Feed the Future
This project is part of the U.S. Government's global hunger and food security initiative.

Coronavirus and the Implications for Food Systems and Policy

This month, Marketlinks is highlighting the economic impacts of COVID-19. We welcome your submissions on this topic. 

This blog was originally posted on Argrilinks and was co-authored by Billy Hall, Policy and Communications Advisor, USAID Bureau for Resilience and Food Security (RFS); James F. Oehmke, Senior Policy Advisor, USAID RFS, and Adjunct Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, Northwestern University; and Shawn Wozniak, Agricultural Development Officer, USAID RFS.

The COVID-19 virus, commonly referred to as coronavirus, is spurring dramatic changes to economic, healthcare, transportation, and education systems around the world. No less important is the potential for COVID-19 to impact local and global food systems and their ability to provide safe, affordable, and nutritious food as well as sufficient incomes for people working in food and agriculture sectors. As the COVID-19 pandemic is still evolving, it is difficult to know the geographic reach and degree of impact we can expect to see across food production and distribution systems. Looking to past viruses as well as China’s handling of COVID-19, however, might help guide future responses in public policy and programming.

Although Ebola virus is a vastly different disease than COVID-19 — on the genetic level they work through different processes, they have different transmission pathways, there are differences in susceptibility, the disease progresses differently, and they have different levels of severity — it is perhaps useful to reflect upon the food system disruptions that occurred during the 2013—2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, primarily in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Research studying Ebola virus disease’s (EVD) effect in Liberia found a reduction in incomes for households across the board, not just in the communities where EVD was present, leading them to suggest that the impact of the outbreak had both direct and indirect income effects. They also “found that the community-level incidence of EVD negatively affected crop production of farm households, which may have exacerbated the problem of food insecurity throughout the country.”

In Sierra Leone, the EVD outbreak and the responses to it led to disruptions across the food chain that had “system-wide impacts” on food security and nutrition, on a scale similar to the fallout from disasters like earthquakes. As government policies restricted people’s movements through road blockages and community quarantines, markets became disrupted, leading to less available food, less diversity of options, and higher prices, especially on more scarce foods.

The Kivu EVD outbreak of 2018-2020 in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo disrupted food production and supplies in an otherwise humanitarian assistance-dependent context. EVD, compounded by violence in the area, led to enormous outlays of humanitarian food assistance. The long-term effects of the over 2,264 deaths, the disruption to food production, the damage caused by violence — including forced displacement — and other factors are not yet known, and the Government’s policy response not yet unveiled. 

What then can we learn from EVD as we try to contain COVID-19 and limit negative second-order impacts? How much of these past EVD outbreaks are translatable to the present circumstances? In China, we are already seeing an increase of food prices more than twenty percent above last year’s prices, the highest since the 2008 economic crisis. This could be due to a host of coinciding factors, but may well include both hoarding and food chain disruptions. According to IFPRI, one lesson we can take away from China is that food availability in Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first detected, has been somewhat stabilized through “green channels” that send food from outside production hubs, such as Shuoguang located hundreds of miles away. Thus, having a diverse and decentralized food supply landscape linked through secondary cities has proven effective in reducing food insecurity in locked down urban and rural areas.

Despite these observations, there is still much we don’t know about the particular disease dynamics of COVID-19 and the possible impacts of different policy decisions. The ways that countries, governments, institutions, and communities respond to coronavirus may have profound implications for resilience, food security, nutrition, and food systems policy more broadly.  Without adequate preparation, response plans, and resources, second-order impacts on the economy, security, food security, education, and more will be exacerbated by non-data-driven and possibly uncoordinated policy responses.  

It is important to note though that the disruptions associated with the COVID-19 virus and the various responses to this pandemic are far more likely to adversely affect the poor and other marginalized groups with less power and resources to adapt to unpredictable crisis events. Not only will vulnerable populations and communities have greater difficulty accessing enough food for survival and adequate nutrition, but many also depend upon the food system’s stability for their livelihoods. Shocks to the food chain may disrupt flows of production and trade, which can have volatile market effects and implications on both food prices and agrifood-based incomes. As we learned from the 2007-2008 food commodity crisis, sharp price increases and market changes disproportionately burden the poor. Certain economic impacts will persist beyond the height of the pandemic. These may include increased disabilities in human/cognitive development due to extended lean season and other caloric shortages particularly among those who are already food insecure, which will lead to next-generation reductions in human capital and ensuing economic impacts. Lastly, food system workers rarely have paid sick days and may be forced to work while ill to ensure they can earn enough money, potentially fueling a spiraling pandemic. 

The above considerations make it apparent that sound food security and agricultural policy are vital for countries to be able to weather viral outbreaks and the shocks they send throughout food supply chains. Access to accurate information that helps people plan for and react to changing situations is also necessary for people to make the best decisions given their circumstances. Policymakers must be able to identify the most vulnerable populations and make decisions that aim to reduce harm to them. 

As we continue to work hard to ensure that the COVID-19 pandemic does not exacerbate poverty and hunger in our partner countries, we encourage you to contribute to and expand this conversation with your experiences, observations, and ideas.