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Safeguarding food systems during and after the COVID-19 pandemic


Dominique Charron

Vice-President, Programs and Partnerships, IDRC
Headshot of Sandra Gagnon

Sandra Gagnon

Senior Program Officer, IDRC

Informed Responses. Recovery for All.

In April 2020, demonstrators from Ciudad Bolivar, the largest informal settlement in Bogotá, Colombia, were chanting, “If the virus doesn’t kill us, starvation will.” The same sentiment is echoed in the research carried out by our partners among the world’s most disadvantaged populations. 

Over the past year and a half, the restrictions and lockdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted food systems in many parts of the world — reducing production and access to food — and jeopardized basic household incomes needed to buy food. Several IDRC research partners documented marked rises in the number of people affected by food insecurity: for example, a two-fold increase in Côte d’Ivoire and a three-fold increase in Ghana. 

Food systems are complex webs of people and practices involved in producing, distributing, and consuming food. They depend on and impact nearly all aspects of life: human health, plant and animal health, economies, ecosystems, and the climate. The COVID-19 pandemic and measures taken to control the virus have revealed just how interdependent and fragile food systems are in low- and middle-income countries, and the strong role women play in building resilience. 

Several of IDRC’s rapid-response research initiatives are helping to document the pandemic’s effects on food systems and food security, especially among marginalized workers in the informal economy. Research teams have generated recommendations on policies and practical measures that can strengthen food production, livelihoods, and social safety nets to ensure greater food security and sustainable food systems in times of crisis. 

Disruption of food production and distribution 

Research in sub-Saharan Africa found that COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions resulted in widespread disarray in the production, distribution, and consumption of fresh food. In Ghana, for example, 54% of consulted smallholder farmers told our partner, SOCODEVI, that poor access to seed had reduced their food production. In Senegal, 92% reported the same problem. 

Food transport, processing, retailing, and trading were also highly disrupted in many places, particularly in the informal sector, which is dominated by women and youth. A survey by the National Agricultural Research Organisation revealed that many Kenyan women made up for job losses among household members by selling roasted maize, fruits, or vegetables on the street. But COVID-19 measures and lack of resources to invest in stock meant that these businesses were often short-lived. In South Africa, informal traders were initially shut down because they were not considered “essential goods providers”. They were allowed to reopen if they obtained a permit, but research by PRICELESS South Africa documented hurdles to doing so that made it difficult or impossible for many.  

Overall, across sub-Saharan Africa, increased food prices and reduced income forced many households to cut back on the quantity and quality of food they consumed. In Senegal, for example, up to 93% of consulted households reported a drastic reduction in meat consumption, having replaced the proteins with starch from cereals. Importantly, these hardships occurred in what was the world’s most food-insecure region before the pandemic. Research partners in other regions have observed similar trends. 

Protecting food systems and livelihoods 

Experts at an Independent Food Systems Summit Dialogue co-hosted by IDRC in July 2021 called for improving the resilience of food systems at the local level to protect the food and livelihood security of those hardest hit by COVID-19 — women, youth, people with disabilities, displaced persons, and informal workers. Dialogue participants also stressed the importance of strengthening the ability to coordinate global responses to local crises.  

Their recommendations offer approaches and solutions to help keep food systems secure and resilient when challenged by global emergencies. They urge governments to ensure access to farms, fisheries, and markets for small-scale farmers and vendors — with appropriate health and safety measures — and to provide this sector with financial support to weather the impact of crises. Maintaining and subsidizing access to agricultural supplies such as feed, seed, and fertilizer can guard against declines in production levels. 

The provision of adequate food-storage facilities and equal access to, or the waiving of, work permits and business licenses could help to address disruptions to informal food production and distribution chains. 

Ensuring the smooth operation of the food system is a priority for IDRC-supported research in Pakistan, led by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. The research team has produced a tool to directly aid the real-time management of food systems, including supply, shortages, and price inflation. The Food Security Dashboard is a database that offers policymakers daily national, provincial, and district-level views, allowing them to correct activities such as hoarding before they lead to food crises. The dashboard has been adopted by the Ministry of National Food Security and Research as part of the country’s COVID-19 response and planning process. 

Improving social support for the most vulnerable 

RIMISP — the Latin American Centre for Rural Development — has documented drops in the consumption of fresh produce, meat, and fish, and shifts to cheaper, highly processed foods throughout Latin America, all due to pandemic measures.  

This research team found that social programs and benefits can build resilience in the face of large-scale challenges such as pandemics but that one-size-fits-all measures can leave many, especially the poorest and most vulnerable populations, falling through cracks in the safety net. It highlights the need to improve the targeting, responsiveness, inclusiveness, and extent of relief measures to reach workers in the informal sector, not just formally employed workers.  

Local, community-led solutions are also important to strengthen. For example, numerous women-run community kitchens, known as “common pots,” have sprung up in Peru and neighbouring countries to help feed many who need support. Working with Peruvian policymakers, the Group for the Analysis of Development is helping to make these community kitchens more sustainable and effective. For example, it helped to design the national Zero Hunger program that channels food supplies to these community kitchens and is offering management and nutrition training to the women who operate them.  

Food systems and the health of our planet 

From across multiple continents, this research has identified disruptions in our interconnected food systems and effective responses to reach the most food insecure. Not only do we need food systems to be resilient and equitable in times of crisis, they must also become more sustainable and healthier. For IDRC, research support for healthy climate-resilient food systems is a priority area of focus. 

Our efforts also address unsustainable interactions between people, livestock, and the environment, which can introduce health risks into food systems. Known as One Health, this research examines human and animal health, as well as the environmental, societal, and economic drivers of health, to improve agricultural productivity, sustainability, and livelihoods and reduce zoonotic and pandemic threats. 

Food systems are an integral part of human and planetary health and we need to understand how to safeguard them for the benefit of all. 

Read more: 

Food systems and food security in the time of lockdowns: insights from sub-Saharan Africa 

The Impact of Covid-19 on Livelihoods and Food Security