COVID-19, a threat to food security in cities

COVID-19, a threat to food security in cities

June 26, 2020

COVID-19, a threat to food security in cities

Urban communities are preparing to address food shortages related to the changes the novel coronavirus outbreak has caused to food systems. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has increased and spread the risk of food shortages, which can also be experienced in cities and have a greater impact on low- and middle-income countries. 

COVID-19 is potentially catastrophic for millions who are already hanging by a thread. It is a hammer blow for millions more who can only eat if they earn a wage. Lockdowns and global economic recession have already decimated their nest eggs. It only takes one more shock – like COVID-19 – to push them over the edge,said Arif Husain, Chief Economist at the World Food Programme (WFP). “We must collectively act now to mitigate the impact of this global catastrophe,” he added.

The figures speak for themselves in the WFP’s latest Global Report on Food Crises, drafted in conjunction with 15 other partners and published in April 2020: 265 million people are at risk of severe food insecurity in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic – double the figure of 135 million for 2019

What’s happening in cities

Fifty-five percent of the world population now lives in cities, a proportion expected to rise to 68 percent by 2050. These constantly increasing numbers risk plunging the food production and food supply systems into crisis, especially among the most vulnerable citizens and cities. And the COVID-19 pandemic further muddies the waters. According to the RUAF Foundation, a partner in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) Food for the Cities Programme, the spread of the virus and the global measures taken to contain it have resulted in major challenges to current food systems, with huge implications for food security.

These implications include the limited availability of labor in agriculture, often linked to the work of seasonal migrants and now limited by social distancing and mobility lockdowns, as well as the closure of markets and the congestion or destruction of logistics and deliveries along the supply chain. As RUAF experts explain, some cities are particularly susceptible to supply problems: they are heavily or solely dependent on food imports, or rely on long, complex supply chains that are perennially vulnerable to various risks. 

United we stand

One point on which all experts agree is undoubtedly the need to act quickly and take concrete actions to bolster food systems in the coming months, and to increase their resilience in addressing the pandemic and other challenges that may arise in the future. 

“FAO and the RUAF Foundation are partnering to build sustainable, resilient and dynamic city region food systems, by strengthening rural-urban linkages,” say FAO experts. This is echoed by the RUAF Foundation: “the disruption to food systems from COVID-19 highlights the need to reconnect local production and consumption. The proposition is not self-sufficiency or protectionism but to ensure urban areas are not solely reliant on distant sources.” 

To respond to these needs, the FAO and RUAF Foundation created the City Region Food System (CRFS) approach, offering a toolkit to better understand the vulnerability of urban food systems, to increase communication and cooperation, and to coordinate actions to safeguard food security. All these actions, together with support for cooperation between local governments and other major stakeholders in agri-food systems policy, are key elements in dealing with potentially destructive events, such as the ongoing pandemic. 

Current responses in the field

From Australia to South America, there are numerous examples of how cities are responding to the new challenges resulting from the pandemic. Applying the CRFS approach has been key to an improved response to the outbreak in many cities on many of the continents.

In Quito, Ecuador, the closure of local trade fairs and markets has created no small number of problems for the food supply chain. "As part of the CRFS project and work on the related indicators, Quito has mapped all of these markets and the most vulnerable communities,” the experts write, noting that this approach has identified at-risk population groups who are not included in the existing support programs

In conjunction with several local and national government agencies, a consortium has been set up in the Antananarivo region of Madagascar, to implement the CRFS approach and to increase food system resilience, including by identifying the priorities in the design of a ‘post-COVID’ strategy. There are many targets for investment, from mapping food flows to tracking the duties of every single stakeholder in the supply chain, via a determination of individual product quantities.

Many more examples can be added, from Canada to Australia, demonstrating that a targeted approach can make a real difference in addressing the new food challenges resulting from the novel coronavirus pandemic, regardless of the background. Read more about the project on the dedicated FAO website

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