The Risks to Eating Well: COVID-19 and Food System Disruption in South Asia
Interview with Avinash Kishore
For an update on how COVID-19 is affecting food consumption and distribution in South Asia watch or listen to this interview with Avinash Kishore.
I was fascinated – Avinash brings to life with great illustrations and facts the complexity of food systems, the disrupting impacts of COVID-19 and how people and governments are responding.
We are lucky. Unlike during the 2008/9 food price crisis, there are ample food stocks, there is a good rabi harvest and energy prices are low (reducing demand for biofuels). The bottom-line message from Avinash is that food shortages are unlikely, at least in terms of grains and pulses (basic calories).
But, as Avinash explains, there are still big food system challenges to be faced. COVID-19 puts at risk the nutritional quality of people’s diets and undermines the economic linkages across value chains. If there is an extended COVID-19 crisis and a longer-term economic downturn there will be a severe impact on the health and incomes of large numbers of people.
There are two big and interconnected issues. The first is that as large numbers of people have lost incomes, their immediate survival strategy will be to reduce expenditure on more expensive high nutritional value foods. The second is that the COVID-19 disruptions to food transport, processing, and food services has the biggest impact on perishable fruit, vegetables, dairy, and meat products. These products give the highest returns across value chains and to farmers. So, disruption compounds lost jobs, lost income, and economic slowdown. Vast numbers of people across South Asia make their living from the informal food sector, operating with tiny margins and very tight credit. The flow on effects of disruption to this complex informal economic network could be dramatic.
Avinash makes the point that in terms of both the nutritional impacts and lost income women and girls and likely to be more severely affected, undermining women’s economic empowerment that is so critical to tackling poverty across the region.
For many, COVID-19 has seen an explosion in use of the online world. However, the vast majority of people involved in the informal food sector do not have bank accounts let alone access to the digital world. This creates enormous challenges in quickly providing them financial and in being able to support their businesses. Avinash argues that to support recovery of the sector substantial financial innovation will be needed. To drive such innovation, dialogue between business and government will be critical, he says.
This is a crisis like no other, explains Avinash, we are still trying to come to terms with what it means for food systems. Without the right responses we could see progress on the Sustainable Development Goals pushed back by years.
Blog by Jim Woodhill