UK food and nutrition security in a global COVID-19 context: an early stock take

The COVID-19 pandemic is having diverse and multi-faceted impacts on the global food system. Reduced productivity, breakdown of distribution chains, changes in demand, supply chain restrictions and trade measures brought in to deal with these all have far-reaching consequences, which can cascade through food systems, potentially affecting people and societies far from the sites of primary impacts. This article presents initial findings from a rapid assessment of the risks these changes pose to food and nutrition security in the UK and around the world.

Richard King and Laura Wellesley, 6 November 2020

Vegetable stall during the COVID-19 crisis. Constantine, the town's covered market, Algeria. Yacine Imadalou / ILO (Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0)

Summary

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested the resilience of human systems around the world. Healthcare, food, financial, transport, information and communication systems and more have all been required to respond to an unprecedented set of circumstances. Yet, despite its novelty, the current pandemic likely augurs further global turbulence and increasingly severe and frequent shocks at global scales in the years ahead.

This initial assessment of the pandemic’s impact on the UK’s interaction with the global food system has found, at the time of writing in November 2020, the following:

  • Prior to the pandemic, the UK food system was in a state of readjustment due to Brexit.
  • UK imports of food, drink, animal feed and agrochemical inputs have largely remained stable throughout the pandemic though airfreighted fruit and vegetable imports have experienced greater disruptions.
  • Agricultural input prices have remained largely stable, suggesting few supply constraints while farmgate prices have risen for arable goods and contracted for meat suggesting suppressed demand. Consumer price data suggests price inflation during the height of the March-April 2020 lockdowns and deflation thereafter.
  • Globally, the pandemic has affected regions in different ways. While there are some concerning supply-chain constraints in some regions, and some significant price rises in some markets, generally food supply is plentiful and impacts have mostly been the result of demand contractions.
  • Some countries have implemented food and agriculture trade measures, generally to restrict exports and liberalize imports, but these have been nothing like as severe or harmful as the unilateral measures adopted during the 2007-08 and 2010-12 food price crises.
  • Economic pressures resulting from COVID-19 could yet cause major crises around the world if people are unable to afford nutritious food. While impacts to date have been relatively mild, there is little evidence that this is the result of effective or coordinated interventions.
  • The global impacts of the pandemic, particularly the economic effects, will likely affect the UK’s food and nutrition security for some years. With a second wave now taking hold, and some planting seasons just getting underway, it is likely that the full scale of the impacts is yet to be fully realized.

Conceptual approach

This article presents an initial assessment of the pandemic's impacts on the UK's interactions with global food systems and their abilities to keep people fed and nourished. It considers the pandemic’s impacts on the availability of, and access to, food in the UK as a result of changes to trade patterns and food prices, and additionally examines a broader set of impacts and responses witnessed internationally. From a UK perspective, the main focus is on risks that are propagated internationally rather than on purely intra-UK dynamics – considering how near-term dynamics are playing out and how they may shift as the pandemic, and responses to it, progress.

Subsequent pieces will examine lessons for the UK both from the range of global responses to support food systems during the pandemic and from conceptual approaches to managing exposures and vulnerabilities to different risks within food systems.

Food and nutrition security

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation defines food security as ‘when all people, at all times, have physical, economic and social access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life’. This is commonly distilled into four ‘pillars’: availability, access, utilization, and stability over time. Discussion of food security has tended to focus on averting shortfalls in calories. But achieving food security means eliminating all forms of malnutrition.1 It therefore requires tackling overweight and obesity alongside undernutrition, diet-related noncommunicable diseases and environmental factors, such as inadequate healthcare and insanitary conditions, that inhibit nutrient uptake. Here we use the term 'food and nutrition security' to keep these broader issues in focus.2

Food systems

COVID-19's potential impacts on food and nutrition security are extraordinarily diverse and stem not only from the disease itself but also from indirect consequences and responses to it. COVID-19-related risks can cascade through food systems, potentially affecting nutrition outcomes for people and societies far from the sites of primary impacts. Rather than considering food production or consumption or even entire supply chains in isolation, it is important to recognize the systemic nature of these components, their interactions with each other, and the broader drivers of the socioeconomic, political and environmental landscapes in which they occur. This will help to identify the potential pathways through which pandemic-related food and nutrition security risks may be propagated and/or mitigated through food systems, even if these outcomes have not yet been realized.

