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Food crisis looms – Aghamelu

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Prof. Ambrose Aghamelu formerly of the Department Of Aquaculture, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Nigeria, Nsukka (UNN). foresees a serious food sufficiency challenge soon. In this interview with NKECHI IKENWOKE, he discussed COVID – 19 pandemic and its impact on food and agriculture. Excerpts:

Do you think that farmers can cultivate their crops regardless of the pandemic?

  The disease is spreading quickly. This is no longer a regional issue. It is a global problem calling for a global response. Both lives and livelihoods are at risk from this pandemic. We know that it will eventually retreat, but we don’t know how fast this will happen. We also know that this shock is somewhat unusual as it affects significant elements of both food supply and demand. We risk a looming food crisis, unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system. Border closures, quarantines, market supply chain and trade disruptions could restrict people’s access to sufficient and nutritious sources of food, especially in countries hit hard by the virus or already affected by high levels of food insecurity.

But there is no need for the world to panic. Globally, there is enough food for everyone. Policy makers around the world need to be careful not to repeat the mistakes made during the 2007-2008 food crisis, and turn this health crisis into an entirely avoidable food crisis.

 How do you expect that the measures can be taken and what are the challenges over farming at this time?

   As the virus spreads, cases mount and measures tighten. There are countless ways, however, that the global food system will be tested and strained in the coming weeks and months. As of now, disruptions are minimal as food supply has been adequate and markets have been stable so far. However, we have already seen challenges in terms of logistics bottlenecks (not being able to move food from point A to point B), which have by now (mid-April) been largely resolved; and likely, there is less food of high-value commodities (i.e. fruits and vegetables) being brought to market. As of April, May, we expect disruptions in the food supply chains. For example: restrictions of movement, as well as basic aversion behaviour by workers may impede farmers from farming and food processors who handle the vast majority of agricultural products from processing. Shortage of fertilizers, veterinary medicines and other input could affect agricultural production. Closures of restaurants and less frequent grocery shopping diminish demand for fresh produce and fishery products, affecting producers and suppliers. Sectors in agriculture- fisheries and aquaculture are particularly affected by restrictions on tourism.

In any scenario, the most affected will be the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population, (including migrants, the displaced, and those hit by conflict). Countries in protracted crises also suffer from under investment in public health which will amplify the pandemic’s impacts.

  Whose food security and livelihoods are most at risk due to the pandemic?

Currently, some 820 million people around the world are experiencing chronic hunger; not eating enough caloric energy to live normal lives. Of these, 113 million are coping with acute severe insecurity. Hunger is quite severe that it poses an immediate threat to their lives or livelihoods and renders them reliant on external assistance to survive. These people can ill-afford any potential further disruptions to their livelihoods or access to food that COVID-19 might bring. Indeed, FAO is particularly concerned about the pandemic’s impacts on vulnerable communities already grappling with hunger or other crises.

Vulnerable groups also include small-scale farmers, pastoralists and fishers who might be hindered from working their land, caring for their livestock or fishing. They will also face challenges accessing markets to sell their products or buy essential inputs or struggle due to higher food prices and limited purchasing power.

Informal labourers will be hard hit by job and income losses in harvesting and processing. Millions of children are already missing out on the school meals they have come to rely upon, many of them with no formal access to social protection, including health insurance. In addition to agriculture, other affected specific sector include fish which provides more than 20 per cent of the average per capita animal protein intake for three billion people more than 50 per cent in some less developed countries and it is one of the most traded food commodities globally. Thus, the impact on the livelihoods of fisher communities, food security, nutrition and trade, especially in those countries which rely heavily on the fishing sector is expected to be significant. We also know from dealing with past health crises that these can have a drastic effect on food security, especially that of vulnerable communities.

  Quarantines and panic during the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in Sierra Leone (2014-2016), for example, led to a spike in hunger and malnutrition. The suffering worsened as restrictions on movement led both to labour shortages at harvest time even as other farmers were unable to bring their product to the market. The systemic effect was like that of an earthquake, highlighting how prevention and risk reduction strategies now are paramount.      

What are the implications of the COVID-19 situation now and in the future for food production, agricultural and fishery/aquaculture supply chains and markets?

