The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is first and foremost a health crisis that could cause millions of deaths worldwide.
But as countries enact quarantine measures to stop the virus, a food security crisis is emerging that threatens to undermine years of progress in the fight against hunger.
Food production, food processing, supply chains, markets, and more are being extensively disrupted. This crisis is affecting high-income countries, with millions of people in the US and UK lining up for food banks, and there's been a massive surge in food waste.
But low-income countries are facing the harshest consequences.
"The situation is unfolding on a daily basis and it varies a bit from country to country, and context to context, but in general terms, [the pandemic] is having a major impact on small, rural farmers," Donal Brown, associate vice-president of program management department at IFAD, told Global Citizen. "These are people who really do not have reserves of cash, so there’s very practical issues."
Brown said that many farmers in low-income and lower-middle-income countries have been unable to buy seeds and essential equipment due to quarantine measures. Social distancing mandates have prevented day laborers from traveling to farms. The shutdown of food markets has prevented families from earning the daily income they depend on, and secondary sources of income such as remittances have declined. As a result, families have been forced to sell assets that have been built up over years, such as chickens and livestock.
"There’s been a real cash livelihood crisis developing with the poorest, because they have no resilience, no cushion in a crisis," Brown said. "What we don’t want with the crisis hitting is people selling everything and going back to where they were before [in extreme poverty]. The key to this is holding the ground so you can actually build from here instead of starting over again."
Crops are spoiling because many farmers lack access to adequate storage facilities and can’t bring their food to markets. As a result, hunger could grow in cities, Brown said.
Even before the pandemic, an estimated 821.6 million people worldwide lived in a state of constant food insecurity, and another 1.3 billion people faced periods of food insecurity, according to the United Nations.
In the months ahead, these numbers could rise, putting millions of people worldwide at risk, unless immediate interventions are implemented.
The United Nations’ International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is tackling this emerging crisis head-on. On April 20, the organization launched a $200 million effort to support farming communities and protect food supplies.
Idris and Sabrina Dhowre Elba are helping to raise awareness of the fund and mobilize financial contributions.
"IFAD needs more assistance to carry on the work that is desperately needed to keep food systems operating in rural areas if we are to come out of this crisis together and avoid needless hunger and suffering," Idris said in a statement.
With 20% of its financing goal already secured, the fund revolves around the newly COVID-19 Rural Poor Stimulus Facility (RPSF), which aims to provide a safety net of sorts that’s often absent in rural areas in low-income countries.
The facility will supply equipment, seeds, and cash assistance to rural farmers, help with crop storage and transportation, support livestock and fisheries, provide timely information on weather and markets, and help out with loans.
"What we would like to see, and what we’re working on, is sort of a safety net-plus approach," Brown said. "Rather than giving out some food supplies, and maybe a cash voucher, we’re trying out a mix that ensures people also have a little bit of money set aside for seeds and fertilizer so they can start preparing for the next season."
More than 100 of IFAD’s projects in 65 countries are being revamped to address COVID-19-related problems.
In Bangladesh, IFAD worked with the primary microfinance agency to allow farmers to defer their loans until the pandemic subsides. In India, IFAD helped watermelon farmers rescue 600 tons of watermelon by ensuring safe, hygienic transport to village markets.
Families in Bosnia have received seeds for quick-growing crops, farmers in Senegal have been given cash via their mobile phones, and women in Tunisia who have lost their jobs have received cash transfers.
These sorts of early interventions have been crucial to supporting rural communities and preventing widespread hunger, Brown said.
It’s not just farmers that need help — many crucial links of the supply chain are at risk, from entrepreneurs who process food to the motorbike delivery men who transport goods.
Brown said that IFAD will work with governments to maintain these supply chains by, for example, buying up products at market prices for farmers and food processors so they can continue their operations.
Brown said that countries can emerge from the pandemic with greater food security if steps are taken to support the farmers, food processors, and the food system as a whole.
"This crisis has highlighted the importance of the whole food system and making it work," he said. "We need to see the whole food chain as a system, rather than isolated bits."