A food system contains all the elements – environment, people, inputs, processes, infrastructures, institutions – and activities connected to the production, processing, distribution, promotion, preparation and consumption of food, and the output of these activities, including socioeconomic and environmental outcomes. Figure 1 shows these grouped under four headings. Food systems influence consumer choices and diets, driving food and nutrition security outcomes Consumer behaviours, in turn, inform and interact with decisions taken throughout food supply chains and in the broader food environment, all of which shape the overall nature and sustainability of food systems.3 Food systems are also shaped by, and interact with, a series of drivers which determine the socioeconomic and environmental context in which food systems operate, including the capacity of competing and supporting ecosystem services.

Fig 1: Food systems framework

Source: developed from figure 1, http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/hlpe/hlpe_documents/HLPE_Reports/HLPE-Report-12_EN.pdf and table 1, https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-013-0905-2

Food system sustainability and resilience

Food and nutrition security is both an outcome and an enabling condition of sustainable food systems and sustainability more generally. The Committee on World Food Security’s High Level Panel of Experts defines a sustainable food system as one that ‘ensures food security and nutrition for all in such a way that the economic, social and environmental bases to generate food security and nutrition of future generations are not compromized’.4

Sustainable food systems have to function, and support ecosystem services, in ways that permit them to nourish future generations, as well as be resilient in the face of shocks, such that short-term nutrition security isn’t compromized either.

Food system resilience – defined as the ‘capacity over time of a food system and its units at multiple levels, to provide sufficient, appropriate and accessible food to all, in the face of various and even unforeseen disturbances’5 – is therefore another key component of food system sustainability. It depends on four characteristics: 1) robustness and capacity to withstand shocks; 2) capacity to absorb shocks; 3) rapidity and flexibility to recover from shocks; and resourcefulness and adaptability to recover from shocks.6 The more resilient a food system is, the fewer impacts it will experience from any disturbance and the more capacity it will have to recover rapidly to, or improve upon, pre-shock functioning to support nutrition security and ecosystem services.

Impact transmission pathways

We tend to think about risks in simple terms: a hazard has a direct impact on anything that is both exposed and vulnerable to it. But this is overly simplistic: most hazards can lead to chains or cascades of risk where the initial impact can have knock-on effects on other parts of the system, depending on the exposures and vulnerabilities of each part of the system to each subsequent impact. A hazard therefore has the potential to cause impacts that propagate through time and space to affect actors and activities far removed from the initial event.

An example of indirect effects in food systems is when a major drought affects cereal harvests in a breadbasket region – and leads not just to food insecurity in the drought-affected region, but to the affected country imposing export restrictions, which then affects global cereal supplies, global food prices, and even causes political instability in import-dependent and food-insecure countries where lack of food or unaffordable prices lead to hunger.

In such instances, the cascade of risk and/or responses to events within the cascade may amplify the initial impact. In other cases, the dissipation and responses may reduce or deflect the harm, depending on how resilient different components of the system are prior to the impacts materializing and how successful the responses to the impact are at reducing exposures and vulnerabilities.

There are multiple ways hazards can trigger a series of impacts, including across borders, through remote linkages such as price signals and climate-variability links (‘teleconnections’), and by interacting with and compounding the effects of other prior, co-incidental, or subsequent risks.

Under such circumstances, the impacts can cause whole systems to fail. This is systemic risk, defined as ‘the threat that individual failures, accidents, or disruptions present to a system through the process of contagion’.7

There are therefore three important considerations for examining the risks that COVID-19 poses to food and nutrition security in the UK:

  • Other than for those directly infected by the virus, COVID-19 is unlikely to be a direct cause of nutrition insecurity. Rather, it is a potential catalyst which may trigger or amplify changes in the food system, either in series or in parallel. Understanding the nature of these pre-existing circumstances, the potential changes to them and the likely risk transmission cascades are key.
  • Just because any given impact has not yet materialized does not mean that it will not happen in the future. To understand potential risks, it is important to consider the various exposures and vulnerabilities of different activities and actors within global food systems, and how these interrelate.
  • In seeking to reduce the risks that COVID-19 poses to food and nutrition security in the UK and elsewhere, interventions need to reduce exposures and vulnerabilities. Responses can target the immediate risks faced by the focal populations, or they can seek to interrupt or reduce the severity of risk transmissions further upstream by reducing exposures and vulnerabilities elsewhere in the system. Equally, the design and implementation of risk reduction measures need to take account of the various ways these may interact with system dynamics and affect the resiliency or fragility of activities, actors, and outcomes in food systems beyond the UK.

