Agribusiness | Opinion

Covid-19 pandemic: A potential threat to global food security?

Occasional disease outbreak is not uncommon to the planet, whether it occurs spontaneously or very well-orchestrated. Earth has suffered gruesome destructive outbreaks in time past. The Bubonic plague popularly known as the Black death Pandemic, caused by a bacterium Yersinia pestis has been tagged as the most destructive of all outbreak ever existed, claiming an estimated monstrous 75 to 200 million lives from 1347 to 1351.

As expected, when such outbreaks befall, interventions are mostly centred around the direct provision of medical supplies for the immediate management of the condition and also laying of emergency structures to prevent its spread to unaffected areas and persons; all of which relies principally on a strong and a resilient health system.

Quite unfortunately, an unparallel effort is directed to an equally important concern, Food and Nutrition Security, which if factored diligently would not only shrink death toll due to hunger but also improve quality of immune response to combat any disease outbreak favourably holding up Production and economic stability.

This article, therefore, seeks to put in context the potential impact of the Novel Corona Virus, COVID19 on overall food and nutrition security on the planet making references to the most recent outbreaks.

Between 2002 and 2003, the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus (SARS-COV) epidemic hit China and 25 other countries affecting more than 8000 people. Nearly a decade later, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) also hit the world. Up until November 2019, MERS-COV is reported to have affected 2,494 people in 27 countries claiming the lives of 858 of the affected individuals.

What has this got to do with Food Security? In the wake of these two outbreaks, reports showed that the impact it had on food and nutrition security was not significantly profound, obviously because the number of cases involved was relatively low. Other reason for this has been attributed to Resilience and ability to cope with emergency situations in these countries. Additionally, Food reserves and a vibrant food supply chain was a major determinant factor in assuring food and nutrition security.

Fast forward a few years later in sub-Sahara Africa, across 3 main countries (Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone), the Ebola virus resurfaced affecting an estimated 30,000 people and claiming the lives of over 11,000 individuals. The United Nations General Assembly and Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) through the World Food Program, has been the main international humanitarian organisation that comes to the aid of affected nations providing food stocks and reserves.

Expectedly, during the Ebola Virus Disease outbreak, these bodies offered their assistance to affected countries as best as they could. Even though the numbers reported from Ebola epidemic was not as high, a report from the FAO showed that an estimated half a million people were severely food insecure due to the impact of Ebola in the three worst-hit western African countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

The same report disclosed that Ebola-affected families are facing below-average harvests and incomes as a result of quarantines and social stigma, also, access to food was difficult and below-average incomes and market disruptions have reduced their purchasing power.

Now, To the man of the moment, the Novel Corona Virus (COVID19) which has presented intense panic across the world even over the strongest of economies with the state-of-the-art health systems in place. In its early days in Wuhan, China, the WFP and partner organisations committed themselves to support the Chinese government as they battle this outbreak.

Not long after before it started to spread across other Asian countries and then broke out in Europe, America and the eventually hit the continent of Africa. This Pandemic has arrested the entire planet to a stationary phase scoring a total geographical coverage of 205 countries and still counting, with 882,191 confirmed cases, out of which 44,236 lives have already perished and an impressive 185,094 recovered victims as of April 1st.

So far as food security is concerned, experts working with the World Food Program, are of the view that it is still pre-mature to predict a potential impact of this pandemic on food security and the basis is that, unlike the Ebola virus disease

  1. The COVID 19 is not transmitted through food, thus more available viable foods.
  2. Again, it is believed to be more fatal among the old age citizens, even though it affects any age group, thus productivity is expected not to be affected significantly.
  3. Also, Global food prices have remained fairly stable.

Most importantly the WFP as part of its action plan for this year has the capacity to cater for 86 million people in emergency situations in terms of food supplies. Now the concerns are that there are already over 800 million people living in intense hunger out of which 150 million are stunted. A number which is already far exceeding the 86 million capacity that the WFP and its associated organisations are set to cater for.

Additionally, even though global food prices are yet to fluctuate significantly, price hikes at a number of informal local markets in Ghana have been observed; a potential threat to the food supply chain. Another major concern is the potential implication of the ‘lockdown strategy’ that has been meted out to almost all affected countries and selected farming localities. What this means is that food production is going to be inevitably significantly affected.

Considering all these leaves so many questions as long as food security is concerned; should we accept the WFP’s food security assurance message? Should we be worried about the horrific statistics presented in this article? Should we deploy strategies and measures in place to absorb the shocks that may arise?

So many unthought off and unanswered questions remain. The objective of this article again, and I reiterate is to bring to the attention of all stakeholder the need to put food and nutrition security at the same level it places investments in the health sector, regulating food prices as a way of ensuring continuity in the supply chain, investing more in agriculture and establishing emergency food reserves and storage facilities like other countries have done, and most importantly implementing favourable policies that will leave Ghana food secured with the hope of ensuring food security and sustainability if any form of disaster should ensue both now and also in the future. With this, there is better reliability and assurance that we can combat any outbreak to a greater extent should they emerge.

Rexford Obeng
MPhil Food Science, Candidate
Department of Nutrition and Food Science University of Ghana