A different look at COVID-19

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The coronavirus outbreak continues to worsen in many countries, including those in which we work with smallholder farmers. Our Executive Director Simon Winter reflects on the pandemic in the context of agricultural development and global food security.

Picking up on what I posted on LinkedIn a couple of days ago: What might COVID-19 mean for the global agriculture and food system? It is too early for many predictions. The answers will also vary around the world. But I want to raise a few points related to the part of the system in which the Syngenta Foundation works: smallholder farming in developing countries.

Much more than a health crisis

As our Board member Dr. Shenggen Fan* recently said: “COVID-19 is a health crisis. But it could also lead to a food security crisis if proper measures are not taken.” Our world was facing food and nutrition security challenges long before this virus appeared. And examples of epidemics such as Ebola show how devastating disease outbreaks can be for fragile food systems.

While we do not yet know how devastating the pandemic will be, there are signs from which to hypothesize. In the short term, many jobs are being lost. That somewhat reduces urban food demand, but the fall is offset in some places by short-term panic buying. A friend who supplies packaged goods to UK supermarkets says orders are “through the roof”. Once the panic is past, food prices may well fall, impacting low-income producers the most. Shut-downs will worst affect the more labor-intensive parts of the food chain. These include some factories, as well as pack-houses, harvesting and horticultural production. Jobs will be lost there and future food supplies put at risk.

Cooperation remains vital. It is really important, for example, that food continues to be able to pass borders freely. Earlier crises – for instance the 2008 food price shocks in West Africa – were made much worse by countries there and in Asia closing their frontiers to exports. Agriculture and all other parts of the food chain have also to be regarded as areas of “essential” work – work that can, therefore, continue even when other parts of the economy come to a halt. The need for cooperation also demands that organizations working in this field gather and share data so that everybody can understand the facts as soon as possible. While continuing to support agri-food development, governments and funders can then adjust other priorities to respond to emerging challenges.

Health, nutrition and food security are closely linked. Many of Africa’s 1.2 billion people are undernourished – more than 20 percent by some estimates. COVID-19 appears to be especially deadly for people already in poor health. A lot of attention so far has focused on the elderly. But well-nourished populations of all ages are likely to be more resilient, and children continue to need a good start in life that proper nutrition can give them.

It’s very important that the world continues to devote major resources to improving farming and the food supply, and looks for the complementarities between increasing support for health and agri-food development. And that is not just because of the current crisis. Agricultural development stimulates broader economic development. As well as creating jobs and improving quality of life, economic growth also generates resources to strengthen healthcare systems, improve related education and tackle dangers to public health. The pandemic is leading to rapid increases in cross-institutional and trans-national collaboration in the fight to support those affected and reduce the spread of COVID-19.  Such collaboration can create the basis for significant future strengthening and scaling of socio-economic and environmental development efforts.

Finally, it’s also critical that food safety becomes a priority for policy following this COVID-19 crisis.

Agri-entrepreneurs as agents of health?

At a time when solidarity is more important than ever, I don’t want to overplay the contributions of single organizations. But one boost to public health could result, surprisingly, from the work of the Syngenta Foundation – and many others – on agri-entrepreneurship. We are working in a number of countries to build up businesses for enterprising young rural inhabitants.

The program varies according to location, but these ‘last-mile’ businesses share several important characteristics. They are convening points for farmers and their families. They provide trusted advice in local languages, backed by modern digital technology and data use. They connect low-income vulnerable people in disadvantaged rural communities to supply chains and credit-providers. And, perhaps most importantly, they are fired by a desire to serve one’s community independently of politics or other hurdles – and to do so not just for a season, but a whole professional career. We are starting to see health providers reaching out to leverage these networks for the provision of information, testing and treatment services. To me, that sounds like a perfect platform for strengthening local healthcare!   

Let’s act now

We all have a role to play in tackling the current crisis. So far, COVID-19 has not had a major impact on the supply or price of staple foods. In some nations, governments could intervene if required, as China did during previous disease outbreaks such as SARS and MERS. In many developing countries, however, states will not be able to react so robustly. In West Africa, the 2014 Ebola outbreak led to dramatic increases in food prices. With the above-mentioned impacts in the short-term being more on-demand than on supply, we expect the opposite may be the case this time. Either way, countries that rely heavily on imported food include much of sub-Saharan Africa. They are particularly vulnerable to supply chain failures, caused for example by border closures.

I would, therefore, make two specific calls. One is to all countries to collaborate around food trade responses and avoid export or import bans. The other is to humanitarian agencies rapidly to figure out how to make feeding schemes work in low-income, densely-populated rural communities. There is still a lot we have to learn here.

To enable good supply, smallholders in developing countries need support from many quarters. As well as staying healthy enough to farm well, they need access to affordable inputs at the right time, to reliable infrastructure, good advice, and many other services.  In particular, guidance is urgently needed for those labor-intensive sectors about how to manage ‘social-distancing’ while operating factories, pack-houses and green-houses. The food chain as a whole needs support, too. National governments have a strong duty here, and so do the international agricultural development sector and its funders. 

I hope to see better collaboration between government and the private sector both during and after this crisis. I strongly believe that we can work together to improve access for everybody to safer food and a better food system.

COVID-19 is a challenge for all of us. It can also be an opportunity.  We need to be proactive, and all pull together. Agriculture can play a vital role – if given the right chances to do so.  

Supporting smallholder farmers is never easy, and current restrictions make it even harder. But our partners and we are committed to maintaining our activities as best we possibly can.

*Shenggen Fan: is chair professor at Beijing-based China Agricultural University and former director-general of Washington-headquartered International Food Policy Research Institute. He is also our board member. Read his paper on COVID19 here.