Coordinated, sustained effort towards alleviating impact of COVID-19 on food security essential

Friday, 5 June 2020 01:31 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The impact of food security could be unavoidable if critical agricultural inputs, such as fertilisers and safe, quality seeds, are not available to meet seasonal crop calendars. The novel coronavirus is still spreading and it is difficult to say when it would be contained. So, to ensure food security for all, urgent actions should be taken at the global and country levels – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


By Harsha Udayakantha Peiris

In a latest review paper to the Journal of Agricultural Sciences – Sri Lanka (JASSL), published by the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences of the Sabaragamuwa University of Sri Lanka, Dr. Shaikh Tanveer Hossain, Program Officer in the Agricultural Department of the Asian Productivity Organization (APO), an inter-governmental organisation based in Tokyo, Japan, states that imminent, medium- and long-term food security challenges due to COVID-19 vary among APO member countries. 

“However, through the implementation of key policies, many stress the need for critical agricultural inputs, such as fertilisers and safe, quality seeds, to meet seasonal crop calendars. The longer COVID-19 containment measures stay in place, the more challenging the recovery process will be for ensuring smooth food production, accessibility to staple food and nutrition and trade among countries, and if the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the critical spring planting period, the production of staple food crops such as wheat, rice and vegetables will be affected, as it is unclear if agricultural inputs can be distributed in a timely manner. If staple production is affected, the impact on food security could be grave,” the review points out.

The review paper further provides a consolidated insight into policies and actions taken by APO member economies to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on food security and the agri-food sector.

Sri Lanka is also an active member economy of the Asian Productivity Organization (APO) in Japan, where the National Productivity Secretariat (NPS) acts the implementation arm of the APO’s productivity measures in Sri Lanka in several spheres including agriculture. Bangladesh, Cambodia, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Philippines, Republic of China, Republic of Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Turkey and Vietnam are the other participating key member economies of the APO. 

COVID-19 could lead to a food security crisis

According to a recent press report in the ‘CHINADAILY.COM.CN’ depicting the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO), COVID-19 is a health crisis, but it could also lead to a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken.

“The world is already facing food and nutrition security challenges. According to the UNFAO more than 820 million people across the globe are suffering from hunger. Global outbreaks like Ebola, SARS and MERS all had negative impacts on food and nutrition security, particularly for vulnerable populations including children, women, the elderly, and the poor. Close to 150 million children in countries around the world are stunted because of lack of proper nutrition. And in many countries, hunger and malnutrition have been on the rise for the past three years due to conflicts and the refugee crisis, climate change and worsening inequality, with the Middle East and Sub-Saharan regions being particularly vulnerable,” it says. 

Epidemics like HIV/AIDS, Ebola and the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) have had negative impacts on food and nutrition security and particularly for vulnerable populations including children, women, the elderly and the poor. For example, when the Ebola epidemic hit Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in 2014, rice prices in those countries increased by more than 30% and the price of cassava, a staple in Liberia, skyrocketed by 150%. Ebola had a huge impact on some African countries’ agricultural production, marketing and trade. On the production side, due to road blockages, farmers had limited access to inputs such as seeds, fertilisers and insecticides. And many of the regions faced acute labour shortages.

Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. In 1996, the World Food Summit (WFS) set the target of “eradicating hunger in all countries, with an immediate view to reducing the number of undernourished people to half their present level no later than 2015”.  In 2000, the Millennium Declaration (MD) promoted the target to “halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger”.

Monitor food prices and markets

First, there is a need to closely monitor food prices and markets. Transparent dissemination of information will strengthen Government management over the food market, prevent people from panicking, and guide farmers to make rational production decisions. And to nip market speculation over supply in the bud, the Government should strengthen market regulation, ‘CHINADAILY.COM.CN’ points out. 

The COVID-19 pandemic may cause a food crisis in developing countries due to ongoing and arising issues associated with both economic and physical accessibility.

