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Effective interventions to increase food and nutrition security in response to Covid-19

by Hanna Freudenreich, Andrea Fongar, Kathrin M. Demmler, Katrin Rudolf, Lisa Jäckering


Civic volunteers giving out groceries during lockdown in Kolkata
suprabhat / Shutterstock.com

The Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout continues to disrupt global food systems with detrimental impacts on food security and nutrition, particularly in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) (UN, 2020). It is estimated that the number of people in acute food insecurity will almost have doubled between 2019 and 2020 (WFP, 2020a), and malnutrition and child wasting is predicted to have increased drastically (Headey & Ruel, 2020). Border restrictions and lockdowns put planting, harvests and processing at risk, constrain transport to markets, destroy incomes and, in particular, disrupt food services and retail (Swinnen & Mcdermott, 2020). Perishable foods in particular become less accessible, especially for urban and low-income consumers. Price increases combined with falls in income are likely to change dietary patterns in favour of cheaper, less nutritious and highly processed foods, raising the risk of a double burden of malnutrition (Pries et al., 2019). In many areas of the world, Covid-19 is exacerbating existing food crises.

Interventions

For farmers not constrained by labour shortages, subsidising inputs can stimulate the use of fertiliser, improved seeds, pesticides, fuel and machinery. Since shortages of workers could become a recurring problem, additional labour supply interventions such as “green corridors” for migrant workers (European Commission, 2020) or, in the long term, increases in mechanisation (Swinnen & Mcdermott, 2020) may become necessary.

Due to labour shortages, market closures and changes in downstream processing and retail, entire harvests may perish before reaching the consumer. Post-harvest, storage and processing interventions can minimise such losses in terms of both quality and quantity. Temperature-controlled supply chain technologies can significantly increase the shelf life of vegetables (Kumar et al., 2004), or make dairy supply chains more resilient, as recently demonstrated in Uganda (Trotter & Mugisha, 2020).

The Covid-19 crisis reinforces pre-existing challenges in the food system. Investment in transportation infrastructure, power, irrigation and storage networks is needed to sustain its functioning. Financial and technical support for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), including the development of e-commerce, is particularly important to sustain (low-income) consumers’ food and nutrition security (FAO, 2020a).

Given the pandemic’s devastating impacts on (informal) labour markets (ILO, 2020), expanding and improving social safety nets and transfers through innovative delivery mechanisms is crucial. Related to this, replacing suspended school feeding programmes by take-home rations or cash transfers and promoting and maintaining food fortification schemes is vital (Fore et al., 2020; WFP, 2020b). Furthermore, in the long run, home garden interventions and urban agriculture hold the promise of increasing food availability in urban centres particularly affected by food supply chain disruptions (Lal, 2020; Pulighe & Lupia, 2020).

Effects on food and nutrition security

Both information interventions and input subsidies increase productivity, yields and farmer income (Takahashi, Muraoka and Otsuka, 2019; Hemming et al., 2018), and can thereby increase food availability during Covid-19-related disruptions. However, evidence for direct positive effects on food security and nutrition is mixed (Pace et al. 2018; Harou, 2018; Walls et al., 2018). Poorer households benefit disproportionately in terms of production increases from combining input subsidies with other social transfers, as shown in Malawi (Pace et al. 2018). However, the long-term effectiveness of input subsidies depends on the prevention of crowding-out of demand in commercial markets (Jayne et al., 2018).

Nutrition-sensitive agricultural interventions can improve various nutrition outcomes in mothers and children. For instance, both communicating the importance of nutritious diets in extension services while providing biofortified seeds (Ogutu et al., 2020 increase utilisation as well as overall nutritional status. Rigorous reviews found that home gardening and, with less evidence, urban gardening interventions positively affect the availability of nutritious foods and dietary diversity (Galhena et al., 2013; Poulsen et al., 2015).

Where production diversity is low, access to markets is a key factor in increasing dietary diversity (Ruel et al., 2018). Investment in infrastructure can strengthen supply chains, reduce transportation costs and increase market access, thereby increasing food availability, access and stability. According to a comprehensive review, infrastructure investments might lead to even larger decreases in poverty than input subsidies (Jayne et al., 2018).

Improved post-harvest handling, storage and processing technologies reduce food losses and strengthen food security through an increase in food availability and stability, another comprehensive literature review finds (Kumar & Kalita, 2017).

School meals provided as take-home rations or in-kind food transfers can increase the availability of and access to food for schoolchildren and their families (Ruel et al., 2013). In-kind food transfers were shown to increase recipient households’ calorific intake. Cash transfers increase both calorific intake and, to some degree, dietary diversity (Durao et al., 2020; Gentilini, 2016; Hidrobo et al., 2018), directly by improving food access and indirectly through better nutrition decisions (Burchi et al., 2018). In the long term, cash transfers and vouchers are more efficient (Gentilini, 2016).

Further research

While it is too early to see impact assessments on specific Covid-19 interventions taken to date, a considerable amount of research underpins the suggested interventions and can help to inform policies. Nonetheless, more robust evidence will be needed to understand the potential role of mechanisation, different processing and storing interventions. Since the impacts of Covid-19 differ significantly between food supply chains, and within countries and even local communities (Dev, 2020), adequate subnational and target-group disaggregated real-time data on different aspects of food systems will be needed.

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