At the time of writing, the COVID-19 virus had infected over 4 million people worldwide and nearly 300,000 people had lost their lives, with millions more under lockdowns to help contain the pandemic. The number and spread of infections has also been increasing across many countries in the Global South, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. 

Meanwhile, the full economic costs of COVID-19 are still unfolding. In addition to its expected high short-term costs, COVID-19 is projected to have a longer-term recessionary effect on economies globally, with significant implications for the availability of resources for health, education, and other social sectors. A major part of the economic costs will be caused by the greatly increased need for resources at the “last line of defense”—hospitalization and critical care—in addition to trade and income losses. This does not include the opportunity costs of resources that will not be spent on other important economic development efforts. 

COVID-19 is also having a profound effect on agriculture and food systems. A recent virtual presentation summarizes the pandemic’s adverse impacts on farm production and food supply chains, employment and livelihoods, and even greater volatility in prices, depending on whether there is oversupply or low demand. The disruption is also affecting social food distribution programs such as school feeding and input supply schemes.

The impacts of such disruptions will be felt most sharply by populations that are already vulnerable to malnutrition in all its forms. They include smallholder farming families and other low-resource populations in low- and middle-income countries who depend on day-to-day food production and struggle under normal circumstances to ensure their food security, incomes, and productivity. Pregnant and lactating mothers, and children in their first 1,000 days will suffer the longest-term impacts from the lack of safe and nutritious diets. These children will miss a critical window to build a strong foundation for lifelong health and well-being because much of this is determined in the first 1,000 days (the period between conception and a child’s second birthday).

In addition, as financial markets react in the short and medium term, we will the extent to which this will affect food demand, as well as agricultural investment, which is already flagging in many countries. These will impact small- and medium-size enterprises in food value chains, threatening in turn the availability of credit that these enterprises typically provide to cash-strapped smallholder farmers. Meanwhile, reductions in international trade flows due to export restrictions and other factors are going to impact nutritional access for millions of people as food supplies are restricted, particularly in countries dependent on food imports. 

Helping the most vulnerable

Several governments have stepped in to provide immediate assistance to farmers. In the United States, the recently-adopted CARES Act is providing $9.5 billion in financial support to farmers impacted by COVID-19, and $14 billion for the Commodity Credit Corporation. In China, in response to a sharp decline in livestock trade, the government has created a “green channel” which facilitates fresh product distribution by reducing roadblocks. In India, where a countrywide lockdown coincided with the middle of the harvest season for staples, the government has put in place a multifaceted strategy to ensure social assistance including direct cash transfers, loans, insurance, and food in kind. Initiatives include allowing families to access up to six months of subsidized food grains up front through the Targeted Public Distribution System and monthly allowances to daily wage laborers using Direct Benefit Transfers. A recovery and stimulus package equivalent to 10 percent of India’s GDP has recently been released.

These are welcome measures, but COVID-19 is not likely to be the last major shock to our agriculture and food systems. What can we do to better prepare for the future and ensure nutrition and food security for the most vulnerable?

Nutrition as the first line of defense

Food systems are as much a part of a future solution as they are part of the current problem. As Dr. Erick Boy of HarvestPlus notes in a recent post, “….the most immediate frontline defense for people against infections is a healthy immune system”. Essential micronutrients such as zinc, vitamin A, and iron have a crucial role to play in building immune systems. Efforts to deliver micronutrients to vulnerable populations have used strategies such as biofortification, which uses conventional plant breeding methods to increase the micronutrient content of staple crops that are commonly produced and eaten every day.  Biofortification is shown to improve not only micronutrient status but also health outcomes, including cognitive and physical function, stronger immune systems, and lower morbidity to a range of diseases. These crops are also bred to be high yielding and climate-smart. Nutritious foods including biofortified staples need to be considered as a top investment priority as we think about better preparing for the future. “We’re focusing on the survival of people, but nutrition is a part of this,” said Gerda Verburg, global coordinator of the Scaling Up Nutrition Movement

Social safety nets that prioritize micronutrients

Existing social transfers are an immediate platform for improving the health of communities today and generations to come. Food transfers through school feeding, public distribution, and input transfers programs need to include high-quality biofortified and other nutritious foods. The priority population segments that these programs reach are regularly deprived of the basic building blocks of healthy immune systems and growth and are also most vulnerable to infection because of lack of access to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) and limited ability to conduct social distancing given their livelihoods needs and crowded housing conditions. Social protection, food, and health policies can do more to incorporate micronutrient enriched biofortified foods.

Building resilient, nutrition-sensitive food systems

Diverse diets are an important element of healthy populations, but for many low-income households, relatively low-nutrient staple crops are the largest and most consistent source of nutrition. This is going to be particularly true in emergency or stress contexts where perishables (dairy, meat, vegetables etc.) are difficult to deliver and store. In this context, biofortified staples will be increasingly important. 

This is a chance for policymakers, international financial institutions, the private sector, and market facilitators to think of how best to integrate nutrition and systematically to address barriers for healthy and inclusive food systems. Input delivery programs are an immediate first and urgent step to ensuring that smallholder communities have access to the high yielding, climate-smart and nutritious seeds, such as those of biofortified crops. Investments in food processing with a focus on micronutrient-enriched foods (whether with biofortified ingredients or with fortificants, or both) is a second key step. Thirdly, in food systems where stakeholders are not stepping forward to adopt and expand nutritious inputs and foods there may be need for concerted public private investments to demonstrate demand, incentivize system actors to crowd-in and spur expansion.

Deploy technology at scale

Technology will play an important role as COVID-19 forces both producers and consumers to increase their use of e-commerce and retail channels. In China the government has actively encouraged farmers to sell directly on Alibaba and Pinduoduo, using livestreaming to sell livestock. In Italy, online sales doubled between February and March, 2020. In Thailand, medical and food supply sales have driven a rapid expansion of online sales. In all these countries, smaller companies are likely to suffer, with larger ones being able to ride the storm and gain benefits from an expansion in demand for online deliveries, leading to greater integration within value chains. E-payments are going to be a key enabler for e-commerce particularly as customers potentially shift to digital banking facilities with the fear that cash can transmit infection. 

COVID is a critical wake-up call to rethink, redesign, reprioritize our food systems to deliver nutritious and affordable food for all. Policymakers, researchers and the agriculture sector need to come together to systematically solve the food divide that the pandemic has highlighted.  (photo credit: World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu)