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New insights on shock responses: studying COVID-19’s impact on food systems’

March 10, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the world in profound ways, delivering systemic shocks of high magnitude due to the unprecedented levels of connectedness in our global society. Following a year-long research initiative by IDRC and partners, a new report offers compelling insights into the impact of the pandemic on food systems, on the effectiveness of responses to these impacts deployed by communities and regional authorities, and on possible long-term responses to enhance resilience. 

While the pandemic is first and foremost a public health crisis, ripple effects have been felt across all modern human systems, most notably food systems.  

The report reveals significant negative impacts on food production, trade and livelihoods among women and in low-income communities. The year-long study touches on the pandemic’s impact on all dimensions of these food systems – production, commercialization, transportation and transformation. For example, the availability of food products was reduced in many instances and prices rose, with a significant increase in the number of people affected by food insecurity.  

These impacts often stemmed from measures implemented to contain the public health crisis, such as restrictions on movement and economic activity. These measures carried unintended negative consequences for food systems, particularly the market activity that most people rely on for income and survival, including accessing inputs and selling and buying food. The unintended consequences of public health measures required policy responses to support citizens in coping with the challenges to maintain livelihoods and food security. These responses were often poorly targeted and failed to support key groups in the food system, including producers, pastoralists, women, low-income groups and informal traders.  

Overall, the pandemic and response to it appear to have increased poverty and social inequality, especially in rural communities, women-headed households, and for others relying on informal markets. Improving resilience to future shocks will require reconfiguring social-protection systems and the way that food systems and supply chains are organized.  

The report makes clear that the pandemic exacerbated pre-existing challenges in our food systems. These include: food systems’ increasing vulnerability to climate extremes such as prolonged droughts or irregular rainfalls and floods; increasing social and gender inequality in the distribution of roles, responsibilities and participation in decision-making; and unequal exposure to unhealthy food-consumption patterns.  

The report further notes that, in many instances, lockdowns and restrictions reinforced and exacerbated gender inequities in the food systems, and that measures undertaken by governments were poorly targeted toward women. As a result, gender-neutral policies had gender-biased impacts.  

For example, policies that were targeted toward formal food businesses excluded low-income women engaged in production and informal trading. But the study also shows that in many instances, women were a big part of the response in households — starting new economic activities or continuing ones that had become illegal due to restrictions to provide for their family. Many of them noted that they had gained more confidence and a greater voice in decision-making regarding the use of resources in the household. In all cases, the research showed that informal workers were particularly affected by market closures and other restrictions, but had little access to assistance.  

Taken as a whole, the report yields many lessons pertinent to how we understand shock responses, through the retrospective lens of what was done during the COVID-19 pandemic. This can inform how policymakers, funders and researchers take action in the future, in a way that acknowledges the complexity of the challenges. Governments can do better by implementing more holistic responses to shocks, probing for unintended consequences of decisions, incorporating diverse voices in the policy-making process, targeting support measures based on these diverse perspectives and packaging interventions for more systems-oriented solutions.  

To make our food systems more inclusive, healthier and resilient to climate change and other shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is not enough to improve the efficiency of current models of food systems; we must tackle structural challenges in existing systems, too. As highlighted in the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit, this transformation is essential for food systems to be fit for purpose and to meet the needs of 820 million hungry people and 2 billion more who lack essential micronutrients or suffer from associated chronic diseases. 

Research highlights

  • Government-imposed pandemic responses – such as restricting community gatherings, closing food markets, closing roads and creating police-controlled checkpoints to limit travel – significantly impacted food systems, spanning upstream, midstream and downstream aspects of the food chain, with impacts more acute for women.  

  • While the respective efficacy of these responses to mitigate disruptions to food systems  varied, three key themes emerged for analyzing the different vectors of COVID-19 response: response measures (state, aid, local, household); markets and mobility; and gender. 

  • There are several ways food systems can be better positioned to respond to future shocks, which are only expected to increase in frequency due to climate change. Existing social-protection systems are weak and need strengthening. Resilient food systems require the reconfiguring of supply chains to be more diverse and shorter, and to have better infrastructure.