Can we prevent COVID-19 from becoming a global food security issue?

two men standing on a what farm

The Stretton Institute brings together researchers and experts from across the University of Adelaide to address key policy issues of relevance to government. With a focus on social justice, the Stretton Institute drives multidisciplinary ideas and national and international innovation to inform ‘better policies, better lives’, - the Institute’s official motto.

In the first of a series of webinars on agri-food policy, the Stretton Institute convened a panel of experts on the cutting edge of research in the field, consisting of: Professor Rachel Ankeny (Program Leader of the Stretton’s Agri-Food Policy Program and the Food Values Research Group), Professor Martin Cole (Head of School, Agriculture, Food and Wine), Professor Wendy Umberger (Executive Director, Centre for Global Food and Resources and Agricultural and Food Economist) and Dr Jo Zhou (School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, specializing in early childhood nutrition) to explore the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on global food security. The webinar attracted over 350 registrants from within the University of Adelaide and external participants from Australia and overseas.

The session began with a Professor Ankeny reminding the audience of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)’s definition of food security: “…when all people at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe affordable, and nutritious food that ensures both dietary needs and food preferences are met in order to lead active and healthy lives.” Professor Ankeny stressed that food security is not just about food availability. 

The panel then discussed some of the immediate complexities surrounding food security due to COVID-19, as well as the future of food security beyond the pandemic. Key components of food security are that people can access the appropriate quantity and quality of food to meet nutritional needs in order to live healthy, active lives, and further that people are actually able to access and utilise food, and thus have access to clean water, adequate sanitation and healthcare. To ensure food security, sudden ‘shocks’, such as economic, climatic or in this case disease, should not cause significant disruptions to the stability and supply of food to individuals, households or populations.

Professor Martin Cole is part of a High Level Panel of Experts which supplies scientific evidence and research to the UN Food Security Commission, in turn informing policy. He discussed how the technical group was tasked with compiling an issues paper with early advice predicting how the global pandemic may impact global food supply, which posed considerable challenges given there was little or no scientific evidence on which they could rely.

Professor Cole explained that looking to past crises to attempt to draw comparisons to the unprecedented nature and scale of the current situation, the expert group identified the likely effects of the health crisis and explored the resulting economic crises that were likely to lead to shortages and price volatility. They also concluded that these would most likely impact the poor and most vulnerable. The crisis to date has played out largely in developed countries with relatively sophisticated health and food systems, which have witnessed some disruptions to their food systems. Thus significant concerns exist about regions already suffering conflict, plagues and other hardships as crises tend to have the effect of emphasizing inequalities in populations, especially for those already living on the edge of food insecurity.

In Australia, we have seen early shocks in the demand side, such as panic buying and hoarding, as well as indirect consequences of attempts to flatten the COVID-19 curve, such as restrictions, which are leading to considerable disruptions across many sectors. In turn, these disruptions impact employment and thus people’s abilities to pay for food. In addition, restrictions on movement and travel can cause disruptions in the ability of producers particularly to sell fresh produce and other goods, in the flow of farm labour and in accessibility to supplies needed to produce food such as fertilizers and seeds. So while stocking levels of food may be satisfactory, the ability of all to access and afford food is of concern. To date, enquiries to food banks for help have more than doubled in South Australia. In other countries, due to closure of schools, the supply of food for school meals to those who need them has also been disrupted, which is of concern in places where vulnerable children may rely on such programs.

When countries enforce export restrictions, we really start to see implications throughout the supply chain, as Professor Cole stressed. One of the major issues will be the extent and duration of a global recession which will have the potential to push millions of people into extreme poverty and food insecurity. Social protection measures need to be put in place, such as economic stimulus and appropriate trade policies that balance control of the virus with social needs. But we also need to pay attention to the flow-on effects of COVID-19, learn from it and consider a whole-of-system approach to food (bringing together human and environmental health) by putting practices in place to ensure health impacts relating to food security do not exceed the impact of the virus itself.

Professor Wendy Umberger further explored our recent experiences in the pandemic, describing the phenomenon in terms of demand shock, rather than an undersupply of food or “food shortage”.  This demand shock has led to uncertainty and volatility in supplies and in some cases, short-run increases in prices.  These demand surges impacted short-run supplies and resulted in shortages in key items such as rice, pasta and tinned goods.  In some cases, this led to increased prices.  Lack of availability of staple food items and price increases are particularly concerning as they tend to have the most negative impact on segments of the population that are already at-risk and vulnerable. 

We experienced demand shocks because for the past decade or even two decades our food system has operated very efficiently where we source products ‘just in time’. Consumers have demanded lower-priced food, convenience and access to some seasonal food items year round, resulting in global supply chains and a highly efficient supply system, with ‘just in time inventories’. Once restrictions associated with COVID-19 were put in place, these modes of production and distribution created unforeseen shocks which resulted in disruptions across the supply chain that took time to resolve. Also there were regulatory issues to ensure that our food is safe and that consumers have adequate information at the point of purchase, in some cases it is challenging to shift food supplies from sectors of the food system that don’t require labelling (e.g. food service) into the retail sector.  