The UK and global food systems

Globally, one out of every five calories people eat have crossed at least one international border, which is up more than 50 per cent from 40 years ago.8 In 2019, the UK produced the equivalent of 77 per cent of its consumption of foods that can be produced in the UK, and 64 per cent for all food types.9 These ratios have changed little this century, though are some way below the peaks in the 1980s and well above 1950-60s levels (Figure 2).

However, as the UK is also a significant agricultural exporter, only 55 per cent of food consumed in the UK is produced domestically (Figure 3). The vast majority of the remainder (26 per cent of all food consumed in the UK) comes from the EU,10 but in total the UK imports food, feed and drink from more than 200 countries and territories – around 85 per cent of all the nations in the world.11

Fig 2: UK production to supply ratio

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/food-statistics-pocketbook

Fig 3: Origins of food consumed in the UK

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/food-statistics-pocketbook

Sourcing food from a diverse portfolio of places, as well as producing it domestically, can enhance a country's food security and increase the resilience of the global system to small perturbations: losses in one region can be compensated by surpluses in others. However, reliance on external sources does increase exposure to systemic shocks and global disruptions such as COVID-19. A high degree of self-sufficiency does not necessarily enhance food or nutritional security, especially in a changing climate with increasing incidence of extreme events. Self-sufficiency concentrates dependencies and increases exposure to geographically-concentrated shocks, such as the 2001 outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK and the 2019-20 wet winter and dry spring, which resulted in significant losses among UK arable crops.12

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK food system was preparing for significant changes as a result of the UK's withdrawal from the EU and the approaching termination of the transition period in January 2021. As of late 2020, the UK government is preparing to publish its first National Food Strategy White Paper in 75 years, and the Brexit-spawned agriculture and trade bills are in the process of ascending into law to replace the EU Common Agricultural Policy.

The Agriculture Bill paves the way for paying farmers with public money for public goods that support the environment and biodiversity and that help achieve the UK's commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050.13 The COVID-19 pandemic now throws the objectives and strategies of the UK food system into even sharper relief.

Although production, consumption, and distributional dynamics within the UK are not the focus of this analysis they will have a significant bearing on food and nutrition security outcomes in the UK, with early evidence suggesting that COVID-19 is exacerbating existing inequalities and vulnerabilities.

For example, food bank dependence was up 89-175 per cent year-on-year in April14 but had already been increasing for the past five years.15 Overweight and obesity, associated with neighbourhood deprivation16 – and seemingly a COVID-19 risk factor17 – afflicts 74 per cent of black adults and 62 per cent of all adults in England.18 Furthermore, over 70 per cent of people working in the UK food sector earn less than £10 an hour despite being key workers.19 In addition wide gender disparities in the time spent on unpaid care work including food shopping and cooking persisted throughout the height of the UK's lockdown.20

International food system dynamics directly affecting the UK

There are at least seven ways that direct and indirect COVID-19-related risks to food and nutrition security can propagate across borders (Table 1). These are not mutually exclusive and can occur within or between any component of the food system thereby affecting, for example, the supply of food reaching the UK, the ability of UK food producers to access factor markets, or the ability of consumers to afford and utilize the nutrients they require.

Here the focus is initially on vectors affecting the supply into the UK of food, animal feed, and drink (FFD) categories21 and fertilizers and pesticides used by UK farmers. The broader dynamics within contemporary global food systems – which could have knock-on impacts for the UK – are then considered.

Table 1: Cross-border impact mechanisms
Vector of impact transmissionCOVID-19-related example
TradeExport restrictions limit food/input supplies
FinanceGlobal food and/or agricultural input prices change in response to global supply availability and interest rate changes
Movement of peopleTravel restrictions limit availability of migrant farm labour
Sentiment / psychologicalWorries about supply shortages lead to food hoarding or re-evaluations of the importance of food provenance
GeopoliticalRetaliatory trade sanctions imposed on countries blamed for pandemic or trade-restricting measures
BiophysicalCoronavirus contagion from people travelling from areas where the virus is currently prevalent
InfrastructureFood transport supply and port capacity reduced due to labour shortages and extra phytosanitary checks

Below we analyse impacts through the lens of two key pillars of food security: availability and access. Availability reflects the physical amount of food in the country; access refers to whether people can physically reach it and, if so, whether they can afford it. Of the other two pillars (utilization and stability) we focus less here on utilization, but the temporal dynamics are considered throughout.

