Food security and the COVID-19 pandemic

Guest blog by Honorary Officer for International Affairs, Barbara Bray

On 30 January 2020, the United Nations agency, the World Health Organisation (WHO), declared the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. Within weeks, countries implemented travel bans, social distancing and then finally 'lockdown'. 

It is an unfamiliar period of time summarised by the term VUCA within the business community. It is a concept introduced by the American Military after the Cold War and means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. It presents our leaders with a situation of constant change that needs to be managed with good communication and responsive decision making. It presents the population with a challenge of learning how to adapt to a new normal. In this blog the topic of food security is discussed. 

If you are looking for specific advice on COVID-19, the Society encourages you to keep up to date with the latest information from the NHSGovernment and Public Health England.

How has food security been impacted during the pandemic?

Shoppers in the UK made an average of five trips to the supermarket in the week following the announcement of the COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. The additional shopping trips may have seemed like a sensible way of taking control of a situation, but this had a range of consequences. It disrupted the supply chain as logistics businesses, supermarkets, manufacturers and farmers rushed to re-stock.  It left vulnerable people such as the elderly, people with diets restricted by allergies and people on low incomes without sufficient access to food.  It also led to an increase in domestic food waste.

Unsurprisingly, the term ‘how to freeze fresh vegetables’ peaks on Google Trends from the 16 - 21 March. The disruption of the UK supply chain included the food service sector and as restaurants and coffee shops closed, the prices of beef, lamb and milk dropped, with farmers left holding onto unsold livestock and pouring fresh milk down the drain.

Organisations such as the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), Fareshare and The Trussell Trust have been liaising with businesses in manufacturing, food service and retail to redistribute food to charities and organisations feeding the vulnerable, but the disruption to the logistics has proved to be overwhelming. Whilst some households across the UK have been storing extra food, within a month of lockdown, there were already 5 million people living in households with children under 18 experiencing food insecurity. COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities in our societal structure.

Global response

The spread of COVID-19 may be something that we have to learn to live with and manage as the lockdown is lifted and countries all over the world maintain a range of social distancing measures. 

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) recently warned that the COVID-19 lockdown has had a devastating effect on society and the economy and will set back efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) by 2030. The biggest impact will be on SDGs 1, 2 and 10 on poverty, food security and inequality. COVID-19 is predicted to worsen inequalities both within countries and between countries. 

The work on the Committee for Food Security (CFS) Voluntary Guidelines on Food Systems for Nutrition (VGFSyN) continues as planned towards a launch at the end of 2020. The new international guidelines will undoubtedly stress the need for resilient food systems that can link food security and nutrition interventions during humanitarian crises.

In the meantime, the impact of COVID-19 on food systems could be significant and affect future food prices, supply chains, export of food, domestic production and sales of fruit and vegetables.

In the UK, the third reading of the Agriculture Bill in Parliament on 13 May, was an opportunity to include amendments such as the coronavirus emergency food plan and the provision to use the same standards and regulations, or higher, for imported product as domestic.  The coronavirus emergency food plan made provision amongst other clauses for “the ease of access to nutritious and healthy food across different socio-economic groups and communities” and “the level of demand for emergency food aid and the adequacy of services to meet that demand”. The Bill was passed without these amendments and has now been submitted to the House of Lords for consideration.

The UK could decide follow the guidance set out by the UN FAO and improve access to food and nutrition for millions of people post-COVID-19. The wrong decision could lead to increased inequality, hunger and poverty.

In the words of the agronomist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug “the first essential component of social justice is adequate food for all mankind”. 

Further reading

Healthy diets for human resilliance in the age of COVID-19 

COVID-19 - The latest impact on food (the food foundation) 

The impact of coronavirus on food (from an online survey of 2070 adults in Great Britain)  

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