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Five stark COVID-19 warnings from the agriculture R4D sector

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

As communities around the world cope with the novel coronavirus, it’s becoming clearer that the way we produce, trade and consume our food is undeniably linked to this crisis. And as long as ecosystems degrade and biodiversity is lost due to agriculture and other uses, zoonic diseases like COVID-19 are an increasing threat.  In the short term, our economies and food systems are put to the test as never before, with the risk falling on the most vulnerable.  

The agricultural Research for Development (R4D) sector is becoming increasingly relevant as potential crises loom. Some key warnings are surfacing from recent dispatches, reports and events across the CGIAR and around the globe. Here are five for us to heed:

1. Food supply chains and markets in the developing world are at risk 

Researchers across centers predict food price increases, particularly locally for some vegetables and other perishables, as a result of transportation and value chain bottlenecks. And globally for some staples because of short-term and medium-term export restrictions that some countries have put in place. For example, trade restrictions for rice, if they persist, and associated rising prices of staples like rice could push millions of people — especially those in Africa — into deeper food insecurity, notes the Africa Rice Center. The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) launched a food export restrictions tracker as well as a COVID-19 Food Price Monitor to monitor changes in trade restrictions and food prices in selected wholesale and retail markets for a range of food products. 

But just getting this season’s crops harvested is posing a dilemma to some governments: how can farmers harvest without violating lockdown and physical distancing rules?  One way to address this is by utilizing satellite technology, which is much more accessible now than it used to be. Maps identifying harvest dates, developed by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) and the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) can aid authorities in deciding where to release rural lockdown rules or where to send machinery and trucks for harvesting, helping to prevent food from going to waste in the fields. 

Other maps show where both above and below-average rainfall is expected and coincides with areas where the pandemic is becoming prevalent but disaster preparedness is limited. Satellite technology is already being used to compensate farmers after floods strike, like in Bihar, India. COVID-19 may hit communities that face the risk of flooding hardest, as climate change multiplies risks.

And communities are feeling the impact of COVID-19 on food supplies far beyond the production stage. Both rural and urban consumers rely more than ever on markets to purchase food. Urban dwellers saw some of the most direct reductions to market access but many rural consumers are also hit by the closing of wet markets and the hold-up of food at country, province or city borders; combined with large income declines, greater uncertainty and some non-delivery, particularly of perishable foods has driven up the cost of adequate diets. 

For example, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-arid Tropics (ICRISAT) tells us that in India, “while vegetable and fruit producers are in a stress-selling mode, staring at downward price trends, consumers in urban areas are having to pay increased prices due to limited availability. Smallholders are also holding on to their produce as most agriculture markets or mandis are closed… There is a risk of a glut and crashing of market prices after the lockdown that can dangerously drive the farmers into more losses.….”

2. Now more than ever, we need nutritious food 

Healthy diets are essential for building a strong immune system. But the economic crisis induced by COVID-19 is driving demand for fruits, vegetables, and animal-sourced foods down, writes IFPRI. This affects poorer households, especially women and children, most: “In the face of drastic declines in income, vulnerable households will quickly give up nutrient-rich foods in order to preserve their caloric intake.”  Not to mention, disrupted supply chains can cut access to nutrient-dense foods. 

To protect the most vulnerable populations, IFPRI and other partners emphasize food surveillance systems to monitor the status of those most impacted and to inform future programs offering solutions. The International Potato Center (CIP) is working alongside commercial food producers in Africa to deliver safe and nutritious shelf-stable biofortified sweet potato puree to stores. 

Immune systems need key vitamins and minerals, including iron, zinc, vitamins A, D and C. Billions of people globally lack access to supplementation programs, and many rely on one or two staple foods for much of their caloric intake, like corn, rice or wheat. HarvestPlus is calling for biofortified staple crops, a cost-effective, sustainable solution to help farmers meet food demand while delivering nutrient-dense crops that could bolster immune systems.