Another recent press release by the University of KwaZulu – Natal, Johannesburg, emphasises that farming needs to be a viable, productive and economic activity, and have the capacity to absorb and spring back from shocks like COVID-19. To secure the future of food, resilience in farming can be achieved in many different ways resulting in better management of the livelihood’s assets. This crisis, like many others, points to the need for investments in social protection systems.

Strengthening food processing and storage facilities closer to the farms to ensure that small-scale farmers are able to add value to their produce and increase shelf-life of perishable goods through better storage, including solar dryers. 

Investing in local community seed and grain banks will provide easy access to food and inputs in times of crisis. Investing in local food production and consumption and supporting right to food policies and institutions is important, as is exploring ways for trade agreements and rules to better support the transition towards more sustainable agro-ecological food systems and to support local production for local consumption. Review of existing trade and investment deals will ensure they do not undermine local food systems, and local food procurements will prioritise local farmers’ production, and traditional and indigenous communities’ food products and seeds.

The Global Food Security Index (GFSI) uses 34 qualitative indicators across the three core issues of affordability, availability and quality and safety to set a quantitative food security benchmark. On 31 March, as the world was struggling to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, the FAO, WHO and World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a joint statement that uncertainty about food availability could spark a wave of export restrictions, creating shortages in the global market.

According to the JASSL review by Dr. Tanveer, many Asian Productivity Organization (APO) member countries have adopted trade measures to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on food security. Food shortages could lead to price surges, making it more difficult for people in developing countries to buy food. 

Widespread impacts on workforces

Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have widespread impacts on workforces globally. Migrant workers are among those bearing the brunt of the crisis. According to ‘The Economist 2020,’ the 2019 Global Food Security Index (GFSI) rankings, covering 113 countries including APO member economies places Sri Lanka in the 66th position of global ranking, pushing the island nation to the 11th position among the 21 APO member economies. Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, Republic of Korea, Turkey, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines are the first ten APO member economies respectively, according to the latest GFSI rankings.

“Enforcing the necessary social distancing measures and subsequent curfews hindered the economy of Sri Lanka, including its important rural sector mainly based on agriculture and tourism,” the JASSL review states. 

It indicates that even though the Government has allowed farming to continue unrestricted, uncertainties surrounding temporary lifting of curfew hours and means of distributing essential goods to households have resulted in wastage and slowdowns in the supply and storage of perishable agricultural goods.

In an apparent emphasis towards the island’s tea export sector, the review has stated that Sri Lanka’s tea prices rose sharply at an auction held in April amid COVID-19 curfews and a falling rupee, due to strong demand from abroad and tight supplies after dry conditions in farming areas. “Unlike other export industries, tea did not see a fall in demand from foreign buyers, although volumes were down. The first automated e-auctions in place of physical auctions are now being adopted, changing a 137-year-old tradition in a bid to continue operations,” it points out.

Home gardening program

In view of the Government’s program to address the future demand for fruit and vegetables, via the Ministry of Agriculture with the introduction of a home gardening program called ‘Saubhagya Gewatta’ (Prosperous Home Gardens), the review states that the measures will attract the rural farm sector towards a more productive harvesting and cultivating culture.

‘From garden to table’ is the principal concept behind the programme the Government of Sri Lanka initiated titled the ‘Saubhagya National Programme’ on Harvesting and Cultivation on 4 April 2020 which aims to develop one million home gardens, in  the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “It will encourage rural seed farm projects, popularise organic fertiliser use, encourage production of home crops and promote home gardens for self-consumption,” the review states. The Ministry of Agriculture has also set up a website for this program.

However, according to the review, impact of food security could be unavoidable, if critical agricultural inputs, such as fertilisers and safe, quality seeds, are not available to meet seasonal crop calendars. The novel coronavirus is still spreading and it is difficult to say when it would be contained. So, to ensure food security for all, urgent actions should be taken at the global and country levels.

[Special thanks to the Asian Productivity Organization (APO), its Agriculture Division’s Program Officer Dr. Shaikh Tanveer Hossain and the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Agricultural Sciences of Sri Lanka – Prof. Rohana P. Mahaliyanaarachchi.]

(DOI of the JASSL review -