Covid-19 Threatens Global Food Security: What Should the United States Do?

In recent weeks, the United States and other high- and middle-income countries have taken bold steps to contain the Covid-19 disease. The spread of the coronavirus is at an earlier stage in lower-income countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. But there is every reason to believe that impacts will be devastating as governments—South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, and many others—have already begun to shut down many businesses and put travel restrictions in place.

As difficult as similar measures have been to implement in the United States and elsewhere, the challenges are almost unimaginable in low-income countries where many live in crowded urban slums or conflict zones, most employment is in the informal sector, governance and public financing are often weak, and social safety net programs are rare. The possibility of social disorder in response to the triple health, economic, and food security crises looms, much as the 2007-08 global food price crisis triggered riots in many countries across Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America and the Caribbean. 

The 2007-08 food price crisis also sparked a remarkable convergence of efforts to address global food insecurity. These investments recognized the importance of providing humanitarian relief to vulnerable populations in the short term, together with longer-term efforts to boost agricultural growth as a key pillar of inclusive economic development. President Bush made nearly $1 billion in emergency and development assistance available in 2007 and 2008. At the G8 summit in 2009, President Obama committed $3.5 billion for global food security programs, attracting more than $18 billion in funding from other donor governments. Congress has provided strong bipartisan support for Feed the Future and other U.S. government efforts over the past decade, recognizing that U.S. leadership on global food security is squarely in the national interest.

Today, U.S. and global leadership will be critical to avoid the worst-case scenario: an expanding global pandemic that spirals into a global food security crisis.

How will the pandemic affect food security in low-income countries?

The World Food Program estimates that Covid-19 could double the number of people in low and middle-income countries facing acute food insecurity by the end of 2020. The crisis is still unfolding, and our initial observations include the following:

Transportation and economic restrictions are disrupting food systems. An estimated 80 percent of consumers in low-income countries rely on markets for food supplies. Lockdown measures and business closures to contain the virus in at least 33 of Africa’s 54 countries are affecting the movement of commodities to consumers, with dense urban and peri-urban areas hit hardest. There, a range of informal and small and medium scale businesses constitute the great majority of the food system—providing production, processing, marketing, and food services, including street food vendors and restaurants. Their inability to operate will affect food access throughout major population centers.

Export bans and border closures may make things worse. Much of the crisis in 2007-08 stemmed from a global shortage of staple food stocks such as rice, corn, and wheat, followed by the imposition of export bans by major suppliers. These trade restrictions resulted in higher food prices that amplified food insecurity: prices rose precipitously, and low-income consumers were unable to meet their needs. Fortunately, there is no similar global supply shortage in 2020, but panic-buying by consumers has put an immediate strain on supply chains in some countries. Despite the lessons from 2007-08, today, some major suppliers (including Russia, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia) have already placed or are considering export restrictions

Border closures or processing delays are also affecting regional movements of agricultural commodities. Kenyan millers, for example, report difficulties in obtaining maize from regional suppliers in Uganda and Tanzania, affecting the production of ugali, the national staple food.

Job losses economy-wide will rapidly diminish the food purchasing power of many households. The loss of jobs and income due to the economic lockdowns is causing financial hardship for many households and will affect their ability to buy food and other necessities. The poorest—with little or no access to social protection programs—will be the hardest hit. The contraction of food purchasing power, in general, will affect the type and quantity of food products demanded by consumers.

Future agricultural production is threatened by the lack of labor, services, and inputs. Across the tropics and sub-tropics, April and May are the beginning of the major agricultural production season. Businesses providing seeds, fertilizers, mechanization services, and livestock feed will be constrained in their abilities to deliver the quantities needed on time.  Farmers may find it difficult to pay for inputs and services. Labor shortages—due to border closures, movement restrictions, and worker illness—will also be problematic, particularly for high-value, labor-intensive commodities. Timeliness of land preparation and planting is a major concern for rainfed crops. Delayed planting will result in certain production declines for the coming season, prolonging and deepening the impact of the pandemic.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) that provide most production and post-farm agricultural services face financial ruin as a result of the economic shutdowns mandated for pandemic control. Over the past decade, the United States through the Feed the Future program has been at the forefront of supporting country policies and programs to stimulate private-sector-led agricultural growth, mainly through SMEs.  In the absence of safety net programs, widespread business failures will hollow out the agribusiness service sector.

Delays in deliveries of essential foods and agricultural inputs will affect food supplies for many months to come. The loss of jobs and incomes is already reducing agriculture-related demand and threatening gains made on poverty and nutrition in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa over the past decade.

What should the United States do?

The United States has the capacity to step up and prevent the Covid-19 pandemic from creating a food security crisis that results in unimaginable human suffering. The United States can draw on deep expertise in humanitarian relief programs to address immediate needs while laying the groundwork for economic and social recovery.

To be clear, the Covid-19 pandemic is posing challenges to food security on a global scale that we have not encountered to date. Still, experience from past crises—from the international response to the 2007-08 global food price crisis and Ebola outbreaks—show the importance of coordinated crisis response and sustained focus on effective interventions. The United States can also build on the successful experience of Feed the Future in strengthening private-sector-led, sustainable market systems as the foundation for advancing food security.

We propose U.S. commitments to:

  1. Support food crisis response teams at the national level. Experience from previous global crises underscores the importance of a coordinated effort that brings together technical, political, and economic leaders to support country-led responses. Similar coordination and swift action will be required to reduce the impact of the pandemic on food systems in low-income countries. Through its international assistance programs, the United States can offer technical assistance and resources in collaboration with other bilateral and multilateral programs. It will be especially important to coordinate data and analyses to establish priorities for action on food insecurity, monitor the delivery of emergency assistance, and plan for the upcoming production season.