Food availability: trade dependencies and dynamics

Imports

The vast majority – 70 per cent on average by value since 2018 – of UK FFD imports come from the European Community. Of the remainder, 36 per cent come from high-income countries, 41 per cent from upper-middle-income countries, 21 per cent from lower-middle-income countries, and 2 per cent from least developed countries. Geographically, Asia and Oceania are the most significant non-EC sources, followed by Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, and sub-Saharan Africa (Figure 4).

The largest share by value of all UK FFD imports are of vegetables and fruit (24 per cent) followed by meat and meat preparations (14 per cent) and beverages (13 per cent).

Fig 4: Origins of UK imports of food and agricultural inputs, by 2019 value

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

While the total value and the regional and category shares of FFD imports exhibit seasonal fluctuations, there were no significantly abnormal changes to aggregate import patterns from the beginning of 2020 until August 2020 based on the latest available data, i.e. the period affected by the first COVID-19 lockdown. The seasonal dip and subsequent spike in import values seen between February and March 2020 reflect similar patterns in the equivalent months of 2018 and 2019 (Figure 5).

Fig 5: UK food, feed, and drink imports, by region, 2018-2020

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

On a commodity basis, globally-sourced imports of meats and fish (Figures 6 and 7) appeared to fall dramatically during April and May 2020 and there is also evidence of lower beverage import values (Figure 8) during these months than in the equivalent periods in 2018 or 2019. Other than this, fluctuations do not appear to have been abnormal.

Fig 6: UK meat imports, 2018-2020

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

Fig 7: UK fish imports, 2018-2020

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

Fig 8: UK beverage imports, 2018-2020

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

By import location

As the end of the Brexit transition period approaches and with continued uncertainty over the nature, and indeed likelihood, of a UK-EU trade deal, as well as the implications this has for intra-UK trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, the locations through which imports arrive in the UK assume increasing significance. Unfortunately these data are not readily available for FFD imports from the EU, however for imports from the rest of the world (Figure 9), the vast majority (86 per cent since 2018) of all FFD imports by value arrive in England and Wales. Half of Northern Ireland’s FFD imports by value are animal feeds and over a quarter are cereals; Scotland's imports are also most significantly comprised of animal feeds, followed by fish, which accounted for a fifth of import value in 2019. These proportions have changed little over the course of 2020 to date.

Fig 9: Non-EC food and agricultural inputs by country of arrival into the UK, 2019

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

By mode of transport

The overwhelming majority of UK FFD imports, by both weight and value, arrive via sea. For imports from the EU, most of these come via articulated lorries transported on roll-on-roll-off ferries whereas imports from the rest of the world (Figure 10) typically arrive via container ships or dry-bulk tankers.

Airfreight accounted for 5 per cent of all FFD imports from the rest of the world in 2019 by value, and only 1 per cent by weight. It is most significant for vegetables and fruit – accounting for 11 per cent of the value of such non-EU imports in 2019. Airfreighted imports are particularly vulnerable to interruptions and delays in supply as they are typically high value perishable items – 61 per cent of the value of all FFD airfreighted imports from beyond the EU is vegetables and fruit.

Airfreight has been more susceptible to COVID-19 disruptions as around 70 per cent of all air cargo by weight is carried to and from UK airports in the bellyhold of passenger planes rather than on dedicated cargo planes,22 and has therefore witnessed a dramatic contraction as passenger demand collapsed during the height of the pandemic (Figure 11). In fact, as a result, some airlines have been refitting planes to carry cargo inside the cabin23.

90 per cent of bellyhold freight mass is transported through London airports, overwhelmingly through Heathrow airport.24 As such the value of airfreighted fruit and vegetable imports from outside the EU has been down on previous years throughout 2020, most dramatically so from March to May 2020.25

Fig 10: Non-EC food and agricultural inputs by port of arrival into the UK, 2019

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

Fig 11: Non-EC air-freighted vegetable and fruit imports, 2018-2020

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

Exports

Although the UK exported over £25 billion of FFD and chemical agricultural inputs in 2019, this represented only half the value of imports, so the trade deficit for these categories was nearly equal to the value of the exports (Figure 12). The deficit is largest for vegetables and fruit; the only categories in which there was a trade surplus were beverages and pesticides.

