSCs). Even for future productions, uncertain supplies and lack of inputs have raised the value of production. The stability of food availability and access will depend upon how soon the contagion is controlled to permit free movement of products and persons to revive food supply chains. As of now, 67% of the population is getting free and subsidised ration under the NFSA. Recently the amount has been increased to 800 million people. The capacity of the consumer to absorb nutritious food has declined with rising health issues as a result. Unaffordable retail prices of non-grain food items and a decline in purchasing power have compelled the commoner to focus more on calories than wholesome energy. The people have also been constrained in their choice of preferred food as per local habits/traditions.
Disruptions to social programmes
Social programmes have been disrupted by the pandemic, which in turn affected food security and nutrition. When the lockdowns began, almost all the schools were closed, resulting in the loss of school meal programmes like ICDS, mid day meal programmes, etc, in both high- and low-income states. The WFP estimates that 370 million children have lost access to school meals due to school closures in the wake of the pandemic (WFP, 2020). In some countries, governments and the WFP are developing alternative means by which to reach school-aged children with food assistance, including take home rations, vouchers, and cash transfers (WFP, 2020). While alternative school lunch arrangements (such as in Cameroon (WFP, 2020) may close the gap in some instances, in other cases such options are not in place, adding to the financial burden of poor households struggling to feed their families. The global economic recession that resulted from the pandemic and measures to contain it have also strained governments’ capacities to provide social protection for those most affected by the crisis (FAO and WFP, 2020). In April, the G20 governments offered to freeze the debt service payments for 73 of the poorest countries, an initiative endorsed by the G7 governments, in order to free up funds to address the fallout from the pandemic. Implementation of this initiative has been challenging, however, affecting the ability of the poorest countries to provide social protection for their populations through this crisis.
The battle against Covid-19 continues while the second wave 2021 is estimated to be more fatal than the previous one. There is a dire need of new rules for regulating business and making structural, administrative, and legal reforms to live with a new normal enforced by the pandemic, which requires a complete change in social behaviour and approach to living. There is also the need of effective control and management of food stocks in this crisis.
—The writer is Advisor, Food and Consumer Affairs, Government of Madhya Pradesh, AIGGPA, Bhopal.