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COVID-19 and our food systems

As governments scramble to prop up health systems to fight COVID-19 and frontline workers put their lives at risk, the pandemic is exposing the cavernous gaps and inequities in our food systems. To feed the world into an uncertain future, we have no choice but to radically rethink our food systems.
Farming

Photography by World Bank

By Suneetha Kadiyala, Joe Yates and Sylvia Levy

With panic buying running rampant, this crisis reveals that our food systems are geared towards healthy people with stable incomes, leaving the elderly and poor with higher prices, limited choices and ultimately, poor diets. High-income countries like Singapore and Britain can draw on food reserves or work with supermarkets to prioritise key products. But addressing these uncertainties for the 820 million undernourished who live mostly in low and middle-income countries is a major challenge.1

As we witness bans on exports of vital medical supplies, protectionist measures for food trade are playing out in parallel that put resource-constrained nations at risk, echoing effects of similar restrictions during the 2007-2008 food price crisis.2 Even the USA faces a possible threat to its $80 billion ‘phase-one’ farm goods trade deal with China.

Under unprecedented lockdowns, subsistence farmers, who produce as much as 34% of global food supply, face grim poverty traps.3,4 Preliminary information from India suggests lockdowns are halting harvests and informal food traders and vendors are seeing sales nosedive.5 Migrant farm workers globally are being rendered homeless, jobless and food insecure overnight, with consequences for their families back home. As the foundation of rural economies, women in particular face a disproportionate burden. For many, social distancing is a less immediate priority than filling an empty belly, thus threatening prevention itself.

Demand for often unhealthy non-perishable and processed foods might surge as informal markets providing fresh produce in low and middle-income countries come to standstill. This, coupled with an enforced sedentary lifestyle, is likely to increase the burden of non-communicable diseases like diabetes, which in turn put vulnerable people at further risk of a severe case of COVID-19.6 Worryingly, after decades of progress, maternal and child health and nutrition may slide back as overstretched health systems become unable to deliver needed services such as ante and post-natal care, and breastfeeding counselling.

While COVID-19 is expected to reduce carbon emissions in the short term, the food system’s environmental footprint may move in the opposite direction, with increases in single-use plastics for hygiene reasons, as well as the loosening of environmental standards7 to expedite food supply and kickstart economies.

Our food system’s vulnerabilities may seem shocking, but these issues are not new. We are no more prepared for this crisis than we are able to feed our growing population in a sustainable, equitable or healthy way. Not only do we face dual crises of undernutrition and obesity, but our current system of food production and transport is driving greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, food waste, deforestation and biodiversity loss.8

Then there is the elephant in the room - COVID-19’s origin partially lies within the food system.9 This is no surprise to those who have warned against limitless destruction of biodiversity, livestock mass-production and rapid transportation of live animal products to meet the insatiable appetite of an increasingly imbalanced world. The spread of zoonotic diseases like SARS and Ebola and diseases affecting livestock like African swine fever is testament to these risks, but our food systems may also exacerbate other infectious diseases like malaria, which have been linked to agricultural practices like rice cultivation.10

Densely-packed animal populations and routine non-medical use of critical antimicrobials pose a triple threat to our ability to prevent zoonotic infections, keep a stable food supply, and ensure the effectiveness of crucial medicines.

Mending these problems is matter of urgency. The approaches we take today will have consequences for the future of people and planet, and on our ability to handle emergencies, nourish the world, prevent outbreaks and protect the environment. Now is the time to strengthen preparedness, safety regulations, food access and supply chains, as well as build new tools to secure food systems and nutrition. This can only happen if we take a planetary health approach to integrate health, food and environmental policies. In the wake of COVID-19, we might just be ready to revolutionise how we feed the world.

Suneetha, Joe and Sylvia are part of the IMMANA Programme at LSHTM, which aims to improve nutrition and health by strengthening tools and capacity for agriculture and food systems research. They run the Agriculture, Nutrition and Health (ANH) Academy, bringing together researchers, practitioners and policymakers across the world working on these issues. You can find the ANH Academy’s latest work on COVID-19 and food systems here, including a collaborative map of global perspectives.

References

1. FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, & WHO. (2019). The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019. Safeguarding against economic slowdowns and downturns. The State of the World, 212. http://www.fao.org/state-of-food-security-nutrition

2. Organisation, W. T. (2020). WTO | COVID-19 and world trade. Retrieved April 6, 2020, from https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/covid19_e.htm

3. Ricciardi, V., Ramankutty, N., Mehrabi, Z., Jarvis, L., & Chookolingo, B. (2018). How much of the world’s food do smallholders produce? Global Food Security, 17, 64–72. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.GFS.2018.05.002

4. UNAIDS. (2020). Rights in the time of COVID-19 — Lessons from HIV for an effective, community-led response | UNAIDS. Retrieved April 6, 2020, from https://www.unaids.org/en/resources/documents/2020/human-rights-and-cov…

5. Narayanan, S. (2020). Food and agriculture during a pandemic: Managing the consequences. Retrieved April 6, 2020, from https://www.ideasforindia.in/topics/agriculture/food-and-agriculture-du…

6. Jordan, R. E., Adab, P., & Cheng, K. K. (2020). Covid-19: risk factors for severe disease and death. BMJ, 368, m1198. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1198

7. Los Angeles Times (2020). Citing coronavirus, EPA suspends enforcement of environmental laws. Retrieved April 6, 2020, from Los Angeles Times website: https://www.latimes.com/environment/story/2020-03-27/epa-suspends-enfor…

8. Luis G. Barioni (Brazil), Tim G. Benton (United Kingdom), M. H., 6 (Australia/Costa Rica), Murukesan Krishnapillai (Micronesia/India), E. L. (Tanzania), 7 Prajal Pradhan (Germany/Nepal), Marta G. Rivera-Ferre (Spain), T. S. (Canada/Nepal), & 8 Francesco N. Tubiello (The United States of America/Italy), Y. X. (China). (2019). IPCC. Retrieved from https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/2019/08/2f.-Chapter-5_FINAL.pdf

9. Andersen, K. G., Rambaut, A., Lipkin, W. I., Holmes, E. C., & Garry, R. F. (2020). The proximal origin of SARS-CoV-2. Nature Medicine, 89(1), 44–48. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-020-0820-9

10. Rumisha, S. F., Shayo, E. H., & Mboera, L. E. G. (2019). Spatio-temporal prevalence of malaria and anaemia in relation to agro-ecosystems in Mvomero district, Tanzania. Malaria Journal, 18(1), 228. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12936-019-2859-y

COVID-19 Response Fund

There cannot be any complacency as to the need for global action.

With your help, we can plug critical gaps in the understanding of COVID-19. This will support global response efforts and help to save lives around the world.