The UK exports food and agricultural products to around 220 countries. The US, China and Australia are the most lucrative export markets outside the EU with the US alone accounting for 10 per cent of the value of all of the UK’s food and agricultural exports (Figure 13).

Fig 12: UK trade balance in food and agricultural inputs, 2019

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

Fig 13

Unlike imports, UK exports appear to have witnessed a significant contraction from April to June 2020. This is observable across fish, fruit and vegetables and beverage (Figure 14) categories, although it is largely driven by the last of these given its outsized contribution to FFD export earnings. This is likely to reflect contraction in demand because of restrictions imposed globally on hospitality venues.

Fig 14: UK beverage exports, 2018-2020

Source: calculated from https://www.uktradeinfo.com/trade-data/overseas/

Food access: prices

Despite the relative absence of agricultural input or food import constraints, the overall farmgate prices for UK agricultural produce have climbed steadily in 2020 (Figure 15), possibly due in part to exports settled in euros as the pound has depreciated against the euro.

This has largely been driven by crop price rises, as animal and animal product prices fell 4 per cent in April 2020 and remain below March 2020 levels (Figure 15). This is consistent with meat imports falling over this period and a global fall in meat prices, reflecting a steep decline in demand from the lockdown-afflicted food services sector, economic hardship leading to less discretionary spending, and logistical bottlenecks.26

Over the same period input costs have remained largely stable, suggesting no significant supply constraints and, for crop farmers, increasing profitability over the period.

Fig 15: UK agriculture price indices, 2018-2020

Source: calculated from https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/agricultural-price-indices

These farmgate price dynamics do not necessarily translate into equivalent price movements for consumers as these are affected by the costs of other supply-chain actors, especially for more processed goods and those that are imported or are the product of long supply chains. Recent retail price data are hard to come by but following the supply constraints and panic-buying witnessed in March 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has introduced an experimental dataset reflecting weekly price changes for many foodstuffs sold by online retailers in the UK (Figure 16). Initially this covered just high demand products (such as dried pasta, rice, tinned products and flour)27 but now reflects a broader basket of groceries. The data show that online food prices rose from March 2020 and through April 2020 but have since largely declined, most noticeably for oils and fats. This is largely the inverse of global (unprocessed) food commodity prices, which were declining from January 2020 to May 2020 but have since risen steadily, reflecting increases in oil and sugar prices.

Fig 16: UK online weekly price changes

Source: calculated from https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/datasets/onlineweeklypricechanges and https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/inflationandpriceindices/datasets/onlinepricechangesforhighdemandproducts

Broader dynamics in international food systems

Unlike the food crises of 2007–08 and 2010–11, the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a demand shock to the food system, rather than a supply shock, and in contrast to 2010–11, production and stock levels are both at, or near, record highs.

Perturbations to international trade experienced at the outbreak of the pandemic were not the result of sudden production shortfalls, but of sudden recalibrations in demand as economies went into lockdown and the hospitality and food services sectors were forced to shut down.

Producers found themselves unable to shift their goods to market partly as a result of transport and movement restrictions, but largely owing to the drop in demand from downstream businesses and were left to dump their produce.

In contrast to the decline in UK cereal yields, global cereal production in 2020 is not projected to differ materially from 2019 forecasts. Both national governments and international organizations – intergovernmental and non-governmental – have taken steps to protect producers against input shortages and falling farmgate prices while harvests have, in many major producing regions, benefited from good weather conditions at the end of 2019.

International food trade logistics have proven fairly resilient in the face of the pandemic, though those within countries have been more severely affected, particularly those on which informal traders depend.

Many countries imposed trade restrictions on exports and/or imports at the start of the pandemic to protect domestic supply and, though a significant share of these still remain in place, there have been parallel efforts to liberalize international trade flows through, for example, the lowering or lifting of import tariffs.

The economic impacts of the crisis – the global recession and the exchange rate fluctuations and credit market contractions associated with it – are likely to continue affecting food markets in the longer term, particularly smaller scale producers and businesses.

The following sections discuss the broad trends in COVID-19-related impacts – and responses to these impacts – and consider country-specific examples that indicate how these differ between regions and commodity supply chains. These international dynamics are instructive for both informing UK responses and considering how these more distant impacts and responses may cascade through global food systems to ultimately affect UK food and nutrition security.

