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Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Food Security and Nutrition, June 2020

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Executive Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic is a health and human crisis threatening the food security and nutrition of millions of people around the world. Hundreds of millions of people were already suffering from hunger and malnutrition before the virus hit and, unless immediate action is taken, we could see a global food emergency. In the longer term, the combined effects of COVID-19 itself, as well as corresponding mitigation measures and the emerging global recession could, without large-scale coordinated action, disrupt the functioning of food systems. Such disruption can result in consequences for health and nutrition of a severity and scale unseen for more than half a century.

  • The pandemic hits us at a time of immense global challenges. We need to tackle all the food security and nutrition dimensions of this crisis. Addressing the COVID crisis requires us to work together across sectors and borders both to mitigate the immediate impacts and to reshape food systems so they support healthy diets for all and do more to make food production and consumption aligned to sustainable development.

  • Measures to control or mitigate COVID19 outbreaks are already affecting global food supply chains. Border restrictions and lockdowns are, for example, slowing harvests in some parts of the world, leaving millions of seasonal workers without livelihoods, while also constraining transport of food to markets. Meat processing plants and food markets are being forced to close in many locations due to serious COVID-19 outbreaks among workers. Farmers have been burying perishable produce or dumping milk as a result of supply chain disruption and falling consumer demand. As a result, many people in urban centres now struggle to access fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat and fish.

  • Global markets in staple grains remain robust for now; following good harvests in 2019, stocks of most staple foods are adequate. Yet the vast majority of the world’s population takes its food from local markets, and food security and nutrition remain highly susceptible to disruption.2 High levels of unemployment, loss of income, and rising food costs are also making access to food difficult for many. Prices of basic foods have begun to rise in some countries at a time when people have less money in their pockets.

  • Prior to the onset of this pandemic, more than 820 million people were already identified as chronically food insecure. The latest data shows that the food security of 135 million people was categorised as crisis level or worse.3 That number could nearly double before the end of the year due to the impacts of COVID-19.4 Similarly, the number of children under the age of five years who are stunted now stands at 144 million. That is more than one in five children worldwide. The number of children who are classified as wasting is currently 47 million.5 These numbers could grow rapidly. As of late May, 368 million school children were missing out on daily school meals on which they depend6. The pandemic could push about 49 million people into extreme poverty in 2020.7 Each percentage point drop in global GDP is expected to result in an additional 0.7 million stunted children.8 These income effects combined with other supply shocks could lead to a rapid increase in the number of people acutely food or nutrition insecure in the coming three to four months.

  • Actors in all parts of the food system are impacted by this pandemic. Deep global economic shocks caused by COVID-19 will impact the cash flow and financial liquidity of producers, small and medium agri-businesses to financial institutions, due to inhibited production capacity, limited market access, loss of remittances, lack of employment, and unexpected medical costs. As countries continue to roll out sizable relief and stimulus packages, the needs of food system actors deserve focused attention. Targeted measures to alleviate liquidity constraints on vulnerable firms and households can help facilitate continued production and people’s access to adequate food and nutrition. But care should be taken to adapt to local circumstances; many bottlenecks to food supply cannot be addressed by social protection alone. Government procurement and public distribution can be important expedients to preserve food system functioning and avoid food price inflation. Social protection should include smallholder farmers and their families whose numbers include more than two billion of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, and food workers in all sectors. Supporting developing countries with increased availability and rapid deployment of international funds to address liquidity shortages and free up fiscal space is therefore crucial. The SecretaryGeneral has called for a debt standstill and, ultimately, debt restructuring for developing countries. Commodity- and tourism- dependent economies will be in particular need of comprehensive debt restructuring to enable the fiscal space necessary to support people’s nutritional needs alongside efforts to stimulate growth and accelerate recovery.

  • Moreover, the pandemic came at a time when food security and our food systems were already under strain. Conflict, natural disaster, climate change, and the arrival of pests and plagues on a transcontinental scale preceded COVID-19 and were already undermining food security in many contexts. For example, in East Africa, people are facing a “triple menace” of mutually exacerbating disasters, as ongoing heavy rain hampers attempts to deal with swarms of locusts in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.9 Meanwhile, the worst locust crisis in decades threatens crops heading into the harvest period.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic also raises the alarm on the urgent need to transform the world’s food systems. Globally, food systems remain a driver of climate change and the planet’s unfolding environmental crisis. Food systems contribute up to nearly a third of all greenhouse gas emissions and have contributed to substantial biodiversity loss.11 There is an urgent need to rethink rapidly how we produce, process, market, consume our food and dispose of waste. This crisis can serve as a turning point to rebalance and transform our food systems, making them more inclusive, sustainable and resilient.