  The food supply chain is a complex web that involves producers, consumers, agricultural and fishery inputs, processing and storage, transportation and marketing, etc. In the fisheries and aquaculture sector, 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 and affecting prices.

  However, we are already seeing the challenges in terms of the logistics involving the movement of food (not being able to move food from point A to point B), and the pandemic’s impact on livestock sector due to reduced access to animal feed and slaughterhouses’ diminished capacity (due to logistical constraints and labour shortages) similar to what happened in China.

  As a result of the above as of April and May, we expect to see disruptions in the food supply chains.

  Blockages to transport routes are particularly obstructive for fresh food supply chains and may also result in increased levels of food loss and waste. Fresh fish and aquatic products, which are highly perishable and therefore need to be sold, processed or stored in a relatively limited time are at particular risk. Transport restrictions and quarantine measures are likely to impede farmers’ and fishers’ access to markets, curbing their productive capacities and hindering them from selling their produce.

  How will the pandemic affect food demand?  

  The 2008 financial crisis showed us what can happen when reduced income and uncertainty make people spend less and result in shrinking demand. Sales declined, so did production. Moreover, the most affected were forced to revert to negative coping strategies such as selling of productive assets, less diverse diets, overfishing to compensate for income constraints. At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a significant increase in demand.

Food demand is generally inelastic and its effect on overall consumption will be likely limited, although dietary patterns may alter. There is a possibility of a disproportionately larger decline in animal protein consumption as a result of fears that animals might be hosts of the virus, and other higher valued products like fish, fruits and vegetables which are likely to cause price slumps. These fears can be particularly true for raw fish products supplied to restaurants and hotels, including small and medium enterprises.

Food demand in poorer countries is more linked to income. But here, loss of income earning opportunities could impact on consumption. Fear of contagion can translate in reduced visits to food markets, and we expect to see a shift in how people buy and consume food, lower restaurant traffic, increased e-commerce deliveries (as evidenced in China), and a rise in eating at home.

Following the outbreak of coronavirus, countries around the world started to implement a number of policy measures aimed at avoiding the further spread of the disease. However, such measures might affect agricultural production and trade. For instance, many countries are implementing higher controls on cargo vessels, with the risk of jeopardizing shipping activities and with a particular risk to perishable goods like fresh fruits and vegetables, fish and fish products.

  What is the pandemic’s impact on the global economy?

  There are several sources of effects over the global economy. First, markets are more integrated and interlinked with a Chinese economy that contributes 16 per cent to the global gross domestic product. Thus, any shock that affects China now has far greater consequences for the world economy. 

  Second, the supply shocks due to morbidity and mortality, but also the containment efforts that restrict mobility and higher costs of doing business due to restricted supply chains and a tightening of credit will affect economies leading to a reduction of economic growth or an economic recession. Third, the demand will also fall due to higher uncertainty, increased precautionary behaviour, containment efforts, and rising financial costs that reduce the ability to spend. Finally, there is a significant devaluation of the exchange rate with respect to the US dollar, which will also affect the import dependent countries.

While COVID-19 likely represents a deflationary shock for the global economy, reflected in early moves by the FAO Food Price Index, in the short term, the real cost of a healthy diet may rise because of the increase in the cost of perishable commodities which would have a particularly adverse impact on lower-income households and raise the price of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

  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. 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 smallholders 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 and maintain their 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. 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.

   What steps is FAO taking to protect its staff and to ensure that it will be able to continue to deliver on its mandate of fighting hunger?

  Responding to the pandemic’s impacts requires careful operational planning given the potential rapid evolution of the situation on the ground. FAO’s attention will primarily focus on vulnerable rural and coastal populations whose agricultural and fisheries-based livelihoods are affected and on buttressing food security for people in places already experience high levels of hunger.

FAO will need to take into account different business continuity scenarios and ensure the safety and well-being of staff and beneficiaries. Program criticality planning is underway at country level to ensure this.  FAO’s activities have been planned with WHO and public health authorities at country level so that they are in line, and supporting containment efforts, and ensure the safety and well-being of staff and beneficiaries.

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