COVID-19 and Global Food Security: Reflecting on What We Have Learned So Far


by John McDermott | August 14, 2020

This blog is based on remarks delivered during the August 4 launch event of the new IFPRI book, COVID-19 and Global Food Security. McDermott, Director of A4NH, is co-editor of the book.

COVID-19 is a combination crisis, affecting health and economics. Its widespread impacts are reflected in the multiple types of policy responses implemented to address it, ranging across health, social, food and agriculture, education, economics and business sectors.

As IFPRI Director General Johan Swinnen, co-editor of COVID-19 and Global Food Security, noted during the book’s launch, the impact of the pandemic on food and nutrition security is a result of two factors: A large economic recession and major disruptions of food systems.

Low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) may not have the financial resources of high-income countries, but they recognized the urgency and made policy responses with the resources they could mobilize immediately, often with the help of international financial institutions. Most applied variations of three important types of policies:

  1. Movement control for social distancing, ranging from minimal to severe, and public health responses such as testing and contact tracing. Most LMICs have significant constraints to testing and for hygiene measures, such as water limitations.
  2. Fiscal and financial policy responses, including:
    • Provision of essential goods and services such as food and medicine;
    • Domestic economic support such as debt payment moratoriums and financial support to businesses; and
    • External finances, for example exchange rates, trade and debt, which are a challenge for many countries reliant on remittances and tourism.
  3. Social safety net responses, which have been absolutely critical for households to protect assets and food security during the pandemic. Countries have been able to respond rapidly by adapting existing programs to expand reach and relax conditions. India, for example, has an important portfolio of social safety net programs for food and nutrition security and income that it has been able to draw upon.

However, just because policies are adopted doesn’t mean they will be well implemented or effective. Thus, there are great benefits of tracking policies – which is the objective of the COVID-19 Policy Response tracker. Some key tracking indicators include institutional leadership and coordination, price stability and citizen responses.

In general, many countries have limited capacity to implement policies under ideal circumstances. Under the urgency of a pandemic, poor implementation leading to unintended consequences and negative citizen reactions are inevitable. Important details such as gender and other equity issues are easily overlooked and need additional attention.

The focus of this book is on food and nutrition security, and as Purnima Menon, Senior Research Fellow at IFPRI, said during her remarks at the launch, “Almost everything that affects malnutrition has been affected by this crisis,” and systems focus is critical. Apollos Nwafar, Vice President of Policy and State Capability at AGRA, captured this interdependency at the event: “the systems are connected,” he said, “and the failure of one will lead to the failure of others.”

Just how to help countries understand this interconnection and keep a systems focus is a central theme in the book. Maximo Torero, Chief Economist at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, linked together the multiple policy responses – from production, through business continuity, trade, safety nets and others – that countries are applying in their different circumstances to the combined supply and demand shock under COVID-19. He reflected on the pragmatic approaches that policy makers need to take, avoiding simplistic fixes. He noted that growing jobs is a central food system objective of policy makers – many of those jobs in small and medium enterprises – and identifying ways to support the long-term employment gains across food systems is of great importance.

Michael Gude, Global Vice President, R&D Foods at Unilever, observed that food system changes driven by COVID-19 have been “very fast and unprecedented in magnitude,” ranging from shifts in consumer demand and stockpiling to import/export restrictions and border control issues. The changes that we have already seen make clear that innovations in food systems will also be critical for success as we collectively work to build back better. These innovations reflect underlying principles – the need for systematic approaches to food, that food systems are shaped by demand, the balance between a dominant role of the private sector and the need for public sector enabling and appropriate regulation to achieve the essential health, sustainability, and equity outcomes. In our current environment, we are seeing an amazing pace to these innovations – changes that were expected in three to five years are happening in months, or even weeks, including exciting innovations in digital technologies, processing and institutional arrangements that cut across food system components.

Through all this excitement, however, we must remember that food systems impacts from the pandemic are greatest for the poor. Inclusive innovations that combine humanitarian and development approaches for vulnerable groups must be accelerated. We need to keep the health, sustainability and equity outcomes clearly in sight as we fundamentally re-think future food systems. Apollos rightly noted, “A model that addresses the fragility of systems will be necessary going forward. Address sustainable food systems and make sure smallholder farmers, many of whom are women, are not left out.”

Novel pathogen emergence, particularly from animals to people, happens frequently, and the potential for global spread and impact is real. COVID-19 emerged and spread rapidly, catching the world off guard. In public health, tremendous progress has been made in recent decades in testing, information systems, and vaccine development, but it hasn’t been enough for what we’re facing, and this is a fact we must address. The changing epidemiological situation in Africa, for example, with increasing densities of people and animals, brings increased opportunities for novel pathogens to cross-species and spread. This experience has shown us that we’re really going to have to up our game in terms of preparedness, working globally, and taking a One Health approach.

Purvi Mehta, Senior Advisor and Head of Agriculture at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, observed that “what started as a health crisis has shown a mirror in many ways of the age-old problems in the system.” The fragilities of our systems exposed by COVID-19 have stimulated much thought about more fundamental changes in how societies are organized and how food, health, social development, business and other sectors work together. These issues should get greater attention as we move toward recovery and building back from the pandemic. As we prepare to do so, two important starting points are:

  • Cross-sectoral evidence of tradeoffs to help policy makers pragmatically balance health, food, and social policy responses for inclusion, and
  • Building on past lessons from responses to pandemics such as HIV/AIDS on the empowering community leadership and solutions to control transmission and recover and share these lessons quickly and widely.

As Purnima reminded us, “there are a lot of things to be worried about, but also to be optimistic about regarding things we are trying to do together to address this situation.” As we move from urgent responses to recovery and future preparedness and greater resilience, we’re getting a lot of good insights into what rethinking we need to do. It will be key to get a balance among sectors: health, economic, social development, and others. We will also need to be much more radical about how we think about equity and inclusion. Transparency will also be critical – being honest about what we don’t know and sharing what we do.

COVID-19 has challenged us as a global community, and we’re still facing many of those challenges. Paying attention to what we have learned, and working together across borders and sectors, we have the potential to emerge from this pandemic with systems that are more inclusive and resilient than before.

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