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Briefing: Food Security in the Time of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In this briefing, Aurélie Harou examines how targeted policies supporting consumers and producers can help maintain global food security.

Empty supermarket shelves have now become a commonplace experience for many, if not all of us. This experience likely caused you some anxiety and fear, and you may have asked yourself: will it continue to be difficult to find products in supermarkets? Will I be able to afford the foods I usually purchase? How are food shortages affecting others in my community? How will the global food supply be affected by this pandemic? Without knowing how all of this will unfold, it is hard to predict the future of the food supply. However, a current examination of COVID-19’s effects on food supply and demand reveals that targeted policies can support global food security by helping consumers afford food and suppliers adapt to a shifting food supply chain and possible labor disruptions.

Supermarket purchasing binges and shortages began with toilet paper and hand sanitizer, which set off a wave of panic buying of easily stored goods, such as bread, grains, nuts, and canned/frozen goods. Rice sales increased by more than 50 percent during this period compared to the incremental two percent increase last year. Such panic buying may be driven by rational fears of wanting to prepare for an uncertain future, but may also result from other psychological influences. The more empty shelves you see, the more likely a ‘herd effect’ may lead you to stock up on a particular item the next time it becomes available. Furthermore, the food shopping experience may help you regain some feeling of control in this uncertain environment. Consumer preferences are also changing as buyers turn to processed junk foods for various reasons, including boredom, desire for comfort, convenience, or a new hobby such as cooking or baking. Examples include Campbell’s Soup sales soaring 59 percent from last year, and massive demand for flour, Cheerios, and pancake mix that have increased General Mills’ profits. When considering changing food demands, most alarming is the increasing unemployment rate and its effect on demand. Families whose members have lost their jobs are worrying over where their next meal will come from. School closures mean that up to 30 million US children who usually receive school lunches, under the US National School Lunch Program, no longer have access to them, unless their districts allow for lunch pick-ups. Food banks are struggling to stay afloat as consumers queue for food, while donations and volunteers diminish.

COVID-19 has changed the way we feed ourselves. Food demand in supermarkets has increased as dining out options are reduced to ordering delivery or takeout. With it, the shift in demand for food from restaurants, school cafeterias, and college campuses to supermarkets has forced supply chains to quickly adapt. Many farms have been forced to destroy tens of millions of pounds of fresh food that they can no longer sell to their traditional buyers. Dairy Farmers of America, for example, estimates that their members are destroying as much as five percent of their milk supply as demand has tanked because of coffee shop and school closures. While some farmers donate parts of their surplus harvests to food banks, perishable food donations are limited and the cost of harvesting, processing, and then transporting foods to the banks puts further financial strain on these farms.

Perhaps the biggest way that COVID-19 has affected and threatened our food supply is through its effect on labor. Social distancing and self-isolation are difficult to practice in farmworker communities, especially in production and distribution channels where workers operate machinery shoulder-to-shoulder. Meat plants and slaughterhouses have recently been revealed to be a hotspot for virus infection, resulting in the need to shut down several beef, pork and chicken processing plants across North America. For example, the number of cattle slaughtered has dropped 22 percent from the same time last year. Finally, there have been labour shortages across Canada, the US, and Europe due to restrictions on migration. Large farms that often rely on workers from other countries to help during harvest are coming up short on labour.

While COVID-19 is said to be non-discriminatory, its indirect effects, like food insecurity, are not. Poorer and more vulnerable communities and populations here and abroad are, and will continue to be, worst-hit. For others, intermittent food supply shortages and price hikes may require temporary substitution of products. Policy-makers can help ensure food security by helping consumers who have lost their jobs, through means such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit. In the US, President Trump has issued an executive order to keep meat processing plants open to prevent meat shortages. But policies protecting workers must also be enacted, as workers face increased risks. Finally, as we worry about food security at home, we should not ignore communities abroad; the UN World Food Program warns that, because of COVID-19, twice as many people will go hungry next year, compared to this year.

This briefing note was prepared by Aurélie Harou in response to her webinar delivered on May 1, 2020. You can watch that webinar below.

Aurélie Harou

Picture of aurelie harouAurélie Harou obtained a BSc from the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, in Environmental Science and Geography and later an MSc from the University of California at Davis in Agricultural and Resource Economics. She worked for several years first for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency on the National Flood Insurance Program and later as a consultant for an economics litigation company in Berkeley, California. After living in D.R. Congo for a year doing humanitarian work for Action Against Hunger, she pursued a PhD in Applied Economics at Cornell University. She then joined the Agriculture and Food Security group at Columbia University as an Earth Institute post-doctoral fellow. Her research on global food security has brought her to work in many countries including Guatemala, Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Philippines and Nepal where she has partnered with various local and international organizations to conduct her work, including the World Food Program, Catholic Relief Services, the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Bank.


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