Wageningen University & Research and partners identified major food systems challenges that emerge as COVID-19 measures take hold and affect food security. Country assessments, unique in their syntheses of grounded in-country data and outcomes validated by country expert panels, reveal deep immediate impacts in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mali.
In all countries women and youth face widespread loss of income, increasing the vulnerability of families in access to food. Current planting seasons are under pressure due to lack of inputs and labor. Also, the availability of fresh and perishable foods that are key to healthy diets is declining.
Macro-level modelling and scenario assessments have pointed to COVID-19 impacts in countries already struggling with multiple and interrelated problems such as the effects of climate change, political unrest and migration issues. A Knowledge Community of Practice led by WUR adds a more detailed level of understanding of how the current crisis impacts food systems. This can help stakeholders take relevant action to prevent the current pandemic resulting in major food and nutritional crises.
Women in informal sectors under huge pressure
The four country assessments show that the position of women, the majority working in informal sectors such as trade of food and services, is affected enormously. On the one hand, women are hit hard by the enormous loss of jobs in the informal sector due to COVID-19 measures. On the other hand they need to find solutions and food for children and other household members who stay at home now that schools are closed and seasonal labor is down. It’s not just women, but also casual laborers – often youth with little savings and assets- who are out of jobs and income. Inge Brouwer, associate professor of Global Nutrition at WUR: ‘Women and youth are a crucial drivers to families’ access to healthy and nutritious foods. Many of them now suffer from income drops, and are unable to provide enough food to their families. This has huge effects on food security and also diets of whole families, with devastating effects on the health and development of their children.’
Coming season precarious
Lack of labor and access to crucial inputs such as seed and fertilizers are also a grave threat to food systems in the four countries under study. COVID-19 mobility measures prevent travel of traders and seasonal laborers, and hinder trade in crucial commodities. While the food security situation is currently acceptable, there are worrying signals of less productivity in the upcoming harvests and less production of nutritious products such as fresh fruits and vegetables. In Bangladesh for example, the winter crop cycle is feared to be much more heavily affected than the current crop cycle.
Declining availability and trust in perishable foods
Brouwer and her team specifically worked on a thorough assessment with a panel of experts in Bangladesh. Brouwer: ‘What we see in Bangladesh is that perishable foods are under pressure: the supply chain of for example milk was already vulnerable, and was one of the first to suffer from COVID-19 measures. Next to this, people distrust the food safety of cooked vegetables and animal foods such as eggs, meat and fish. Myths have spread about these foods causing COVID-19. Creating awareness of the fact that this is not the case, and that these foods are of crucial importance to people’s diets, is key.’
Taking immediate action with partners
One of many partners involved in this project is the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Steve Godfrey, GAIN’s director of policy & external communications: ‘A lot of discussion has focused on global food security and the food supply chain. There has been little focus on economic fall-out in the informal sector and nutritional value of foods that remain accessible to people. Also, the effects on small and medium enterprises (SME’s) in low and middle income countries are huge and pose a great threat to food systems. SME’s, often food processors and distributers, are crucial in adding value to the food that’s produced. They’re very dependent on credit, investments and technological support and thus need full attention to secure resilient food systems.’
GAIN and WUR, both being active in low and middle income countries with different sets of partners, connected their information and networks. Godfrey: ‘We were already analyzing food system effects, but the approach that WUR displays really adds breadth and a methodological approach to the work we have been doing. Together, we can make a much larger difference and secure immediate action.’
Global partnerships and follow-up
The speed with which systemic insights have come together is the result of rapid, willing engagement by many in-country partners with deep specific knowledge, combined with WUR’s structured synthesis and analysis following a food systems approach. All partners, and the process followed, can be found on the country assessment webpage. WUR and partners continue to work on sector and country assessments through the Knowledge Community of Practice, one of four CoPs facilitated by the Netherlands Food Partnership and the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition to help coordinate joint action of Dutch development actors in response to the COVID-19 crisis.