Event: Food Systems Lessons from COVID-19


by A4NH | March 26, 2021

As COVID-19 continues to affect people around the world, an understanding of the scope of impacts from the pandemic and the lockdowns, mobility restrictions, and other policies enacted in its wake is only beginning to emerge. The CGIAR COVID-19 Hub recently released the first world-level assessment on the impacts of COVID-19 on food security. In a March 2 webinar, lead author Christophe Béné, a CGIAR researcher from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT, explored potential lessons that can be drawn from their findings, in relation to the resilience of food systems, as well as preliminary recommendations for building those systems back better.

Béné detailed the study, which considered food security as well as the food environment across more than 330 publications in four languages from 62 countries. They found, Béné said, that “the food system did not collapse, but its resilience was tested, and there were clear winners and losers.”

As the team mapped the impacts across food systems, they were able to understand how actions put into place by the different actors affected others and created a chain of subsequent impacts.

Across the world, food systems have been recognized for their role in delivering ‘essential services,’ and, as such, have been protected – in contrast to other sectors. Other than some initial issues related to panic buying, there have not been any major issues with supply shortages. Because they were able to remain open, large grocery stores and supermarket chains essentially benefited from the COVID-19 crisis. Their gains, however, came at the expense of small and informal food system actors who had to shut down and often lacked support or social protection.

Read the report's Executive Summary

Béné cautioned that many effects are still poorly quantified or documented, including those on nutrition, impacts of the shift from consuming food away from home to consuming food only at home, and domestic violence. While the findings from this study offer initial insights into how policies can build greater resilience and a more sustainable food system for a wider range of actors in the face of future shocks, additional information gathered over time will help refine those insights.

A panel moderated by Ekaterina Krivonos, co-Chair of the CGIAR COVID-19 Hub, considered the report’s findings. Thomas Reardon, Professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University, noted the extreme importance of domestic food supply chains for food security in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), which stands in contrast to the debate and attention given to international trade and import restrictions during the height of the crisis. In reality, he noted, the biggest shocks on the supply side in many LMIC were caused by mobility restrictions. “These restrictions affected the bones­—or the wholesale markets and roads—and blood—the set of wholesalers and logistics such as truckers—of the system,” he said.

Namukolo Covic, Senior Research Coordinator with A4NH and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), noted that, in relation to diets and nutrition, “what COVID did was made a situation that was bad, worse.” She explained there were already problems with dietary quality and low consumption of nutrient-dense foods for African countries, and the perishable nature of those foods meant this sector suffered under mobility restrictions.

Yet Covic echoed Béné’s remarks about the significance of data that is not yet known. “Because of the way we need to collect dietary data, we don’t know how dietary patterns have changed,” she said. “From a number of surveys, we know people reported stress around food security, so we extrapolate that it affected nutrition, but we don’t yet know what the diet or nutrition impacts have really been.”

Sophia Murphy, Executive Director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, noted the significant role governments have as actors in the food system, and how the more seriously a government took the situation, how information was shared, and whether health experts were able to lead shaped how much damage the pandemic caused in a given country. She also noted the pandemic highlighted the vulnerabilities of food workers in many food systems, whether they work in fields, greenhouses, processing plants, or in food retail. Food workers were disproportionately exposed in the pandemic, lacking access to personal protective equipment, healthcare, sick leave, adequate housing, or safety nets. The lack of legal and regulatory protection for these workers brought attention back to the need for active government intervention, she added.

Moving forward, Reardon remarked, “building back better is going to have to focus on getting policies right to make it easier, in terms of transaction costs, for firms to adapt rapidly during crises; the most important step will be for governments to invest in wholesale market and road expansion and upgrading, as those infrastructures are at the commercial and logistics center of a resilient food system. We also found a lot of resilience in the system, and the ability to pivot, to move with the shock, and to have partners in the supply chain who co-pivot with you and help you do it, is critical.” He noted that pivoting needs to happen in sourcing, technology, and e-commerce. Supply chain actors who had good access to wholesale markets and good roads were the most able to pivot and co-pivot to be resilient.

Learn how the CGIAR COVID-19 Hub is working to build food systems back better.

Building on this, Covic added that it wasn’t just large- or small-scale firms that had to adapt, but also households. “Households in Ethiopia reported to an IFPRI survey that they were under stress, but when asked if dietary patterns had changed, many reported no. What were they doing that we were missing?” she asked. “As we work to build back better, we must understand better how vulnerable households responded to changes. How they adapted might provide insight to how we strengthen household resilience to future shocks. We need to become more nuanced to the local realities to better know what interventions are actually needed.”

Murphy raised the importance of understanding how policy interventions at these different levels interact with each other. “We need accountability,” she said, “as well as adaptive governance and reflexive learning. The policy response needed is to do a better job listening to improve early warning systems. We know a lot more, but not enough. Diverse feedback is critical to allow systems to adapt effectively.”

She added, “the food system saw resilience because no government was willing to say food security wasn’t essential. Whatever our divisions, we agreed that food matters, and in many countries, the government stepped in to protect the provision of food. There was a willingness to adapt and pivot, but we also saw the shocks.”

Béné cautioned, however, about “the danger of romanticizing the resilience of the food system. Part of the reason the food system did not collapse was because it was protected, in every country,” he said. “But there is a balance to have when we assess how resilient the system is.”

As the session drew to a close, Béné said that a critical next step will be to focus research on those in the “missing middle” of the food system, between the farmers and the consumers. “We need to better understand the source of the vulnerability, and better document the responses to help support the good responses and help prevent the negative coping strategies where we can. We have a lot to learn, and hopefully we can start unpacking the nuances that we haven’t been able to get to yet.”

John McDermott, co-Chair of the CGIAR COVID-19 Hub, ended the session, noting “this research is a step in a process, and it’s important that the team produced this synthesis of 2020 lessons so quickly. As our presenters noted, the food system didn’t collapse during the pandemic, but there was a lot of variation we can learn from. These kinds of acute crises are going to be more common and are going to also exacerbate chronic conditions we’ve ignored over time, including a fundamental understanding of the food system. We must continue, as this report has done, assessing evolving roles, responsibilities and vulnerabilities of actors in the food system.”

Photo: Soumen Tarafder/Shutterstock

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