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Covid-19 and food security: What is the way forward?

John Thompson
Research Fellow | Institute of Development Studies

Covid-19 is having a major impact on livelihoods and food security across the globe, with women and those who work in informal economies often the hardest hit. This is the focus of our latest Research for Policy and Practice Report on ‘The impact of Covid-19 on livelihoods and food security’ and upcoming UN Food Systems Summit independent dialogue.

The dialogue event on ‘Building resilient and sustainable food systems: How can emerging lessons from communities affected by Covid-19 shape the way forward?’ and report are part of the CORE rapid research initiative, which seeks to understand the socio-economic impacts of the pandemic, improve existing responses, and generate better policy options for recovery.

Household level food and livelihood insecurity

Studies of livelihoods and food systems since the start of the global pandemic in 2020 have shown a consistent pattern: the primary risks to food and livelihood security are at the household level. Covid-19 is having a major impact on households’ production and access to quality, nutritious food, due to losses of income, combined with increasing food prices, and restrictions to movements of people, inputs and products.

The studies included in the Research for Policy and Practice Report span several continents and are coordinated by leading research organisations with a detailed understanding of local food system dynamics and associated equity and livelihood issues in their regions:

Together, these studies show how the hardest hit in both rural and urban areas are frequently women and those working in informal economies. They also draw out key lessons and priority actions that need to be taken to respond to food and livelihood security challenges in a way that addresses informality and gender dynamics, for food systems to become equitable and resilient:

  • To mitigate Covid-19’s impacts on livelihoods and food systems, countries must meet the immediate food and income security needs of their vulnerable rural and urban populations, keep agricultural markets open and trade flowing, and support smallholder farmers and small and medium enterprises to continue to operate.
  • Adaptive social protection measures can build the resilience of both rural and urban households to the impacts of large natural and human-driven shocks, such as pandemics, but structural inequalities must be addressed to ensure these reach the poorest and most vulnerable populations.
  • Particular attention must be paid to women and young people, who are more likely to work in the informal sector, have lower incomes and often play a central role in household reproduction and the care economy.
  • Covid-19 provides an opportunity to rethink policies for ensuring food and nutrition security and economic recovery that are aligned with the commitment of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’.

Opportunity for reform

The concept of ‘building back better’ has already become a well-worn cliché since the start of the pandemic, but these studies show that it is possible to view this crisis as an opportunity for fundamental reform and for creating more just and sustainable food futures.

Key messages from this report will inform the independent dialogue on 9 July. This invite-only event, organised by the IDS-led IDRC CORE Knowledge Translation programme, in collaboration with International Development Research Centre and Australian Centre for Agricultural International Research, will focus on drawing out the lessons and priority actions that need to be taken to respond to food security challenges in a way that addresses informality and gender dynamics, for food systems to become resilient, equitable and sustainable into the next decade.

The dialogue will bring together a range of stakeholders and perspectives on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on food systems and livelihoods, focusing on the evidence and experience generated from the most affected communities in low- income countries to generate ideas for action. It will provide opportunities for researchers and policy actors to talk about some of the key issues arising and produce some recommendations for policy makers attending the UN Food Systems Summit in September.

Image: A municipal worker in Dakar, Senegal, uses a fumigator to disinfect the
Tilene Market in the Medina neighbourhood, while outside a bulldozer
demolishes informal shops to stop the spread of Covid-19. Credit: SYLVAIN CHERKAOUI/PANOS PICTURES

This blog was first published on the IDS website.