COVID-19 and the risk to food supply chains: How to respond?



Maximo Torero Cullen | Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Countries have shut down the economy to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now. But a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more.

The shipping industry is already reporting slowdowns because of port closures, and logistics hurdles could disrupt the supply chains in coming weeks. In order to avoid food shortages, it is imperative that countries keep the food supply chains going.

Unlike the 2007-2008 global food crisis, scarcity is not an issue this time. The supply of staple commodities is functioning well, and the crops need to be transported to where they are needed most. Restricting trade is not only unnecessary, it would hurt producers and consumers and even create panic in the markets.

For high-value commodities that require workers (instead of machines) for production, countries must strike a balance between the need to keep production going and the need to protect the workers. As countries combat the coronavirus pandemic, they must also make every effort to keep the gears of their food supply chains moving.


First, health is the top priority. Countries must ramp-up testing as much as possible and put isolation measures in place in order to slow the spread. Second, countries should meet the needs of the most vulnerable people, as the measures to contain the pandemic cripple the economy. Third, countries must keep the food supply flowing by prioritizing the health of the workers in the sector and their outputs. The following are specific recommendations.

1. Expand and improve emergency food assistance and social protection programs

These measures provide a buffer to help the most vulnerable people comply with stay-at-home regulations, given that they need daily income to survive. With massive layoffs, families are struggling to put food on the table.

More than 160 countries have implemented nationwide closures of schools, impacting over 87 percent of the world’s student population. It means the cancellation of school meals, often the only source of nutrition for children in vulnerable households. School meal suppliers and caterers are losing their income, too.

The emergency assistance needs to be provided as early as possible to contain the spread of the virus and to protect livelihoods during recovery later. Food banks and community-based groups, supported by both governments and private charities alike, should be mobilized to deliver or mail food, as families stay home.

The delivery mechanism can be used to provide other in-kind assistance, such as protective kits, to elderly people or those with chronic illnesses. In the long term, countries need to invest in improving emergency outbreak preparedness across the food supply chains to address not only the direct threat of an infectious disease but also the indirect toll that poor nutrition takes on health.

For vulnerable households, one-off or multiple cash transfers early on can soften the full-blown impact of the crisis when it arrives. Cash transfers can tide families over until circumstances improve, especially as disruptions to social services occur. Mobile payment systems are ideal to ensure quick delivery and to minimize human contact through cash exchanges.

Vulnerable families also need forbearance on tax and mortgage payments. Social protection programs should be expanded to assist those who didn’t previously have coverage and who are extremely vulnerable today, including the elderly populations. Complementary entitlements to offset the loss of income is a good example. Any conditionalities attached to assistance should be temporarily lifted.




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