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The impact of COVID-19 on critical global food supply chains and food security

Wheat/Flickr Edmund Garman
Jiayi Zhou and Dr Caroline Delgado

A full account of the human consequences of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, beyond the immediate health effects, remains to be seen. However, it is clear that the global economic recession and physical, economic and social disruption are being borne by the most vulnerable. The pandemic risks doubling the number of people who face acute hunger. Even before COVID-19 the world was on the brink of the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, with over 800 million people facing chronic undernourishment and a further 135 million people suffering crisis levels of hunger or worse. Although we are only months into the pandemic, analysis shows that an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020 due to COVID-19. Projections predict the pandemic may have a more severe impact on the number of hungry than the global food crisis of 2007–2008, constituting what David Beasley, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP), has labelled a ‘hunger pandemic’ alongside the health crisis. This double crisis impacts individuals but is also fuelled by broader macro-level dynamics. This SIPRI Topical Backgrounder focuses on the effects of the pandemic as they are being played out in conflict situations and in critical supply chains, with reflections on the politics of moving forward. 

COVID-19, conflict and hunger

In recent years, a global increase in hunger has largely been driven by armed conflict. Perhaps not surprisingly, the implications of COVID-19 are likely to be especially serious for people residing in either conflict-affected countries or countries transitioning out of armed conflict following peace agreements. Countries such as the Central African Republic, South Sudan and Yemen are all facing protracted food crises. The pandemic means these countries, heavily reliant on humanitarian assistance, including basic food aid, are now facing a triple burden. Wrecked by conflict, they do not have the resources to stage the required large-scale COVID-19 responses on top of ensuring and protecting livelihoods. Among crisis-affected populations, displaced persons are at particular risk, especially those residing in overcrowded internally displaced person (IDP) and refugee camps. This is happening at a time when the number of people forced from their homes by conflict and disaster is higher than any time before. 

Furthermore, the pandemic is also disrupting humanitarian aid flows due to movement restrictions on personnel and cargo, budget diversions and increased humanitarian delivery costs. While it is too soon to determine the real impact of COVID-19, early findings suggest that the pandemic is in some cases exacerbating the vicious cycle of food insecurity and conflict. This includes COVID-19 propelled food insecurity, which has led to looting and violent riots in some countries, including Afghanistan and South Africa. The weakened capacity of both national governments and international humanitarian organizations to cope with the health and socio-economic aspects of the pandemic, is, for example, being taken advantage of by non-state armed groups. For them, COVID-19 presents an opportunity to increase their popular support and consolidate territorial power in areas where people are in desperate need of food aid. This can be seen in Mexico, where cartels have been handing out boxes of food aid in poor neighbourhoods. Meanwhile, the security forces responsible for fighting cartel violence have been reassigned to protect hospitals and warehouses from attacks and lootings. At the same time, unemployment and a rise in inequality caused by COVID-19 can generate resentment and lower the opportunity cost of joining armed groups. 

Grappling with the difficult geopolitics

Moreover there is an additional factor to consider here: the geopolitical dimension. Indeed, the pandemic and its humanitarian impacts have followed on the heels of and converged with another macro-level trend: the crisis of multilateralism. Tensions between major powers and the impasse in intergovernmental institutions, from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Trade Organization (WTO) to even the United Nations Security Council, have shrunk the space for global cooperation. Given the obvious need for international coordination, and despite the marked shift in priorities that the pandemic should have induced, so far the permanent members of the UN Security Council have been unable even to agree on a ceasefire on account of the growing humanitarian catastrophe. 

On the economic front as well, the pandemic has accelerated rather than reduced existing growth in unilateralism and economic protectionism among major governments. Pre-pandemic concerns about inflexible global supply chains and over-reliance on individual suppliers were prominent in the manufacturing and high-tech sectors. But geopolitical tensions also implicated food: US–China trade tensions in the soybean market and ongoing Russian countersanctions banning Western food imports have turned food and agriculture into a political football. These sorts of bilateral trade frictions and unilateral trade measures have ripple effects across the food system; in January this year, the Secretary-General of the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) referred to trade wars as ‘huge threats to food security’. Now, the pandemic has also catalysed a more structural, as well as political, reconsideration by governments of the costs and benefits of economic interdependence. 

