COVID-19 Highlights the Need for Safe, Nutritious, and Affordable Food

Many of the world’s food producers are struggling to get their products to market during the pandemic. Photo: ADB
Many of the world’s food producers are struggling to get their products to market during the pandemic. Photo: ADB

By Akmal Siddiq

Hunger and malnutrition were an increasing problem worldwide before the pandemic. Restrictions imposed to curb disease spread have disrupted local and international food supply chains, making the problem even more urgent.

Global hunger and malnutrition have been rising for the past five years. Lockdowns imposed to combat the coronavirus pandemic have disrupted the local and international food trade, as well as production and distribution. Tens of millions of urban and other migrant workers have lost their jobs, many perhaps permanently—pushing them into a hunger trap.

Efforts to end hunger and malnutrition (Sustainable Development Goal 2) now seem in jeopardy. Even after full lockdowns are relaxed, continued disruption in food production and distribution will likely increase consumer prices. With lost livelihoods for tens of millions of households, increased food insecurity and malnutrition will become a grim reality without focused measures to support food production and marketing.

Food insecurity and malnutrition should have been headline news before COVID-19 pandemic. Despite impressive economic growth in Asia and the Pacific region over the last four decades, endemic food insecurity and malnutrition have persisted. The number of people living in extreme poverty (under $1.90 a day) declined from 53% in 1990 to about 9% in 2013. Still, 326 million people lived below the poverty line. Poverty is inextricably linked to food insecurity, and accordingly the number of food-insecure people in the region has remained high.

Feeding these hungry and malnourished millions is a daunting challenge.  Malnutrition affects people of all ages—ranging from severe undernutrition to obesity—but children bear the heaviest burden. Over 86 million, or 25% of children younger than five suffer from stunting, and 34 million children are wasting. A further 12 million suffer from acute malnutrition with high risk of death. The income penalty of stunting amounts to 7%-10% of GDP in the region. But governments allocate only 1% of public expenditure for nutrition programs.    

The widespread loss of employment and income triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic will make the situation much worse.

Take the example of unsafe food. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of unsafe food on human health was staggering. In 2018, the World Health Organization estimated that globally over 600 million fall ill after eating contaminated food and 420,000 die every year. Children under five years of age carry 40% of the foodborne disease burden with 125,000 deaths every year. If loss in employment and disruptions in food production and distribution continue and safe food becomes even harder to find for poor communities, this toll of sickness and death could escalate in the COVID-19 era.

There’s no easy fix for these pressing challenges. But there is a single step, albeit a large one, that will have immediate beneficial impacts on the region’s food security.

Governments need to devote at least as much attention to the rural sector as they do to their urban communities. Rural development and the farm sector have been largely neglected in some parts of the region. The resulting underinvestment has taken a significant toll on the agriculture sector, and on the food security and health status of societies.

Smallholder farmers provide 80% of the region’s food. When they don’t make a profit, they can’t invest in modern technology and higher quality inputs. As a result, farm productivity across the region is low, cost of production is high and consumers pay higher prices.

Poor quality and contaminated food has corrosive effects on public health. Malnourished people have weak immune systems, making them more vulnerable to diseases like COVID-19. This vicious cycle can only be broken by focused government attention at senior policymaking levels.

  The rural communities that produce the world’s food need support during COVID-19.

What can governments do to help farmers produce safe, nutritious, and affordable food in the region?

The first priority is to provide smallholders with access to quality seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Often, these are not available on time and are adulterated. Governments either do not have adequate quality and safety regulations or do not enforce them. Three actions will bring significant improvements: expand smallholders’, especially women’s, access to input financing; improve marketing of key inputs by easing constraints on imports and distribution; and enhance compliance with quality standards, especially for seeds and chemicals.

Second, the region desperately needs functional markets for perishables and nutritious food such as fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and dairy. Post-harvest losses amount to 30%-40% of production due to a lack of cold-chain facilities and proper market infrastructure.

In the short-term, governments should improve hygiene and compliance with food quality standards at existing wholesale markets. In the medium-term, there’s a need for investments in modern wholesale and retail market infrastructure through public-private partnerships. An Asian Development Bank study estimates that in order to achieve SDG 2 in Asia and the Pacific, annual investments in agricultural research and development, market infrastructure, irrigation, and water use efficiency must increase from the current $42 billion to as much as $79 billion. Given the unfolding toll of COVID-19 on the food sector, this investment requirement will be even higher.

The third way governments can head off pandemic-induced food shortages is to improve their own capacities. Ministries dealing with agriculture in most governments are sometimes the weakest link in the system. Their capacity to make evidence-based policies require significant improvement immediately.

Due to COVID-19, unemployed urban migrant workers are heading home to rural areas. It’s safer there, as social distancing is easier in households with larger living spaces than in cramped urban communities. Improved rural development and profitable farming will also generate plentiful non-farm jobs. Increased income in rural areas will also generate higher demand for city jobs. The pandemic is a threat, but also an opportunity to reap dividends as workers return to farms—but only if governments invest more in agriculture and take helpful and decisive policy actions.

Decent on and off-farm rural incomes and jobs will deliver safe, nutritious, and affordable food that societies—especially poor communities—and economies need to survive and thrive in the COVID-19 era.