  • The following brief examines these dimensions of the challenge and suggests three mutually reinforcing sets of priority actions to address the immediate, near- and medium-term needs to protect people during and beyond the crisis, and – ultimately – to reshape and build resilient food systems.

First, mobilize to save lives and livelihoods, focusing attention where the risk is most acute: Although we cannot yet fully predict the precise impacts of the unfolding crisis, we can determine the likely channels of transmission and anticipate impacts on the most vulnerable populations. We can take commensurate action to support people in a time of great need. These actions should include investment in tools that can enhance crisis response now and in the future.

  • PRESERVE CRITICAL HUMANITARIAN FOOD, LIVELIHOOD AND NUTRITION ASSISTANCE to vulnerable groups – augmented and adapted to anticipated COVID-19 impacts.

  • DECLARE FOOD PRODUCTION, MARKETING, AND DISTRIBUTION AS ESSENTIAL SERVICES EVERYWHERE, ENSURE THE PROTECTION OF THESE WORKERS AND KEEP TRADE CORRIDORS OPEN WITHIN AND AMONG NATIONS to ensure the continuous functioning of the critical aspects of food systems in all countries.

  • EXPAND NEAR-REAL TIME FOOD SECURITY MONITORING SYSTEMS to provide timely, improved and geospatially indicative data to measure the pandemic’s unfolding effects and understand better who is suffering from hunger and malnutrition and where they are.

  • ENSURE RELIEF AND STIMULUS PACKAGES REACH THE MOST VULNERABLE, including meeting the liquidity needs of smallscale food producers and rural businesses, particularly those led by women and young people, and are supported at the international level in a coordinated manner that is responsive to evolving national financing needs.

Second, strengthen social protection systems for nutrition: Given the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic, social protection systems will become the mainstay for hundreds of millions of people for the duration of the current crisis and possibly beyond.

  • FOOD AND NUTRITION ASSISTANCE NEEDS TO BE AT THE HEART OF SOCIAL PROTECTION PROGRAMMES to protect food access for the most vulnerable by increasing their purchasing power and, where necessary, by directly providing food through government or community-based programmes.

  • STRENGTHEN THE HEALTH SYSTEM RESPONSE FOR NUTRITIONAL CARE to ensure the continuity of nutrition services, particularly the early detection and community-based management of acute malnutrition and infant and young child feeding, as well as related maternal nutrition programmes.

  • PROTECT THE MOST VULNERABLE POPULATION GROUPS, AS WELL AS WOMEN WHO PLAY KEY ROLES IN THE HOUSEHOLD AND ESSENTIAL SERVICES DELIVERY and support children who no longer have access to school meals.

  • TAILOR NUTRITION-SENSITIVE SOCIAL PROTECTION PROGRAMMES and consider the potential benefits of different transfer modalities; in-kind, cash, or vouchers as well as public food distribution systems should be designed to ensure access to diverse, balanced and nutritious meals.

Third, invest in a sustainable future: Accelerated investment should be a pillar of the COVID-19 response, aiming for immediate impact to sustain and improve livelihoods, while also preparing for a more inclusive, environmentally sustainable and resilient food system. Investment both during and after the COVID crisis can accelerate movement toward food systems that are more resilient to future pandemics and that offer better protections for all. The goal should be a food system that is in balance with the needs of the global population and the limits of our planet. Investments in COVID-19 response and recovery needs to be leveraged to deliver on that longer-term goal of a more inclusive and sustainable world, including by:

  • TRANSFORMING FOOD SYSTEMS so they work better with nature and for the climate.

  • LAYING THE FOUNDATION FOR A MORE INCLUSIVE, GREEN, AND RESILIENT RECOVERY by ensuring COVID-19 dedicated resources are used in a “build to transform” approach and are evidence-based.

  • USING THE OPPORTUNITY OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL HOSTED FOOD SYSTEMS SUMMIT IN 2021, and the preparatory process, for inclusive dialogues and mobilizing multi-stakeholder action necessary to end hunger, and improve the health and well-being of people and planet.