Harvesting rice in the fields during the Covid-19 pandemic, Bali Province, Indonesia, August 2020. Photo: ©wiswagopala/shutterstock

Food security and the COVID-19 pandemic

A CABI webinar brought together high-level panellists from Asia, Africa and Europe in November to look at ways of maintaining food security in times of global shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Panellists from three continents attended a webinar in late November to discuss how food security can be sustained in the event of global shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic. They had been invited by SciDev.Net on behalf of the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI).

Opening the event, CABI Chief Executive Daniel Elger pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted existing weakness in food systems. “COVID is a calamity of epic proportions,” Elger said. “But we have learnt a lot during the pandemic.” His organisation aims to increase the resilience of smallholder farmers. Elger stressed the usefulness of technology in outreach, but also warned of its aggravating inequality. 

Afeikhena Jerome, Special Adviser to the Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture at the African Union Commission and Professor of Economics at Igbinedion University, Okada/Nigeria, stated that the pandemic had caused a global food emergency, with food supplies disrupted world-wide. “Studies on the pandemic indicate that around 30 million people have been pushed into poverty, and gains in development over five years have been destroyed,” Jerome reported. He also pointed to an increased need of clean water for washing hands and the like. Especially in Africa, highly vulnerable economies were relying on food imports. 

Jerome referred to various population groups particularly threatened by the crisis, such as people with an irregular income, people in poor health, also because of malnutrition, the homeless and orphans. In the economy, sectors like tourism, the restaurant branch and taxi drivers were at risk. Taking up the issue of overcoming the COVID-19 crisis, Jerome highlighted Africa’s Green Recovery Plan, already agreed by African ministers of environment in December 2020. Elements of the scheme include farm adaptation with cropping systems improving yield, sustainable water use and adjustment of planting dates. Cooperation and trade between countries is to be intensified. More emphasis will be placed on research, innovations and the use of technology. And the continent is to head for an efficient and green transport infrastructure.

Shenggen Fan, Chair Professor and Dean of the Academy of Global Food Economics and Policy at China Agricultural University, Beijing/China, focused on preventing further food price hikes. “The world food price has increased by 30 per cent compared to last October,” Fan noted, putting developments down to COVID 19 and other emerging diseases, the rise in the price of oil, scarcity of resources, climate change, poor governance and conflict. All these factors were creating a “perfect storm” which could cause the entire food system to collapse. “We have to establish green channels to ensure food supplies,” Fan urged. “We need to restrain food export bans, which represent a bad policy. Social protection needs to be established for vulnerable people.”

A food systems “IPCC”


Further measures Fan mentioned included temporary special support for small and medium-sized enterprises, moving to forms of green energy to address oil price hikes and ensuring access to nutritious food for people in conflict regions. Nutrition technologies had to be applied, including biofortification. Regenerative and productive agriculture needed to be scaled up, and nutritious food had to be promoted, whereas nutrient-poor, emissions-high food had to be discouraged. Fan urged improving the resilience of food supply systems, also by incorporating One Health aspects. And he recommended setting up an international food systems panel along the lines of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Pakistan’s agriculture sector accounts for 70 per cent of its foreign exchange. Over the last two years, the country has suffered both severe flooding and droughts. While Pakistan has the world’s largest irrigation system, it is unable to store water sufficiently, which can severely impact its extensive rice-growing in particular. On top of these problems, agriculture has been hard hit by the desert locust which, uniquely in Pakistan, has two breeding seasons – in the late winter/early spring and during the monsoon rains. 

Tariq Khan, Adviser and Director General at Pakistan’s Ministry of National Food Security and Research, said that agriculture had suffered from labour unavailability because of lockdowns and had seen considerable grain losses and sugar shortages. A national Action Plan had already been introduced in December 2019 to deal with the locusts, and a National Locust Control Centre was established in May 2020. Further measures included strengthening plant protection departments and extending early warning systems. 

Moses Mwale, Director of Agriculture at Zambia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAL), focused on the impacts of COVID-19 on food security for vulnerable sections of the population, reporting that undernutrition, micronutrient deficiencies as well as obesity were key concerns. “This shows the need for healthier food systems,” Mwale concluded, and referred to his government’s corresponding strategic objectives. A stable and sustainable availability of cereals, tubers and vegetables had to be ensured, while the fish and livestock sectors required more support. Food losses had to be combatted. Furthermore, the government was seeking to improve access to quality food and increase consumption of a variety of nutrient-rich foods, the provision of which also required an enabling environment.

Neil Willsher, Global Director for Value Chains and Trade at CABI, noted that agribusiness value chains were affected by factors such as restaurants closing, reductions in air freight, lockdowns affecting the flow of products, but also volatile prices or, e.g., congestion in African ports because of their having to deal with increases in food imports and labour unavailability leading to a shortage of lorry-drivers. During the crisis, Willsher pointed out, those cooperatives fared better that were organised from end to end in terms of aspects such as information flows, benefiting them e.g. with regard to awareness of NGO support.

CABI is an international non-profit organisation that provides information and applies scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment. SciDev.Net is part of CABI and acts as an editorially independent information source for the respective areas which CABI addresses.

Mike Gardner, Journalist, Bonn Germany

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