This is particularly the case when it comes to strategic and critical supplies. Export restrictions and bans of medical supplies have already been imposed by 71 countries. Restrictions on food have been less extensive, but export bans had also been imposed by 19 countries as of mid-June 2020. This includes bans on the export of grain by Russia, the world’s largest exporter of wheat, whose similar export ban in 2010 contributed to a global spike in food prices at that time, and similar export restrictions by major rice exporters like Vietnam and Cambodia. While these measures are for the most part short-term, they can be still be concerning given these countries’ large footprint in global markets. 

Economic unilateralism 

Restrictions have already affected at least 10 per cent of food imports in 54 countries, and up to 80 per cent of imported calories in some cases (see figure 1). Such trade measures are intended to ensure sufficient domestic food supply for the exporting countries. However, their impact on trade partners can be precisely the reverse. What is more concerning is that when the impacts are overlaid onto global maps of hunger, it becomes clear that those affected are in parts of the world where severe hunger is already concentrated (see figure 2). Put differently, economic nationalism by major exporters impacts precisely those states most dependent on imports, with sub-Saharan Africa as well as the Middle East and North Africa among the most affected regions. Restrictions, coupled with import surges and panic buying, can further increase international food price volatility.

Low-income countries are also least able to cope. As UNCTAD notes, around 20 per cent of income is spent on food in these countries and nationally they spend more than five times the share of merchandise export revenue on food than developed economies do—making them vulnerable to shocks both in terms of a collapse in exports as well as tighter import markets. Other macro-economic indicators, such as public debt and low foreign currency reserves, suggest, according to one WFP analysis, that for many developing countries, ‘the economic consequences [of COVID-19] will be more devastating than the disease itself.’


Source: Laborde, David, et al., ‘COVID-19 Food Trade Policy Tracker’, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), June 2020.

Source: Global Hunger Index, 2019.

Note: Countries labelled ‘Significant concern, insufficient data’ had unavailable data for one or more indicators used in the GHI formula, preventing the calculation of their 2019 GHI scores.

Lessons from the previous food crisis

There are already examples of what not to do, from the previous global food crises in 2007–2008 and 2010–12. These crises precipitated widespread food riots and political unrest throughout the developing world. The causes of the food crises were multifold, but there is now clear evidence that government attempts to insulate their national markets from the global situation, as well as panic food stockpiling and procurements, were in fact ‘significant determinants’ of the crisis itself. 

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) monitored the trade behaviours of 105 countries from 2007 to mid-2011 and found that 33 countries had imposed export restrictions. Estimates indicate that this insulating trade behaviour accounted for one third of the price hike in rice, and was possibly the primary cause of that crisis, with smaller but no less problematic effects in the wheat and corn markets. As Headey (2010) points out, these trade policies explain why an initially tighter world food market turned rapidly into ‘a full-blown crisis’. 

Similar risks remain today: simulations from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) have shown that merely a handful of export bans could cause as much as a 35 per cent spike in global prices for certain commodities—with sub-Saharan Africa most adversely affected. This time, food trade restrictions have so far not led to similar outcomes; they have impacted on 5 per cent of the world’s traded calories, rather than 19 per cent, which was the case during the 2007–2008 crisis. 

Indeed, learning from experience, international organizations have come together and emerged strongly against economic unilateralism. The WTO, the FAO and the WHO issued a joint statement urging governments to keep trade channels open, due to their importance for food security, and the FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the World Bank and the WFP have issued similar statements. On 21 April, the agriculture ministers of the G20 also committed to: ‘guard[ing] against any unjustified restrictive measures that could lead to excessive food price volatility in international markets and threaten the food security and nutrition of large proportions of the world population.’

Food export restrictions remain legal under WTO provisions, but it is also clear that a new normative standard is emerging. This time, 22 members of the WTO, who together account for 63 per cent of the world’s agricultural exports, have pledged to keep trade channels open.

Irreversible interdependence?

