POST TIME: 16 May, 2020 12:58:30 PM / LAST MODIFIED: 16 May, 2020 01:10:22 PM
Impact of COVID 19 on global food system
Restrictions can create barriers to farmers’ production capacity too. If farmers can’t get agriculture inputs on time, then production might be affected and food price can increase
Sharmin Sultana

Impact of COVID 19 on global food system

Food System, FAO

There is little doubt that the whole world is concerned about the devastating effects of the COVID 19. Originating in China late December 2019, COVID 19 has now spread to countries one after another, causing disease burden and deaths. However, it is not unpredictable that besides this immediate public health threat, there will be the long term consequences on the economy, politics and social life. The measures taken to prevent the virus will probably affect our food system noticeably as well. 

Different contexts affect food production, processing, trade, marketing and consumption. As a result of this, the food availability, accessibility, and affordability – as well as consumers’ dietary behaviour and nutritional status– vary. One possible picture is presented here to provide an idea on how Covid-19 might impact the global food system.

Production: Consumer demand plays a crucial role in food production and their demands depend on purchasing power and preference. Because of the lockdown, there is no work for many people; a result they do not have enough money to buy adequate food for their families. The closure of restaurants, school meals and tourism businesses may reduce the demand for fresh food.

Food production is not only vital for food availability, but also for the rural livelihoods. If farmers cannot access markets because of the transport restrictions, selling products will be difficult for them. Delay in selling products may cause food loss. Moreover, if they can’t sell their product because of less demand, then, they might stop producing some products and can switch to other non-perishable goods. This may hamper the production of some food and, as a result, there can be a lack of availability of diversified food.

Restrictions can create barriers to farmers’ production capacity too. If farmers can’t get agriculture inputs on time, then production might be affected and food price can increase. If price increases then some food may not be affordable for many people. Additionally, if migrant labours can’t contribute in the production, then growing enough food may become difficult due to lack of sufficient labour force. Sickness because of the virus can also cause shortage of labour for harvesting and planting. Besides, if farmers miss or delay in the planting season, then there may not be enough food to meet demand.

Handling, storage and processing: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Covid-19 is not likely to be transmitted through food. However, workers can get infected by each other if they do not maintain social distance properly. Shortage of labor can not only hamper food production, but also the processing and handling of food. On the other hand, non-perishable food with longer shelf life may get prioritized over perishable food considering the demand. Some of these foods have lower nutritional value.

Trade and marketing: Around the world, millions of people depend on international trade either for their livelihood or food security. The virus outbreak might slow down global trade and marketing of food. As a result, countries depending on imported food can face difficulties. The closure of ports and other supply restrictions will hamper food supply. According to FAO, about 44 countries need external food assistance in the world. The price of transferring food within and outside of the country may get more expensive. It means import may get more expensive and export may bring less money. On the other hand, the restriction in transport and supply can be the cause of food loss particularly for fresh fruits and vegetables. Companies may face difficulties to import the ingredients for different products which may disturb the production. Declining levels of supply and increasing demand may cause prices to increase. Besides, closures of retail can distress food access.

Consumer demand, food preparation and preferences: Because of the lockdown of different restaurants and daily labour activities, people lose jobs and cannot get enough money to buy sufficient food for the family. As a result, they can’t get adequate nutritious food and consumption drops. On the other hand, people who have adequate money to buy food are changing their buying pattern. People buy frozen, dried and canned food with have longer shelf life. Energy-dense, less nutritious foods are often more affordable than fresh and nutritious one. As the demand for canned and dried food increases, selling fresh food can become more challenging. It was found that, in Italy, the demand for flour increased 80% and canned beans 55%. On the other hand, online ordering and home delivery services are becoming more popular.

This situation may force people to accept inadequate and unhealthy diet. As a result, the risk of under nutrition, over nutrition and obesity may increase.

Things to consider:

* To increase the mobility of smallholder producers, there should be some alternative ways like collection centers close to them so that they can sell fresh food on time.

* Lessons can be taken from other countries’ examples for helping farmers with unsold products and in reducing food shortage.

* Measures are needed to keep employees and the food supply chain safe.

* Cooperation among countries is needed for exporting and importing food products.

* Real-time information about food production, stock, etc. should be available so that producers, traders and consumers can make informed decisions.

* Monitoring food prices and markets are important.

* Follow good hygiene practices while handling and preparing foods is necessary.

* Countries should meet the immediate food needs of vulnerable populations.

* The prevention of food loss through the food system should get attention.

* More online ordering platforms and free delivery services are needed.

* Appropriate protection is needed for processing plant employees to avoid risk.

It is difficult to predict the actual effects of Covid-19, but it is worth thinking about it now in order to get ready to face the challenges. We need a food system that is able to absorb, respond to and recover from shocks and stress. Otherwise, economic productivity will be hampered and human development will be motionless.

The writer is a public health professional. E-mail: [email protected]