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Introducing Covid-19

How a pandemic can impact our food chain - international borders closed, reduced work force, face-to-face inspections and audits?
Black graffiti on a white wall representing a facial mask, with the words
© Adam Nieścioruk @Unsplash

In the first activity of this week, we discussed some of the food scandals and crisis situations that have occurred in our food chain; and explored the mitigation and control that has been implemented to ensure they will not impact the integrity of our food chain going forward. As a result of these lessons learned the European food system has been described as one of the safest in the world.

The recent Covid–19 health crisis has the potential to become a food crisis should effective contingency plans not be put in place. In parallel, food plays an important role in human health and well-being, helping in the prevention of mortality and morbidity. Arguably, the integrity of our food chain and access to affordable and nutritious food is more important now than ever to reduce the burden of disease and pressure on our health care system.

In this section we will use the example of Covid-19 and the work by industry, research, government and related sectors to showcase how proactive approaches undertaken to ensure the continued supply of high quality, safe, sustainable and authentic food.

How could Covid-19 impact the food system?

In response to the Covid-19 health crisis a number of control measures have been put in place which could impact the supply of safe, nutritious, authentic and sustainable food across the globe. For example:

  • Food Production: Social distancing, travel restrictions and illness may reduce the availability of labour at peak seasonal times. As a result, fresh produce can accumulate without being sold and lead to food losses, lose of income and higher food prices. Similarly, the number of audits, inspections and monitoring could reduce; and food businesses will attempt to cope with lower margins and fractured supply lines leading to food quality, safety and authenticity concerns.

  • Distribution System: Restriction in movements and closure of national borders can impact the food distribution system, including the agri-food chains access to essential services and inputs (e.g. auditors, veterinarians, fertilizer and seed) and to sell their products; and increases the cost and time required to move food around within and between countries. This can lead to reduced production, food loss and emptier markets.

  • Food Service: Restaurants and food service companies have shut down as part of the lock down measures to control the spread of Covid-19. Fresh food for the food service sector is harder to store for future consumption leading to food waste. Similarly, schools have closed down reducing children’s access to nutritious meals.

  • Buying Behaviors: Income shocks and restricted movements have led to panic buying of staple, longer shelf-life and cheaper food which do not have the same nutritional content. Moreover, panic-buying generates uncertainty and makes it difficult for the food sector to make informed decisions.

How do we prevent Covid-19 becoming a food crisis?

A co-ordinated approach from the industry, government, research and consumers is essential to ensure our food system continues to operate efficiently and to provide safety nets for the most vulnerable people across the globe. For example:

  • Agriculture and food service classified as an essential service

  • Health and safety measures, social distancing, reduced hours, rotating staff etc.

  • Injection of capital into the agricultural sector, e.g. grants, reduction on fees on bank loans and extended payment deadlines

  • One off cash payments, reduction on taxes and mortgage payments, wage subsidiaries for citizens

  • Government intervention, purchasing agricultural products from small farmers to establish strategic emergency reserves for humanitarian purposes; and paying for refrigeration costs to keep livestock activities functional

  • Food banks and efforts by charities and non-governmental organisations mobilised to deliver food

  • Contact free delivery services and e-commerce platforms

  • Close monitoring of food prices and markets

  • Transparent dissemination of information to strengthen management of the food system, allow informed decision making and prevent panic buying.

As discussed, there are a number of potential threats to the food system as a result of the Covid-19 health crisis. The good news is that the food sector is aware of these potential impacts. The sector has learnt to take a proactive approach due to their experience of previous food scandals and crisis situations and contingency plans are already in place to ensure food integrity continues. Moreover, Covid-19 presents us with an opportunity to improve.

What we would like you to do

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) put together a Question and Answer page on the impact of Covid-19 on the food chain. Please review the website here.

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Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

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