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COVID-19 may spare global food markets, but not vulnerable countries

02 Apr 2020

While the impact of the coronavirus crisis on global food markets has so far been limited, the pandemic poses a serious threat to food security at local level. According to official statistics, the virus has not yet spread widely in countries where food insecurity is pervasive, most notably in Sub-Saharan Africa. If it did, the outbreak could be expected to have similar effects to previous epidemic-induced shocks, such as the Ebola Virus Disease, which caused steep harvest reductions, food price spikes and aggravated food insecurity. Additionally, and perhaps more imminent, is the risk posed by the global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus crisis, which may compromise import-dependent countries’ ability to purchase foods and cause income losses for households, with acute food security repercussions. 

Agricultural production systems in the most vulnerable countries are predominantly labour intensive. Quarantine measures, self-isolation and aversion behaviour in response to an outbreak would therefore cut the labour supply, potentially resulting in acreage contractions, limiting crop management and ultimately curbing harvests. Whilst such effects would immediately dent domestic food supplies, in the medium-term income-earning opportunities, from crop sales for instance, would also be negatively affected. Moreover, low reserves of food staples, a common characteristic of low-income countries and households, limit the ability to modulate food supplies in instances of production shocks and interruptions to trade, extenuating vulnerabilities. 

Concurrently, the slowdown in the global economy and disruptions to global agricultural supply chains have cutback demand for cash and high-valued crops, such as fruits, coffee and tea, which are key export-earners in many less-developed countries. These reductions will translate into income losses for farming households, while national foreign currency reserves could shrink, with implications for funding of social-safety net programmes and the ability to pay for food imports. Particularly in urban areas of less-developed countries, the slowdown in economic activities and movement restrictions are likely to cut households’ incomes and purchasing power, factors that would aggravate food insecurity. If the crisis is of relatively short duration, people could be expected to switch to cheaper but less nutritious foods, therefore resulting in increases in nutrient deficiencies, rather than a broad decline in calories that would result from a prolonged pandemic.

There is a clear reciprocal relationship between health and agriculture, particularly for rural households. Low levels of agricultural productivity and poor food systems can foster a higher prevalence of malnourishment, increasing a population’s vulnerability to morbidity and the impact of disease outbreaks, such as COVID-19. Although immediate interventions are and should be directed to contain the outbreak, this pandemic also shows the urgent need to strengthen the resilience of agriculture and more broadly calls for increased efforts to eradicate hunger.