Food production systems

Impacts

Input-dependent production systems have seen disruption in many regions. For labour-intensive production systems, particularly those that typically employ large numbers of migrant workers, labour shortages resulting from COVID-19 infections, quarantine measures and movement restrictions have interrupted sowing and harvesting activities.28 In processing plants where workers work in close proximity , such as meat packing sites in Argentina, Brazil and the United States, outbreaks of COVID-19 have forced temporary closures – as they have in the United Kingdom. Travel restrictions have interrupted the delivery of key agricultural inputs such as seed and pesticides in East and Southern Africa,29 while in India there were reports of a shortage of seed ahead of the main monsoon season cropping period in July.30 Indeed, in Bangladesh, the seafood industry is expected to face a 40 per cent reduction in feed supply compared with 2019 levels.31

Furthermore, difficulty in accessing fixed capital – machinery, repairs and replacements, for example – could hinder agricultural activities if movement restrictions and supply slowdowns continue.32

Globally, production appears to have been minimally affected by the pandemic. Global cereal harvests are forecast to be up by 3 per cent in 2020 relative to 2019,33 and production levels of rice, maize and wheat are projected to be at, or near, historic highs (Figure 17).34

Fig 17: World supply and demand: staple crops

Source: https://app.amis-outlook.org/#/market-database/supply-and-demand-overview

Many major producing countries and regions – including Brazil, South Africa and countries in East and West Africa – are seeing strong yields in key export crops in 2020 due to favourable weather conditions in late 2019, in particular those whose planting season was already complete by the time the pandemic hit. However, this follows a series of droughts and floods in Africa in recent years, so COVID-19 is exacerbating difficulties in ongoing recovery and development.

Certain regions of East Africa have also suffered the combined effects of record desert locust swarms and COVID-19-related disruptions, including to the distribution of pesticides, with severe implications for food security among affected communities.

However the impact on aggregate production volumes from the region appears to be small. The informal sector in Africa accounts for approximately 90 per cent of employment, with about 60 per cent related to the food system. This means even relatively small localized natural and/or COVID-19-related impacts can have a significant impact on livelihoods.

Paradoxically, localized shortages of pesticides and fertilizers may be resulting in a return to the use of traditional, arguably more sustainable, natural pest management methods and organic materials.35

Responses

Most national governments designated agriculture as an essential service when imposing lockdown restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Exemptions from business closures and travel restrictions have, by and large, enabled agricultural supply chains – those operating in the formal sector, at least – to continue operating.

Governments in producing countries have taken steps to support businesses in the wake of demand slumps. Measures introduced include additional input subsidies, simplified and expedited access to credit, the relaxation of debt repayment deadlines, and direct cash payments to producers.36

Some governments have taken steps to facilitate the entry of migrant agricultural workers into the country too: Germany and the US both eased entry restrictions for seasonal workers, for example, while Australia, Italy and New Zealand all extended the working visas of temporary and seasonal migrant workers.37

Multilateral development banks (MDBs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) have also stepped in to shore up production in low-income countries. In Senegal, for example, the World Bank issued $150 million credit to boost productivity among the country’s dairy farmers and to support an increase in exports of high-value crops, including shelled groundnuts and horticultural goods.38

In early July, the African Development Bank introduced its Feed Africa Response to COVID-19, which includes as a strategic priority the extension of support services to producers and input access support through both direct provision and subsidies.

Finally, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has provided direct services to farmers, including seed distribution, cash assistance and the provision of hand tools for farmers and fishers, in order to support the continuation of production and harvesting activities.

Storage and distribution

Impacts

Movement restrictions have significantly disrupted ‘last mile’ logistics but have not had major impacts on international trade flows. The introduction of COVID-19 testing at border crossings has delayed intra-regional trade in Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, causing delays of up to five days at the Kenya-Tanzania border and resulting in both higher transport costs and increased food losses.

In Bangladesh, a breakdown in transport logistics has left seafood producers unable to transfer their foods to market.39 Consequently, interruptions to export flows have been seen – for example, as a result ofnthe dramatic reduction in commercial flights which has limited cargo capacity for certain perishable goods, causing air freight prices to rise40. However, overall, disruptions to key export infrastructure such as ports have tended to be short-lived and localized, while bulk freight prices have remained low.41

Export restrictions, together with increased transportation costs, have pushed up domestic prices of certain staple foods.
More than 300 temporary trade measures have been enacted or are under official investigation globally in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These aim to restrict exports and liberalize imports of essential products as well as to limit imports of goods deemed potentially harmful to domestic sectors or to public health.