3. Expect inequality to widen without comprehensive protection efforts 

COVID-19 has the potential to widen gender inequalities, write IFPRI researchers in a recent piece, calling attention to the need for social protection efforts to consider gender---an opportunity to tackle and address these preexisting inequalities. 

Social distancing and lockdown procedures are affecting both rural and urban communities, causing issues ranging from gender-based violence to interruptions in public health plans.  For many slum households in India, the responsibility to make money and support the family has fallen to women, often exposing them to unsafe environments. And basic sanitation is not accessible to many living in developing countries. Meanwhile, as women assume new roles in the family, they also build social capital, the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) explains. 

So how can — and should — governments address these issues? Among IFPRI’s recommendations is to carefully target households and individuals, so as not to overlook vulnerable populations. They also call for strong benefit programs to last the duration of the economic crisis, and complementary programming that combines issue-driven solutions — like food and nutrition, or water and sanitation. 

“More research is needed on intersections of social protection, gender and pandemics, where ethically feasible. At a minimum, monitoring statistics should be sex- and age-disaggregated and, where possible, data should be collected to ensure risks to beneficiaries do not increase. Taken together, these policy adjustments and new evidence can lay the groundwork for more gender-sensitive social protection systems in LMICs both during the crisis and beyond.,” IFPRI writes

4. Protect biodiversity and nature or we’ll see more – and worse – outbreaks 

There’s a clear link between biodiversity loss and the rise in zoonotic diseases — a recent Scientific American piece explores how humans might be “creating the conditions for the spread of diseases” by cutting the natural barriers between virus hosts and themselves, says one disease ecologist. The era of infectious diseases is certainly not over, and the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) says Africa is catching up to Asia (ILRI) as a hotspot. 

Scientists from the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) note that COVID-19 is just the most recent example of diseases that spread from animals to humans, and preventing the next one demands we safeguard biodiversity. 

To better consider these linkages, experts are pushing for the One Health approach, which integrates human health, animal health, and ecosystems health — three systems often considered and studied in isolation from one another. This method encourages collaboration across sectors to drive solutions at the intersection of human and environmental health. ILRI is currently studying transmission patterns of diseases between livestock, humans, and wildlife, as well as the role environmental change has in disease incidents. 

“I emphasize integration because I think we’re all used to working in our own discipline, perhaps the same project, but in our own silo, side by side,” ILRI’s Delia Randolph said during a recent staff-wide town hall. “One Health requires not just working across health disciplines, but also working across other disciplines such as environment, ecology, gender, socioeconomics.”  

5. We won’t turn the corner without innovations, transformations, and R4D

The world is facing unprecedented challenges, and experts across the R4D sector are unifying to find solutions. While some answers have been developed and await implementation, others must be discovered. R4D is committed to focusing on the interlinked goals of COVID response, recovery, and food system transformation. 

A recent blog by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) calls for economic stimulus packages — incentives for sustainable practices — to tackle the root causes of infectious diseases and protect ecosystems. 

And the Chair of the WLE-supported Commission on Sustainable Agricultural Intensification (CoSAI) advocates for research and solutions that will sustainably intensify the production of nutritious food in the long-term picture. 

“Nowhere has been left untouched by the impact of coronavirus. It has exposed deep underlying problems in our food system, as it relates to both the environment and inequality… We cannot rely on discrete technological advances or temporary, piecemeal political support. Instead, we must develop the very mechanisms through which the entire system can evolve and adopt new innovations, whether institutional, practical, technical, financial or political.”

This article was republished in Prevention Web.


Thrive blog is a space for independent thought, and aims to stimulate discussion among sustainable agriculture researchers and the public. Blogs are facilitated by the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems (WLE) but reflect the opinions and information of the authors only and not necessarily those of WLE and its donors or partners. WLE and partners are supported by CGIAR Trust Fund Contributors, including: ACIARDFIDDGISSDC, Sida and others.