Alumni reflect on effects COVID-19 on food systems around the world

Published on
July 9, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic affects food security and food systems in many low- and middle-income countries, according to a survey conducted by alumni of Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. The survey proved to be a quick and practical way to gain insights into the field – including what corona-smart agriculture might look like.

The survey was held among alumni of the course on climate change adaptation of Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation. Out of 23 countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia, there were 57 responses. These alumni are mid-career professionals working at universities, NGOs or government agencies and have hands-on experience and direct contact with farmers and other key players in the food system.

Threats to food systems

'A survey like this is a quick way to get perspectives from the field on the impact of COVID-19 on agriculture and climate adaptation, and to share and compare the situation among countries', says Esther Koopmanschap, senior advisor at Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation.  

The WCDI alumni gave suggestions for adapting agriculture to make it 'corona-smart'

Many respondents said that the COVID-19 outbreak is one of many already existing threats to food systems, such as locust invasions, or extreme weather conditions such as floods or hurricanes. Food security is threatened in many countries, mainly due to lack of access to food: vulnerable people lack the money to buy food or cannot access it due to the effects that lockdowns have on food supply chains and labour mobility. Fresh products like fruits and vegetables are particularly hard to get, making it harder for people to maintain a nutritious and well-balanced diet.

Corona-smart agriculture 

The WCDI alumni mentioned many suggestions for adapting agriculture to make it more 'corona-smart', and many conclude that these adaptations go hand in hand with for the movement towards climate-smart agriculture. More emphasis on local value chains and strengthening local organisations is often mentioned as a solution, as well as promoting self-sufficiency and home-gardening.

Some respondents plead for a move towards agro-ecology and indigenous techniques. Others point at the need for smallholder farmers to get more access to smart technology, digitalisation and for information to be more directly connected to their potential market. Many also conclude that government should play a more active role.

Pro-active government: the case of India 

Among the respondents is Deo Datt Singh from India, who works on agriculture and natural resource management with the People's Action for National Integration, an NGO in Uttar Pradesh. He works with thousands of farmers in 350 villages. 'In my 48 years of life I have never seen a more pro-active government in this country in response to this crisis', he says. 'Corona is a big challenge, we had 70 days of lockdown and farmers could not harvest or sell their products. Now the government actively cooperates with NGOs, for example to learn about farmers' needs, and has acted on that. It delivered animal feed to prevent the animals from dying and gave farmers cash transfers and subsidies for inputs.' Furthermore, government policies were deregulated, giving smallholder farmers more room to adapt to the situation. 'For example, farmers are shifting to growing vegetables to secure a regular income and are no longer into cash crops like sugar cane. Our agri-industry is breaking down due to the pandemic.'

The food system in India will recover, Mr Singh believes, but it will take a long time. 'In the end, the situation may even be better than before the pandemic, when the government really implements all the good policy changes they have drafted now. But government lacks money now to do so.'

'Urban agriculture': the case of Ethiopia

Amelmal Afework Tamene from Ethiopia is less optimistic. 'Agricultural production almost stopped, as farmers are at home and are not allowed to work the land', she says about the situation in Bahir Dar, in the northeast of Ethiopia, where she is a lecturer in environmental science at the university. Students have returned home during the pandemic, so Tamene now gives training and advice to the people in her community on how to grow vegetables in their backyards. 'We need more urban agriculture now to be self-sufficient, as the transport system has broken down. Especially fresh vegetables and fruit decay.'

Farmers cannot resume farming as they have no access to fertiliser, nor to seeds nor ploughing services. Government gives some support to farmers, but does not reach all of them. 'Agriculture is the backbone of this country. If the corona pandemic and the lockdown last much longer, there may be a country-wide food crisis in the months to come.' The corona pandemic now comes on top of the climate crisis, says Tamene. 'Drought and erratic rainfall due to climate change very much affects us and our farmers and makes us less resilient to shocks like the corona pandemic. It shows us how things are connected in the food system, and how much need there is for more resilient food systems that can respond to shocks and crises.'

Many more insights and details can be found in the full paper and summary of the research