Critical Connections: COVID-19, Rural Poverty and Food System Risks

Critical Connections

COVID-19, Rural Poverty and Food System Risks

The last month has seen the world waking up to the full extent of the COVID-19 health and economic crisis.  From the storm of blogs, tweets and reports about COVID-19, I’ve been assessing what it all means for poor rural people and food systems. The consequences in low- and middle-income countries could be horrendous, if national governments and the global community do not adequately step up. Here’s a draft synthesis that I will keep updating, with some highlights below.

Urban workers who have lost their jobs are heading back to rural areas in droves, largely penniless. Remittances are plummeting. Local agricultural suppliers of seed and fertilizer are closing. And many agricultural labourers are no longer working. All the signs show risks for a cascading collapse of the critical web of economic connections that sustain the fragile livelihoods of poor rural people and small-scale farmers. The economic crisis will be compounded by health systems completely unable to cope.

How bad could it really get? COVID-19 is the world’s most extreme ‘black swan’ – unpredictable and high impact event – since the Second World War (or as Snowden describes a ‘black elephant’ as risks of a global pandemic have been an ‘elephant in the room’ for years). Last month, the IMF pulled no punches in how it presented the seriousness of what it now projects as a 3% contraction in the size of global GDP. The last time this happened in the US was during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One worst case scenario estimates nearly ½ a billion people will find themselves back in poverty with the SDGs pushed by back by decades. The WFP has already warned that the number of people suffering acute hunger could double by the end of the year. Much of the impacts will play out in rural areas.

The world is in totally uncharted territories with huge uncertainties about how both the health and economic consequences will pan out. So I took scenario thinking as the starting point.  In February and March a manageable disruption may have seemed a plausible scenario. But globally we now seem to be in an escalating crisis. Can a widespread collapse of key health, financial and food systems be avoided? What will escalate the crisis and what might nudge systems back towards safer territory? What contingencies exist to respond to worst-case scenarios?

Scenarios unfold differently for different households, businesses and countries at different moments. Each context has its own timeline. COVID-19 has shown it can affect anyone. But its impacts will be far from equal.  The poorest and most vulnerable people will be hit hardest by the fallout.

Fact: the majority of poor and extremely poor people can be found in rural areas. There are 736 million people still living in extreme poverty (US$ 1.90 or below) and most of these are in rural areas, and with over 26% of global population living on US$ 3.20 – again many in rural areas. In low-income countries, 67% of the population still live in rural areas and in middle-income countries it is 47%. That is about 3.2 billion people who are poor or on very low incomes living in rural areas! So, grasping the consequences of COVID-19 for rural areas and the responses needed is critical and urgent.

Mapping the consequences for the wellbeing of rural people (see Figure below) helps to take a systemic view to a possible suite of responses. My key takeaways include the following, with more details in the report.

  1. Impacts will play out across five dimensions: income, food and nutrition security, health, education, and the resilience to cope with current and future crises – with strong interactions between.
  2. The impacts on women and girls will be more severe, making them more vulnerable – a gender lens to any response is a must.
  3. Context changes everything. Huge differences in vulnerability exist between individuals, households and geographies. So, assessing these and integrating them into response measures can help prioritisation and targeting.
  4. Notwithstanding the need for an immediate response, now is also the time to start thinking of wider systemic consequences, potential exacerbating effects and how these can be mitigated or dampened.

Diving deeper into food systems and critical connections.  So far, food systems are holding up. The world is fortunate to have reasonable food stocks and the prospect of a good coming harvest season, with global food commodity prices stable. But cracks are appearing. A combination of physical distancing, large scale sickness, fear and economic turmoil could easily unravel the food systems of low- and middle-income countries.  What happens then?

Small-scale farmers still produce 70% of food consumed in low- and middle-income countries. This production is critical to feeding the exploding urban populations. If farmers are sick, have no money to buy farming inputs, or inputs are not available, they will not produce food.  If food systems unravel, food prices will rise, dramatically compounding the crisis for those who have lost income and make response measures ever more expensive and difficult.  People with low incomes spend most of it on food. Even small food price changes will have a dramatic impact on their wellbeing.

Unravelling of domestic food supply chains may put pressure on governments to impose export bans on food, which could rapidly escalate into a compounding global food price crisis. The 2008/2009 food price crisis illustrated how quickly this can happen, triggering riots and political instability in some countries.

There is a knife’s edge to be walked. Unwarranted fear that drives household or national food hoarding is the last thing the world needs. Rural communities and informal markets also can also be surprisingly resilient. But complacency about the risks to food systems could be a disastrous mistake.  Urgent measures are needed rapidly track what is unfolding and to safeguard food supplies, not least for those on low incomes.

Ten priority areas to guide action have emerged from key food, agriculture and rural development agencies and other commentators – the FAO, CFS High Level Panel of Experts,  IFAD, CGIAR, CFS and AGRA (see report for more detail):

  1. Protect the health of agriculture and food sector workers as part of a first line of response to contain the spread of the virus while protecting food production and distribution as an essential service.
  2. Maintain open trade to avoid a global food price crisis.
  3. Monitor, assess and communicate to enable early detection and rapid response to emerging food system blockages and food insecurity.
  4. Expand and optimise social protection to enable those who have lost income to still have access to food.
  5. Keep agricultural production and food supply chains functioning by making them the essential services they are.
  6. Maintain and expand food aid to ensure those affected by food insecurity are protected from hunger and malnutrition
  7. Support the liquidity of agri-food businesses and farmers to ensure they can keep employing workers and trading.
  8. Invest for recovery and systemic change by creating investment and employment programmes that enhance rural economies for the future and shift towards more sustainable and equitable models
  9. Enhance food system resilience, sustainability and nutritional outcomes to ensure that future shocks to food systems such as new pest and disease outbreaks or extreme weather events don’t create crisis upon crisis.
  10. Foster international cooperation and equitable development to ensure rural people and food systems don’t get overlooked in response measures, and that wealthier countries are fully aware of the global consequences of providing too little support too late.

The good news is that substantial initiatives by global institutions and national governments are emerging with massive mobilising efforts, alongside a sense of growing social solidarity as everyone learns to cope with the crisis.

However, the gap between the capacity and resources needed to protect poor rural people and food systems over both the short and longer run will be immense.  Profound shifts in perspectives, thinking and leadership will be needed to cope and recover.

Blog by Jim Woodhill – Foresight4Food Initiative Lead