Food security: Lessons to be learnt from Covid-19

food security virus covid corona
For those whose food security depends on access on casual labour, the lockdown of cities to contain the impact of the coronavirus, is a livelihood risk. © ByTheEast

Let’s put our food security on the table. The outbreak of the coronavirus which emerged from China’s Wuhan and has spread the world over has caused phenomenal economic damage across economies in the world has killed more than 300,000 people globally. Its massive disruption to businesses across sectors and industries have however a silver lining: it has slammed polluting industries and given our gasping home planet, which had come under severe stress from all forms of pollution, another fighting chance.

Climate change is a man-made phenomenon. Before the coronavirus crisis, climate change was the biggest, more pressing threat to our existence as a specie. The coronavirus disease, Covid-19 has eclipsed that.

Between learning how to manage our lives under lockdown and managing our industries, we will have to learn to manage soaring infection levels and deaths with sustainable living. The SAR-COV-2 has highlighted the underlying fragility of our existence, which goes much beyond just our health.

This fragility is rooted in a central concept that all things are inextricably connected – starting from our health, finance, food systems, energy and industry – everything is linked and connected.

There is a lesson to be learnt here: the disruption of supply chains across national borders throughout the world only goes to highlight the level of interconnection between us humans with the earth’s climate and the global system of industries that we have created.

Climate change is a compounding risk that has gained weightage and priority given its threat implications on our lives and the urgent need if not a requirement to adapt regardless of whether we are a first world or a third world country.

Risk multiplier

An ever growing global population has placed pressure on our limited food systems and natural resources; climate change has added to this pressure by further limiting their supply levels, threatening our food systems, livelihoods, and health.

Added to this equation is the spread of the coronavirus which has had surprising and unexpected results: the polluting industries face severe disruption while industries in the renewable and sustainable space have brighter horizons.

Our food systems however continues to be significantly affected. The ability of consumers to access food in markets as we can see it in Egypt will be constrained if the supply of food outside of grocery stores is banned. For those whose food security depends on access on casual labour, the lockdown of cities to contain the impact of the coronavirus, is a livelihood risk.

Case in point: the Wuhan coronavirus will significant impact food supplies in Africa if its agricultural workforce is stopped from working in the fields. In developing countries, 69% of economically active women rely on agriculture as their primary source of livelihood. To top this up, the coronavirus comes at a time when Africa is staring at a food crisis led by a locust invasion – its worst infestation in the last 25 years.

The effect of the coronavirus on our food systems is not just limited to third world countries. It is having a significant impact in the developed world as well. Many developed countries are seeing empty grocery store shelves, restaurants struggling to stay afloat during closures due to shortage of groceries. This disruptions across the supply chain is severely affecting the employment levels of countries. Unemployment levels in the United States touched 14.7 with nearly 20.5 million losing their jobs in April 2020.

Unless we bring about a systemic change in our economy, things are likely to go further south. The rising number of Covid-19 infections in developing countries underscore a growing risk that threatens the global food system. This is because, the very nature of the global food system is its interconnected supply chain. The globally interconnected nature of food systems explicitly implies that countries in the developed world will feel the impacts of the disease which is taking a toll on the developing world.

Balancing the risks of the global food supply chain

In 2017, way before the coronavirus popped its head in Wuhan, researchers from the United Kingdom had noted the vulnerability of the country’s food systems. They summarised the implications of the risk in a report that read, “Adaptation efforts focused on the UK’s domestic production of food will have only marginal success because of the global interconnected nature of food systems…”

The coronavirus has only brought to the fore the consequences of our failure to adequately mitigate climate change and find adaptation solutions in our agricultural practices. The entire value chain across the food system is affected by the coronavirus disease and compounded by climate change. From the farmer who grows the food, to the cold storage, whole sellers, retailers, private sector and the government, including their individual funding models, have all been affected by these twin factors.

More research is now urgently needed to better understand how producers, consumers, and all the businesses in between, will be affected by the change in supply and demand, following the impact the coronavirus is having on farm labour, crop schedules, their prices, as well as the import and export of groceries and their by-products.

Countries that are less stable, could very well see civil unrest and tension if its food security is threatened. Their fragility will be further compounded by the impacts of climate change, which is likely to further increase the scarcity of resources. New research will have to be urgently undertaken to get a grip on how risks cascade across sectors and borders and their potential impacts on actors in our food systems as well as figure out newer approaches that can account for interconnected risks.

The emergence of a new world

What kind of world will we go back to once we manage to mitigate the effects of the coronavirus and climate change. Responses by countries around the globe with regard to the coronavirus has demonstrated that speedy, collective action is possible.

We have demonstrated, at least to ourselves, that we are capable of bringing about significant changes in our lifestyles in the name of a greater good. In 2019, the world finally woke up to the threats posed by climate change and in 2020 we are working hard and showing that we can cope with change.

Just as we figured out a way beyond the typical 9 to 5 job, just as we discovered the benefits of working from home, of burning less fossil fuel by travelling less, it is imperative that we figure out a balance which is in harmony with nature.

Greenhouse gas emission have fallen drastically during the COVID-19 crisis, pollution levels across cities of the world have fallen sharply, and there has even been a return of wildlife in our forests.

We have to strive hard to keep these unexpected bounces. We have to seize the opportunity and collectively push for changes in our food security. We have to have the courage to not choose the easy path which pollutes the very environment in which we live in. Let us strive for a climate positive future.