Here, we must acknowledge that interconnectedness brings both risks and benefits, with the balance between them still heavily debated. As Kummu et al. (2020) note, the ‘double role of trade as a promoter and eroder of food system resilience is context and scale dependent, and still poorly understood’. But it is also worth noting that for better or for worse, interconnectedness has become a central if not irreversible feature of our global agricultural system. Today, already one quarter of the food produced for human consumption is internationally traded, and four out of every five people live in a country that is at least partially dependent on imports to fulfil its food demand.

Some of this is reversible. As a result of structural readjustment policies, and decades of emphasis on industrialization over rural investment, the agricultural sector in many developing countries has been left neglected in ways that more balanced policies can help to address. However, in other respects the problem is not just a simple public policy fix at national levels. As the FAO notes, ‘critical parts of food systems are becoming more capital-intensive, vertically integrated and concentrated in fewer hands’. This describes well the entire global food supply chain, from inputs like seeds and fertilizers, to control of marketing and retail distribution of processed products, all of which has become increasingly delocalized. It also means that both agricultural producers and consumers, in particular those at the margins, are often at the whims of forces far beyond their capacity to influence or control. 

Under the current global food system risks become concentrated even as effects are distributed—as paralleled in the transmission of the COVID-19 virus itself. Agro-export specialization, monocropping and industrial agriculture in the name of neoliberal ‘efficiency’ can not only decrease supply chain resilience, but can also negatively impact biodiversity and ecological resilience, damaging the broader environment upon which our food systems are dependent.

Indeed, business as usual is already proving itself unsustainable: current food production contributes up to one quarter of greenhouse gas emissions, even as climate change is simultaneously undermining production systems. In fact, climate variability and extremes are now key drivers of global hunger. Thus, the need for an overhaul of the current industrialized food system is evident. The call to ‘build back better’ post-pandemic offers an opportunity for that reform. The European Union’s (EU) newly announced Farm to Fork strategy, as part of its overall Green Deal, offers one such attempt, which shortens supply chains while also taking steps towards agroecological and climate-friendly practices. 

Indeed, global environmental change, diminishing resources and population growth add another structural dimension to the conversation. For a number of countries, due to natural resource constraints, in particular but not limited to climate change scenarios, it is simply not possible to increase domestic production sufficiently to feed the national population. Interdependence, in other words, is here to stay.

From national risk management to global resilience

When the issues of economic shocks and conflict are viewed together, it becomes clear that the problem of global hunger—perhaps more obvious during the pandemic—is not an issue of simple supply–demand conditions, or scarcity in the aggregate. Instead, it must be duly recognized as a product of politics and political choices. Indeed, even as international agencies project a doubling of world hunger, commodity analysts note that crop production this year is estimated to be 2.3 per cent higher than in 2019. As Amartya Sen pointed out decades ago, it has rarely been the case that the lack of availability of food has been the root cause of acute hunger and famine. Instead, it is the distribution of rights, and the economic and social access to food at the household and individual-level that matter most. Climate change, poverty, inequality (including gender) and armed conflict all have their role to play, but so does the asymmetric distribution of vulnerabilities and resources across countries. This means that any possibility of eradicating hunger, as committed to by all 193 member states of the UN as part of Agenda 2030, will necessarily require joint efforts.

Balancing the benefits of trade with the risks, trade plays an obvious role in providing essential and critical products, but it can also increase vulnerability to external shocks in other parts of the world. Post-pandemic, it is likely that governments will struggle to get that balance right, which perhaps bodes for a more uncertain outlook in the medium term. What is clear, however, is that those conversations and decisions should be held and made openly, in dialogue and coordination with partners to ensure that the worst consequences for the vulnerable can be avoided.

Overall, responses to the pandemic highlight what both economic nationalists and right to food proponents ironically agree on, which is that food is far from an economic commodity, but rather a deeply social and even political one. Its universal provision thus depends on building a society—at the global level—that is inclusive and resilient rather than fractious and unequal. The former, however, requires a different sort of (geo-)politics than exists at the present moment.


Jiayi Zhou is a Researcher in the Climate Change and Risk Programme.
Dr Caroline Delgado is a Senior Researcher and Programme Director for the World Food Programme Knowledge Partnership.