As the COVID 19 pandemic rapidly unfolds around the world and particularly in the Caribbean, people are now awakening to the new reality of the far-reaching impacts that this pandemic will have on their lives in the future. One of the sectors which will be affected is regional Food and Nutrition Security. There will be impacts on all dimensions of Food and Nutrition Security – food availability, access, utilization and stability.
Food availability, both from local production and imports, will be reduced. In terms of local production, our farmers, with their average age being 60 years and over are among the most vulnerable to the virus. Food and feedstock imports which, according to the FAO, account for over 80 per cent of the food consumed in some countries of the region, are likely to be considerably reduced as our foreign suppliers grapple with the impacts of the pandemic in their own countries and protect their markets to ensure their own food security and sovereignty. Panic buying and hoarding will also exacerbate food availability and contribute to increases in food prices.
Food access, both economic and physical, will also be impacted. As global ports close, economies shrink, manufacturing slows and demands shift, in countries such as Guyana, export markets for rice and other commodities will decline. As workplaces close to reduce the spread of the virus, many consumers will be out of work for at least two months and will therefore not have an income to purchase food.
Moreover, food prices are expected to rise as supply chains decline. Markets for food will also be reduced. With the closure of restaurants and reduced hotel occupation, caused by the travel restrictions, many farmers who sell their produce directly to restaurants no longer have markets for their fresh produce. Furthermore, farmers have indicated that they are reluctant to go to the local wholesale and retail markets to sell their produce for fear of contracting the virus.
The poor and vulnerable will be most heavily impacted. With the closure of school, many students who rely on the school feeding programme as their source of a healthy, nutritious meal of the day, will now have to go without food. The FAO estimates school feeding is the most reliable source of food for ten million children in Latin America and the Caribbean. Unless local food production is increased to fill the void left by reduced imports, problems related to malnutrition caused by insufficient food are likely to arise if the food shortages last for a prolonged period of time. Additionally, malnutrition caused by eating foods which are nutritionally deficient will further contribute to the problems of chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) which currently plague our region. It is also noteworthy that persons with these NCDs are among the most vulnerable to the effects of the disease.
In an effort to address these challenges, farmers are being called upon to increase local production, albeit after the proverbial horse had bolted from the stable. Stability of food supply, especially in times of crises, is the fourth dimension of food security which needs to be addressed. As we head into the dry season, do farmers have sufficient water to increase production?
Moreover, countries which reach their peak infection levels later in the year may have to contend with hurricane season as well – a double whammy! Are farmers equipped to adapt to the impacts of climate change? Do they have sufficient water? Do they practice climate smart agriculture? Do they have access to the inputs and information to help them to adapt to climate change and increase production? There are other factors to be considered such as market distortions, gluts and increased praedial larceny.
What can and should be done to mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus on Food and Nutrition Security in the region? The onus is not only on the part of the government or the ministries of Agriculture. Coordinated action needs to be taken by all stakeholders in the agriculture sector – farmers, consumers, technicians, private sector and government, as well as other sectors such as health, education and finance. It is also important to employ a mixture of short and medium term, as well as temporary actions.
In the short term, local production by farmers and backyard gardeners can be promoted. In this regard, inputs such as seeds, seedlings and fertilizers need to be made available to these food producers in sufficient quantities. In Trinidad and Tobago, input suppliers have indicated that they have already run out of seeds, seedlings and potting soil. One supplier even said that his supplier in Miami had signalled that he would not be able to replenish his supply because he was closing his business for fear of contracting the virus.
To address food access, immediate assistance should be provided to relieve the plight of the poor and vulnerable such as the unemployed, pensioners, as well as students affected by the discontinuation of the school feeding programme resulting from the closure of schools. In this regard, temporary measures such as food delivery systems can be put in place to deliver meals to the affected households. Cash transfers can also be provided to persons who are not able to work because of the closure of some businesses as mandated by the government, in their efforts to contain the virus.
For the private sector, business opportunities arise for on-line food delivery systems, especially to the homes of the elderly who are most likely to be affected by the virus. Restaurants may also participate in school feeding programmes.
Communication with the public is also critical. Panic buying contributes to unnecessary stress on individuals, communities and sectors. Clear messages should be developed and disseminated to reinforce public confidence, to promote alternative foods where there is scarcity, and to reinforce healthy consumption habits and promote proper sanitation practices such as hand washing and the washing of fruits and vegetables.
In the medium to longer term, support must also be given to the fisheries sector as an immediate source of protein and food stocks also need to be augmented. The private sector will have to increase its contracts with local farmers to meet the shortfall caused by the reduced supplies of imported foods.
Production planning needs to be promoted to plan for emergencies such as these. This can only be done with the establishment and maintenance of proper market information systems to review the trends in demand and supply.
To improve nutrition and food safety during the crisis, local and regional food safety systems and legislation need to be strengthened and enforced. Extension systems need to be improved and strengthened to provide advice and information to producers on climate smart technologies which should be adopted to ensure food stability.
Government will also have to enact and enforce legislation to deal with the perpetrators of praedial larceny and strengthen the systems to address this problem.
More importantly, agriculture needs to be made a compulsory subject in all schools at both the primary and secondary school level so that all households have the required skills to produce food and take responsibility for their personal food security.
In summary, the above mentioned recommendations call for the establishment of a robust agri-food system which takes into consideration the economic, social and environmental factors which contribute to a sustainable system of food production in which people are placed at the centre and no one is left behind.
These impacts on food security are felt almost every year in many Caribbean countries in the wake of hurricanes and floods, yet we continue to repeat the mistakes of the past. All of these recommendations are not new, technicians in the agriculture sector have been preaching these practices for decades. Yet, once again, we find ourselves scrambling to feed ourselves in the face of a disaster. Have we not learned the lessons from the world food crises in 2008, or the droughts caused by El Nino in 2012, or Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017?
How many times must we experience food crises before our governments pay more than lip service and allocate more resources to the agriculture sector? In the face of this global pandemic, I am reminded of the words of my dear mother, “Who can’t hear, will feel”.
Dr Lystra Fletcher-Paul, former Subregional Coordinator for the Caribbean
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)