    Potential partners include the United States Famine Early Warning System (FEWSNET), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Global Information and Warning System (GIEWS), the CGIAR, and public and private telecommunications and social media organizations. These resources can help to track emerging supply constraints and hunger hotspots, market prices, and weather conditions.

  2. Stabilize food markets and reduce price volatility. The United States should advocate for the removal of existing or threatened export restrictions to allow the free movement of agricultural commodities and inputs at global, regional, and national levels. U.S. and other leaders can draw on resources, including the Covid-19 food policy tracker and the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS), to identify areas of concern. AMIS is an interagency platform established by the G20 in 2011 to enhance food market transparency and encourage international policy coordination.

    Building on China’s successful experience with “green channels” to supply food from surrounding agricultural areas to the Wuhan region, the United States can provide financial and technical resources to help countries fast track the supply of agricultural commodities and inputs to hard-hit areas. China provided production incentives to farmers, granted free transit to agricultural supply trucks with a permit for quarantined areas, and cracked down on food price profiteering.

    The United States should also support the efforts of international financial institutions and its own agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, and the Development Finance Corporation, to fast track loans and grants that will minimize the impact of the pandemic on the poorest. Priorities here include funding for safety net programs, keeping domestic agricultural trade flowing, and minimizing the failure of businesses in the food and agricultural sectors, especially small and medium-sized enterprises.

    The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) signed into law in late March included modest supplemental foreign aid funding and authorizations for international financial institutions to support the Covid-19 response. Related appropriations should be fast tracked. Significantly more foreign assistance will be needed to combat the growing health, food, and economic impacts of the pandemic and should be considered in the next supplemental funding bill.

  3. Provide immediate food relief while preserving the jobs of private food transporters, processors, and restaurants. Local, informal markets provide the majority of food in urban and rural areas of low-income countries. The United States and partners can contribute resources and technical advice to rapidly transfer emerging best practices in safety assessment and protocols that will allow local food markets and other enterprises to reopen.

    In the United States, Europe, and Asia, schools, food banks, companies, and processors are pivoting quickly to make and supply different kinds of foods safely. These experiences can be adapted for low-income countries, with the aim of channeling assistance through existing markets and companies so that firms can stay in business and continue to employ workers. Relevant innovations include technical assistance to SMEs to help them adjust products and models, utilizing electronic vouchers and other forms of contact-free payment, repurposing institutional kitchens to provide food system workers with safe spaces in which to work, and developing new food delivery options for school feeding programs.

  4. Ensure that land preparation, planting, and production for the coming agricultural season are not delayed, focusing on helping farmers and private-sector providers of inputs and services. The United States and partners should support country-level food crisis response teams to facilitate the use of best-available data and analysis to forecast crop and livestock system needs, and work with the private sector to identify and address constraints that will affect their ability to meet agricultural input, transport, and marketing needs.

    In collaboration with other international donors and organizations, the United States can provide financial and technical assistance to help countries rapidly establish best-practice protocols to permit the safe movement of agricultural inputs, provide essential agricultural services, and implement critical farm and livestock operations.

  5. Help countries use this “reset” moment to rebuild more climate-resilient, healthier, and digitally connected food systems. The United States, together with partners, should help countries take advantage of the pivotal nature of the pandemic to transform their food systems in three ways.

    First, many of the low-income countries at the greatest risk from the pandemic also face severe threats to crop and livestock systems as a result of climate change. During the Great Depression, the United States created the Civilian Conservation Corps to put those who had lost jobs back to work while helping farmers implement conservation measures to arrest the spread of the Dust Bowl across the country. The pandemic may provide a similar opportunity for cash-for-work programs that strengthen climate resilience through construction of irrigation systems, bunding and terracing programs, and reforestation and restoration of depleted lands.

    Second, the pandemic will provide opportunities to stimulate the production, marketing, and consumption of nutritious and safe foods. Poor diets are the leading cause of early death in the world today. Labor-intensive and perishable fruit, vegetable, and animal-sourced protein supply chains are being especially hard hit by the pandemic. Programs to support farmers, consumers, and agribusiness should prioritize expanding the availability, affordability, and access of these nutritious foods to consumers. The pandemic could also be the impetus to develop innovative and cost-effective food safety measures throughout the food supply chain, especially for wet markets featuring horticulture and livestock products.

    Third, accelerate the adoption of digital technology. The physical distancing requirements of the pandemic will provide a unique opportunity to broaden access to digital information tools and services for a range of production, market, health, and social service functions. Over the past decade, the United States, other donors, and the private sector have facilitated the development of digital tools for agricultural information and marketing, the electronic delivery of vouchers for food, inputs and income support, and mobile banking services. Most of these programs are still in the pilot stage and have not reached the most vulnerable or rural areas. The United States, with its unparalleled technology sector, expertise, and resources, is well placed to help countries work with private and public resources to fast track infrastructure and soft program investments that will significantly scale the adoption and impact of these digital tools.

During the pandemic, the world’s immediate focus has necessarily been on health and containing the spread of Covid-19. However, the economic shutdown poses a grave risk to food supply, production, and livelihoods. These impacts will be particularly severe in low-income countries, where most of the world’s hungry reside, and as much as half of all employment is agriculture related. The leadership of the United States was crucial in developing a response that helped avert the worst consequences following the 2007-08 crisis. Today, U.S. leadership and swift action are again needed to prevent a food-related global catastrophe that could lead to outbreaks of political instability, poverty backsliding, and subject many of the world’s poorest to increasing hunger and poverty.

Julie Howard and Emmy Simmons are senior advisers (non-resident) with the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Both are independent consultants on international development issues with a focus on food, agriculture, and Africa.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Julie Howard
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program
Emmy Simmons
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Global Food and Water Security Program