Professor Umberger reiterated that food insecurity, at least in the short term, is not an issue in Australia for most people as a result of COVID-19. As one of the top ten exporters in the world for many goods (e.g. Australia continued to export wheat, dairy and beef, despite a significant drought and on average 65% of what we produce is exported), Australia has significant food to meet domestic demand.  However, COVID-19 has impacted the supply chain from primary suppliers (seeds, fertilizers and farm labour) right through to the consumer (transport, food packaging and labelling that enables retail sale) that are the most obvious effects of the pandemic. 

The main concern about COVID-19 is global food security, and other places clearly are experiencing food shortages. Pre-pandemic, approximately 10.8% of the global population was undernourished, and135 million people across 55 countries experienced acute food insecurity. The pandemic is likely to result in widespread recession, causing major health issues and food security concerns, especially in poor countries that are already struggling with other significant issues, such as parts of Africa and Latin America, and Southeast Asia.

Dr Jo Zhou addressed the nutritional aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Good nutrition is essential for growth and development. Malnutrition during pregnancy and early childhood leads to adverse long-term health consequences such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Access to both enough and good quality food is vital to support us to lead healthy, active lives.. Dr Zhou explained that Australia is not immune from food insecurity and malnutrition. Unemployment and supply chain disruptions may lead at-risk populations to reduce their intake of good quality food and increase consumption of lower cost nutrient-poor food options to meet their energy needs.  We need to be aware of the long-term consequences resulting from short-term changes to food accessibility, with the potential to cause inter-generational impacts to health for this generation and the next..

Dr Zhou stressed that we all have a part to play in limiting the impact of COVID-19 on food accessibility. Firstly, we should limit food waste, as a big contributor to food insecurity is waste.  Plan ahead and make a list before you go grocery shopping, only buy what you need and do not over-stock your fridge or pantry, which also ensures availability of food for others. Have a back-up plan for foods that may be in short supply, such as replacing or substituting frozen fruit and vegetables for fresh produce if it is unavailable. The key is to consume a wide range of fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy, well-balanced diet. Ensure your diet incorporates lean protein (meat, fish or legumes) and healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts and seeds. If popular proteins such as some meat products are in short supply or prices have increased, look for nutritious low cost alternatives such as legumes that have added health benefits. Maintain healthy lifestyles by continuing normal routines as much as possible, such as regular exercise and adequate sleep. Include children in healthy food preparation and, where possible, talk about nutrition and the science of cooking to keep them engaged and interested. Dr Zhou suggests we should not trade good diet for supplements (with little evidence to show effectiveness of supplements as compared to eating a good diet). Instead we should support our immune systems by maintaining healthy, well-balanced diets. These measures are the best ways to support a strong immune system and will provide the best defence against COVID-19. .

Food is essential to our health and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has raised broader questions of policy relating to food security. We generally operate in silos, and a positive outcome of the pandemic in Australia has been the joining and sharing between levels of government to consider broader solutions that cross what have traditionally been viewed as separate issues or boundaries. In conclusion, the panellists addressed questions from participants such as whether food labelling regulations should be loosened to increase domestic non-commercial supply and reduce food waste, what Australia’s contribution to global food aid should be given the current situation and whether food exports should be reduced in the wake of the pandemic.

In their concluding remarks, the experts outlined a range of positive opportunities pertaining to food security in Australia that might arise from this pandemic, including that it may result in incentivising local food production and reducing waste. In addition, it may create opportunities for innovation throughout the food value chain, especially in terms of novel processes or products that can make positive contributions to the environment. While stressing that reducing or banning exports would be bad for food security, the pandemic provides a significant opportunity to leverage Australia’s reputation as a trusted food supplier post COVID-19. It may be that genetically modified (GM) food could make an important future contribution to the food security arsenal, but it was noted that many community members and consumers remain unconvinced and that engagement with the public will be crucial in relaying the potential benefits of GM. Finally, we may continue to see the rise of the ethical consumer, with growing popularity for instance of plant-based proteins, which can benefit both our health and the environment, although some panellists were uncertain about this outcome as a result of COVID-19, given the likelihood of recession and the documented trends toward seeking traditional, comfort foods such as meat products.

In summary, the panellists agreed that food security is closely tied to health outcomes: the problem of food insecurity is not merely about having enough, but we must support social and other mechanisms so that everyone has access to nutritious, good quality food. The key remaining question is what we can learn from the pandemic to support our efforts to become more food secure? It is clear that we need transformational change in the food space which is grounded in consideration of global effects particularly to ensure food security.

A recording of the panel discussion is available for viewing.


By Michelle Campbell, on behalf of the Stretton Institute at the University of Adelaide.

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