38 of 100: Ag and COVID: Q&A: COVID-19 pandemic – impact on food and agriculture

Q7: What are FAO’s recommendations to mitigate the risks of the pandemic on food security and nutrition?

Pro-active measures are paramount and will cost less at a time when economic resources will be heavily needed. This is doubly the case given growing expectations of a global recession. Economic slowdowns or contractions were associated with rising hunger levels in 65 out of 77 countries in recent years, as FAO and partners warned in the 2019 The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World report.

To avoid disruptions to the food supply chain and food production, FAO is urging all countries to:

  • keep international trade open and take measures that protect their food supply chain (from obtaining inputs such as seeds to assuring smallholder farmers have access to markets to sell their produce).
  • focus on the needs of the most vulnerable, and scale up social protection programmes including cash transfers.
  • keep their domestic food supply value chains alive and functioning.
  • taking all necessary precautions, seeds and planting materials must continue to flow to smallholders; animal feed to livestock breeders; and aquaculture inputs to fish farmers. Agricultural supply chains should be kept alive by any means compatible with health safety concerns.
  • maintain agricultural activities.

Also, international cooperation is key. There is enough food in the world, and local crises can be avoided with cooperation and open trade. The 2008 crisis taught us that export bans are detrimental to all. They alter in adverse ways both the arrival of food where it is needed and the income of those who produce it.

More details about the recommendations:

1.    Countries should meet the immediate food needs of their vulnerable populations.

For example: ensure emergency food needs are met; adjust and expand social protection programmes; scale up nutritional support; support management and prevention of undernourishment; adjust school meal programs so as to continue delivering school meals even when schools are shut.

For example, with the halt of the FAO-supported school meals programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean, FAO called on the region’s governments to implement measures to support children whose families have greater difficulties in accessing food, and ensure that children’s access to nutritious food is maintained. Suggested measures included: food distribution to the most vulnerable families, increase in social protection programs; exemption from taxes on basic food for families with school-age children, especially for workers in the most affected economic sectors; delivery of fresh food from local farmers and fishers/fish workers; use of digital tool (georeferenced applications) to improve communication on access points for food deliveries, distribution times, and measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

2.    Countries should boost their social protection programmes

This could entail: increasing transfer amounts to people already benefiting from social assistance through a one-off payment (prior to full blown impact of the crisis as an early action to mitigate impact) or ensure multiple payments to help families meet their basic needs; providing complementary entitlements to offset loss of income by small-scale producers, for example; if food insecurity becomes extremely severe due to massive layoffs, fall in remittances etc., exploring the use of food banks could be an option – through not only direct provision of food by government, but also donations from individuals, solidarity networks, non-governmental organizations; enabling mobile payment systems to prevent disruptions in delivery of cash entitlements due to restrictions on movement; injecting funds in the agricultural, fisheries and aquaculture sectors, for example through a grant facility, can help food- Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises, casual laborers, and salaried staff that cannot work to stay afloat, temporarily, while all business stops.

Many governments have already introduced or boosted protective measures to combat the impacts of the pandemic on people’s livelihoods.

3.   Countries should gain efficiencies and try to reduce trade-related costs  

These include: not impose measures that would restrict trade and mobility of commodities; reduce food waste and looses; resolve logistics bottlenecks; immediately review trade and policy options and their likely impacts; avoid generalized subsidies for food consumers; reduce restrictions on use of stocks; reduce import tariffs when governments think is appropriate to minimize, for example, when there is an increase in costs because of devaluation of their currencies and other restrictions; temporarily reduce VAT and other taxes; if needed, review taxation policy to imported goods to compensate from potential cost increases (because of exchange devaluation) and assess exchange devaluation’s potential impacts.

Overall, avoiding any trade restrictions would be beneficial to keep food and feed supplies, as well as those of agricultural and fishery inputs, from worsening local conditions already strained by COVID-19 response measures.

It is also important that bolstering food security is on the agenda of the more affluent countries where COVID-19 cases are currently most intensely reported. In some cases, lockdown measures could severely impact the incomes of the most vulnerable.

Policy makers must monitor trends and take care to avoid accidentally tightening food-supply conditions, something that China has managed so far with creative and adaptive methods. Digital technologies have a role to play in anticipating problems and smoothing temporary shortages as well as building the resilience of food chains to avoid similar occurrences in the future. New technologies could facilitate the interface between supply and demand, which would be of great value to highly perishable goods (like fruit, vegetables, fish and aquatic products).

Building resilience is a duty for all if we are to reap the benefits of global interdependence.

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