Getting food to consumers requires well-functioning supply chains and social safety nets
Food and nutritional security depends on production and trade, and requires well-functioning supply chains to make sure food is available where consumers are. Over the past few decades, global food availability has outpaced population growth, leading to increasingly affordable food. COVID-19 containment measures have disrupted food production and trade, although global food availability has held up remarkably well so far.
At the same time, at the national level, the necessary health and safety measures to protect the workforce from exposure to COVID-19 have affected the availability of farm labour and the livelihoods of seasonal farm workers. It has also led to reduced productivity in food processing and distribution plants, or even meat processing plant closures (including due to outbreaks of illness at facilities and the measures necessary to enable re-opening). Processing plant closures in some countries in turn have caused important backlogs on farms, with serious implications for the management of ongoing harvests, production, and animal welfare. Equally, processing restrictions will eventually impact the availability of products to consumers. Further issues in food availability have resulted from the closure of hotels and restaurants, which are an important source of food donations to food banks, reducing supply to these emergency food providers at a time when demand is increasing as people suffer loss of incomes. These tensions in some domestic food systems warrant rapid attention now and examination into vulnerabilities and choke-points to avoid similar problems in the future.
For international food trade, food safety and certification checks and new biosecurity arrangements are increasing costs and time at borders. Transport and logistics have been slower and are more expensive due to a reduction in available drivers, the reduction in international air cargo and unforeseen port closures. Despite these disruptions, global food availability to date remains high: for example, there are currently ample supplies of staple crops, with cereal stocks predicted to reach record highs.
Effective responses to COVID-19 should first ensure that global food systems remain open and operational, so that food can move to where it is needed. This task cannot be achieved by any country acting alone: international co-operation is essential. This in turn implies increased transparency and information sharing across governments – information sharing on markets, on policies, and on possible future actions. Co-operative solutions will help avoid policy mistakes that will make a bad situation worse. In particular, experience with the 2007-08 food price crisis showed that export restrictions should be avoided: they create volatility in regional and global markets, penalise domestic producers, and are ultimately self-defeating. In the context of COVID-19, some countries have introduced export restrictions on agrifood products or inputs; however, a number of these have subsequently been removed and there have been no significant impacts on markets to date. Practical measures are also needed to speed up border procedures and increase border agency cooperation in risk management to ensure the smooth functioning of global supply chains.
Even before the COVID-19 outbreak, more than 800 million people worldwide were undernourished as poverty, conflict and civil unrest undermined their access to food. COVID 19–related production shocks and increased poverty could have serious implications for food security particularly in many low income countries. In OECD countries, vulnerable populations may also struggle with access to food because of reduced incomes and mobility. According to the UN World Food Programme, COVID-19 risks increasing the number of people facing acute hunger from 135 million to 265 million, unless urgent action is taken. International cooperation is thus needed to avert a humanitarian crisis.2
The persistent problem of undernourishment underlines the fact that food production and trade are necessary but not sufficient to achieve food and nutrition security. The long-term, sustainable response requires further action to tackle poverty and, in a number of countries, conflict resolution; in the shorter-term, well-functioning social safety nets are needed to ensure that the most vulnerable in society have access to food. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, OECD countries have been implementing a range of policies to ensure food can get to consumers, and in particular the most vulnerable groups such as low-income households, people with health conditions, and elderly citizens. In some cases, this has meant making sure that food is available where consumers are by alleviating supply chain bottlenecks and arranging the delivery of food parcels to the vulnerable. In other cases, it has meant providing financial safety nets so consumers can maintain access to food. For example, countries have been providing additional funding for existing food assistance programmes including for food banks, as well as extra money during school closures (including via electronic vouchers) for families of children who usually benefit from free or discounted meals at school. Some OECD countries have also temporarily loosened eligibility requirements for receiving domestic food assistance.