Around a quarter (81) of the measures apply to food and agricultural goods and, of these, 53 are currently active. 63 per cent of the measures have been restrictive, though nearly 40 per cent of these have sought to limit imports rather than restrict exports (Figure 18).

Fig 18: Countries with active food or agricultural trade measures that apply to the UK* (as of 2 Oct 2020)

*Application to the UK means either a) that measures apply globally, or b) that measures only applicable to specific non-UK countries have been excluded. It does not necessarily imply they are UK trading partners in the affected commodities. Source: calculated from https://www.macmap.org/covid19 as of 3 Oct 2020

Globally, these measures have had a minimal effect on prices. Lower energy prices, reduced demand from the biofuels sector and a strong supply-demand balance overall have kept prices relatively low and stable.42

The FAO Food Price Index fell from January 2020 through to May 2020 but has since been rising steadily. Although price fluctuations since September 2019 (Figure 19) have been some of the largest seen since 2016, they pale in comparison with the 2007–08 and 2010–11 food prices crises (Figure 20). As measured by IFPRI’s Excessive Food Price Variability Early Warning System, only hard wheat, rice and sugar, among the major staple commodities, have had an excessive number of days with extreme futures prices in 2020. In the case of wheat, this was largely due to unfavourable weather in Europe, whereas rice price volatility has more likely been related to COVID-9 disruptions, although the outlook is favourable.43

Fig 19: FAO food commodity price indices, 2018-2020

Source: http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/

Fig 20: FAO food price index, 2000-2020

Source: http://www.fao.org/worldfoodsituation/foodpricesindex/en/

Prices on domestic markets have generally been more volatile. In a number of Asian countries, prices of rice and wheat have risen significantly. In Syria, staple food prices are reported to have risen by 40-50 per cent;44 in Laos and Thailand, rice retail prices rose 20 per cent on average between January 2020 and April 2020 compared with 2019. In India, Mongolia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka rises of between 10 and 20 per cent have also been seen.45 On average, the World Bank expects food price rises of at least 12 per cent in the most food import-dependent countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.46

Responses

Many governments have moved to introducing measures to encourage and facilitate trade, for example through temporary tariff reductions, VAT exemptions and accelerated customs procedures.47 Some governments have adopted measures to facilitate the continued distribution of both inputs and agricultural produce, such as the ‘green channels’ introduced in China and expedited border crossing checks, or ‘green lanes’, introduced in the EU. Measures have also been introduced to provide direct support to smallholders; in South Africa, for example, the Department of Agriculture established an additional assistance programme for small-scale farmers; in Brazil, an emergency credit line has been set up specifically for smallholders; in Germany, monthly grants are being issued to SMEs to cover their operating costs; and in Côte d’Ivoire, the government has introduced a public guarantee scheme for credit provided to informal businesses.48

A number of major intergovernmental organizaitons (IGOs) have established programmes specifically targeting SMEs and smallholders and their access to key inputs, markets and credit. The International Fund for Agricultural Development, for example, has established a multi-donor Rural Poor Stimulus Facility with the specific aim of providing basic inputs to crop, livestock and fishery producers, facilitating continued market access, offering financial support such as flexible debt repayment plans, and facilitating the use of digital services to improve producers’ access to key weather and market information.

In comparison, the FAO has launched a four-year programme to boost resilience among smallholders to the crisis, including through insurance and credit schemes, cash transfers and technical support.

IGOs have also launched a range of response and recovery programmes to minimize interruptions to global, national and local food trade networks. Another FAO initiative launched in response to the crisis is a four-year trade facilitation project which will include a ramping up of regular trade policy assessments, the convening of multi-stakeholder fora to encourage trade policy coordination and discourage distortive trade measures, and the provision of technical assistance in areas such as food safety control systems and the digitization of trade documents and bureaucratic procedures.

Retail, markets and provisioning

Impacts

The closure of the hospitality sector in many regions around the world has hurt the seafood and livestock industries, but government support measures have dampened losses. Seafood producers have experienced a dramatic fall in demand with the shutting down of restaurants. Indeed global shrimp production is expected to fall by 30-50 per cent in 2020 compared with 2019.

