The economic impact and prediction of an extended crisis period due to COVID-19 suggests an additional 130 million people will be acutely food insecure in 2020, nearly doubling the current total (World Food Program, 2020). Those already at risk of food insecurity and poverty are now more vulnerable as loss of income and disrupted supply chains create a loop of food and financial insecurity. (World Food Program, 2020). Complex relationships between farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers, and more will be affected (FAO, 2020b). 

Disruptors and risk factors

Food insecurity has been worsened by the inability to transport food to and from markets due to domestic and international interruptions, such as port closures, transportation shortages, trade policies, and taxes. Furthermore, labour shortages due to illness, movement restrictions, and border closures add to this strain (World Bank Group, 2020). Cross-border travel restrictions due to COVID-19 have caused labour shortages in agricultural and meat production industries (World Economic Forum, 2020). High-value commodities tend to have higher labour demands than staples commodities, impacted by travel restrictions or disease spread amongst the workforce. These disruptions are causing backlogs and spoilage of food that did not occur in pre-COVID conditions. (FAO, 2020b).

Loss of income is another driver of food insecurity.

Loss of income is another driver of food insecurity. Individuals, households, small and local businesses without capital or reserves to sustain themselves are severely affected by this. In addition, school closures impact high-risk and vulnerable families, as children depend on school meals as a reliable source of food (FAO, 2020a). 

Taxes, Tariffs, and Affected populations

It is estimated that one in every five calories consumed has crossed at least one international border (FAO, 2020a). Governments have been warned to learn from past events of food scarcity where food protectionism, trade barriers and taxes exacerbated existing issues, especially for low-income, import-dependant, or food-insecure countries. Food protectionism through export bans in producing countries and accelerated rates of importing in others have historically cause global food-price increases, such as in 2010-2011 (World Economic Forum and World Food Program, 2020). 

‘Food protectionism through export bans in producing countries and accelerated rates of importing in others have historically cause global food-price increases’

The World Bank Group (2020) identified fragile and conflict-affected states, countries experiencing multiple crises, low income or vulnerable populations who were food insecure prior to COVID-19, and countries experiencing currency depreciation or a drop in commodity prices, as the most “at-risk” areas for food insecurity currently. The countries most vulnerable to sustained food-price increases are nearly all those with developing economies, comprising approximately three-fifths of the global population (World Economic Forum, 2020). 

Mitigation and Preparedness  

A lack of sustainability and resiliency in the face of climate change, conflict, and other global events place the most vulnerable at risk (Jimenez, 2020). Therefore, governments must balance economic productivity and workforce protection (FAO, 2020b). International agencies must collaborate with governments and other groups to mobilize emergency funding, build market capacity, support food supply chains, and develop policy to ensure future preparedness (World Bank Group, 2020). Expanded and improved social welfare programs, such as emergency food assistance and social protection programs are recommended, amongst other measures, to prevent devastating consequences (FAO, 2020b).

By Jessie Karlovich

A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team

12 June 2020

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