COVID-19 and Food Security: The need to keep global food supply chains functioning

The spread of the novel COVID-19 pandemic has changed the interaction between people and the food system at a drastic speed. At present, some 820 million people around the world are experiencing chronic hunger and of these, 113 million are coping with acute severe food insecurity where any further ‘access to food’ disruptions may pose an immediate threat to their lives or livelihoods.

With border closures, quarantines and market, supply chain and trade disruptions, the global economy is being challenged by a great deal of restrictions. Around 80% of global trade is transported by commercial shipping, which moves the world’s food, energy and raw materials, as well as manufactured goods and components, according to UNCTAD statistics. On the one hand, people are confronted with access to sufficient and diverse sources of food, especially for those that are already affected by high levels of food insecurity and on the other hand, vulnerable groups such as small-scale farmers and fishers have been hindered from accessing markets to sell their products, or even buy essential inputs to operate their productions. A paradox of global hunger, despite being the food producers themselves, small-scale farmers in the rural areas of developing countries are disproportionately at risk of food insecurity themselves due to their low incomes.

In terms of the movement of food, the obstruction in the food supply chains particularly in fresh food, such as fresh fish and aquatic products that are highly perishable are at risk, as they need to be sold, processed or stored in a relatively limited time. This has led to the accumulation of fresh produces at farms, resulting to food loss and waste – all of which leads to loss of earnings.

Source: Asian Farmers, Impact of COVID-19 on small holder farmers in Laos.

Thus, what we are experiencing now is not so much on the issues around the availability of food but rather, the supply shock due to port restrictions. Countries that depend on imported food are especially vulnerable as shipments slow down. Food price is likely to rise, and price volatility could happen amid the lockdowns. Therefore, keeping the global food trade open is critical to keep the food markets functioning.

“In this time of global crisis, it is more important than ever to keep supply chains open and to allow maritime trade and cross-border transport to continue.”- Dr. Mukhisa Kituyi, Secretary-General of UNCTAD.

The probable opportunity to take-away from this pandemic is the call to heighten policies around food safety. Apart from social protection programmes to prevent food insecurity, there is a window of opportunity to make the case for consumption and production of safe nutritious food. The ageing of farming capacity and food production need to be looked into more seriously, beyond just merely targeting at hygiene.

Production – Governments will have to develop policies to avoid supply chain disruptions, higher food prices and severe economic fallout for small-scale producers and fishers. In the fisheries and aquaculture sector for example, the FAO claimed that the implications can vary and be quite complex, “for wild-capture fisheries, the inability of fishing vessels to operate (due to limited or collapse of market as well as sanitary measures difficult to abide to on board of a vessel) can generate a domino effect throughout the value chains in terms of supply of products, in general, and the availability of specific species. In addition, for wild-capture fisheries and aquaculture, problems in logistics associated with restriction in transportation, border closures, and the reduced demand in restaurants and hotels can generate significant market changes – affecting prices.”

Consumption – Unhealthy diets are the leading cause of ill-health. As the health system become the main focus of the virus outbreak, food systems tend to lose its priority. Therefore, policymakers need to take into account the consequences of poor food quality being the number one driver of ill health in all countries. As an example, diabetes and other diet-related NCDs are a risk for severe symptoms of COVID-19 and undernutrition weakens the immune systems leading to increased contagion from asymptomatic children. According to the United Nations System Standing Committee on Nutrition (UNSCN), without dedicated action on nutrition, all forms of malnutrition are likely to increase as a result of the pandemic’s impact on the food systems. Mitigating these consequences with collaborative solutions, solidarity and reinforcement of local food systems, may open and lead the way towards transformation to resilient and sustainable food systems with healthy nutrition at their core.

This time of crisis is also an opportunity to reset the food systems, where Public-Private Partnerships come to play, so as to work for – and not against – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The diagram below provides a snapshot of how COVID-19 impede each of the SDGs. In essence, businesses can also align their strategies with the SDGs that embrace the need to preserve natural capital and biodiversity; workers’ and suppliers’ welfare on health and safety, and other sustainability measures in order to avoid (or be better prepared) for future pandemics.

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The United Nations Forum on Sustainability Standards (UNFSS) is a joint initiative of 5 UN Agencies (FAO, ITC, UNCTAD, UN Environment and UNIDO) that seeks to address these challenges. It is a demand-driven forum for intergovernmental actors to communicate among each other and engage with key target groups (producers, traders, consumers, standard-setters, certification-bodies, trade diplomats, relevant NGOs and researchers) to address their information needs and influence concerned stakeholders. It aims to provide impartial information, analysis, and discussions on VSS and their potential contribution to facilitate market access, strengthen public goods and achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Most importantly, the UNFSS focuses on potential trade or development obstacles VSS may create, with particular emphasis on their impact on SMEs and less developed countries.

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