In major livestock-producing countries like the United States, the demand slump from the restaurant and food services sectors has resulted in significant waste at the farmgate, with producers dumping milk and eggs – something that is also happening in the UK – and, in some cases, culling livestock herds, to get rid of excess supply.

Global dairy exports are predicted to fall by 4 per cent relative to 2019 volumes, marking the most significant year-on-year reduction in three decades.49

Horticultural producers have also been forced to dump huge volumes of produce in response to the closure of hospitality and food services.

Responses

A number of governments around the world have introduced policies to generate demand and mitigate oversupply in the wake of widespread hospitality closures. In the United States, the Department of Agriculture ramped up the public procurement of fresh produce, dairy and meat products to compensate for the loss of demand from the hospitality sector.

In the EU, the European Commission allowed governments to offer private storage aid to those in the meat and dairy supply chains. This will allow producers to claim support for the storage of products such as cheese, butter and beef for periods of two to seven months, with the aim of avoiding oversupply on European markets and subsequent drops in prices.

A handful of other countries, including Egypt, India and Saudi Arabia, have ramped up public procurement and stockpiling as a means of supporting producers and protection against food shortages.50

Economic access

Impacts

Rates of household poverty and food insecurity have risen across many countries, primarily as the result of lost employment. Despite global cereal production and stocks remaining strong,51 the effects of a global recession and of the loss of employment – together with a significant reduction in remittances52 – among low-income households and informal workers are expected to lead to reduced nutrition security as economic access to nutritious diets fall – a trend that is already being observed in the UK.5354 The World Food Programme projects that 130 million additional people will be facing acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 thereby bringing the total from 135 million in 2019 to 265 million in 2020.

Fig 21: World Food Programme HungerMap

Source: https://hungermap.wfp.org/

Responses

By 15 May 2020, 181 countries had introduced social protection programmes to support vulnerable households or had announced plans to do so. In India, for example, the government made an early announcement of a $22.6 billion relief package which included both cash and food transfers.

Among the 181 countries, 26 country programmes were specifically aimed at informal workers.55 In the Philippines, for example, temporary employment opportunities in sanitation services were offered to informal workers, and in Indonesia the government provided subsidized vouchers to informal workers to support up-skilling and re-skilling training.

MDBs and IGOs are working independently, in concert with each other and in collaboration with national governments in order to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on food and nutrition security.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the government and the World Bank are monitoring food price and consumption data in order to inform the design and roll-out of social protection and emergency response measures.56 In Pakistan, the World Bank is providing direct livelihood support to 18,000 households – the majority of them female-headed – in the form of kitchen garden development and extension services to support small-scale livestock rearing and agricultural activities.57

Indeed, the World Food Programme has adapted existing food provision programmes to meet the needs of vulnerable households, for example through shifting school meal programmes to take-home rations, and has scaled up its emergency food distribution by 17 per cent on 2019 levels to meet growing demand.

Conclusion

The impacts of the pandemic on food systems globally, and the interventions that have been mounted in response, are broadly summarized in Figure 22. In future analysis we will consider the efficacy of these various responses both in addressing the direct impacts on different actors and activities but also in mitigating the risks of more systemic impacts cascading through global food systems and affecting the food and nutrition security of different populations, including those in the UK.

For the UK, the risks that potentially still lie ahead in global food system dynamics as the pandemic unfolds will be explored further, particularly as the impacts of leaving the EU begin to materialize and lessons about the efficacy of other countries' responses can increasingly be learned. Future analysis will address the threats posed to the food and nutrition security of UK populations and how UK actors should prioritize action to improve global food system resiliency and sustainability over the longer term.

Fig 22: Impacts and responses

This article has been prepared by Chatham House as part of the research project ‘COVID-19: Food and Nutrition Security During and After the COVID-19 pandemic’, led by the James Hutton Institute and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. It was first published and last updated in November 2020.

In future articles, developments with a longer-time horizon will be examined and consideration will be given to changes to UK policies and practices needed to achieve sustainable food systems that support resilient health, livelihoods and ecologies in the UK and overseas.

Other elements of the project consider domestic impacts and responses within the UK; food and nutrition security outcomes under plausible future scenarios; and future food production and land management options within the UK.