CLIMATE change, food systems, and food and nutrition security are strongly interlinked.
The effects of climate change and variability on food systems, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, already had serious implications for food system outcomes; including nutrition and health, socio-economic and environmental outcomes.
The global food system is associated with many drivers of biodiversity loss, in particular through land use change, the impacts of excess nutrients and the generation of greenhouse gases.
At the same time, close to 750 million people suffer severe levels of food insecurity and many more are malnourished.
Levels of food insecurity and malnourishment, as well as obesity, are projected to continue to increase if current trends are maintained.
Shifting to diets that are healthier and more sustainable could simultaneously help to improve human health, reducing diet-related premature mortality by over 90 percent as well as reducing and helping reverse the drivers of biodiversity loss.
The coronavirus pandemic altered the global food environment severely. It affected the dynamics of food security and nutrition in complex ways.
Lockdown measures and supply chain disruptions changed the context and the way people engaged and interacted with the food system to acquire, prepare and consume food.
For example, the closure of restaurants and food stalls meant that people, who relied on them for their meals, now had to prepare their food at home.
Further, once the disease began to spread widely, the initial stages of lockdown measures resulted in a dramatic increase in food waste, due to restaurant closures and declining demand for certain types of foods
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, some 30 percent of food produced was not consumed, either because it did not reach the markets and perished (the predominant cause of losses in developing countries), or because it was not eaten and thrown away (the predominant cause of losses in developed countries). Reducing food losses and waste would bring substantial benefits with few negative trade-offs.
In Africa and other developing countries, including in Zimbabwe, informal markets are extremely important sources of food and livelihoods.
Informal markets and vending sites in Zimbabwe form a significant part of the local food supply chain and are estimated to be responsible for the distribution of 90 percent of smallholder farmers’ produce.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, many countries shut down informal food markets, which were seen as areas for potential disease transmission.
As such, in March 2020, the Government of Zimbabwe initiated a countrywide lockdown which resulted in the mass closure of markets and vending sites to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
However, food systems, diets and health care, already facing major limitations in Zimbabwe, depend heavily on access to markets, as well as social networks.
COVID-19 mitigation measures disrupted these vital linkages which affected access to food and food prices and employment opportunities.
Consequently, the food supply chain was disrupted; posing a significant threat to national food security.
In addition, the closure of markets caused farmers to experience produce loss and vendors and retailers to lose their source of income.
Poor households on tight budgets with little to no discretionary spending meant that in the absence of social safety nets, spending on food declined as incomes declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. These losses affected low wage workers, some farmers, and informal traders and hawkers.
In many countries, including Zimbabwe and South Africa, while formal food retail outlets that sold processed and packaged foods were authorised to remain open, informal and open air food markets, which typically sell more fresh fruits and vegetables, were shut down.
The move was detrimental especially for poor people reliant on such markets to buy produce and foodstuffs in quantities (smaller) they could afford.
In South Africa, these markets were eventually allowed to reopen after forceful lobbying from academics and civil society.
Restrictions on the accessibility of markets, supermarkets and retail shops, increased queuing while social distancing created barriers for people to access food and to guarantee variable diets.
Food availability at markets in urban areas declined, especially for fresh perishable foods such as fruits and vegetables (in all countries) and animal sourced foods (in some countries).
Food markets also experienced reduced imports of foods due to enforced trade bans during the pandemic.
To endure the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and ensure uninterrupted food supply during and after the outbreak in Zimbabwe, CARE and UNDP Zimbabwe formed a partnership to restore infrastructure and construct safe informal markets and vendor stalls to support safe and fully functional food supply chains and help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other reoccurring water-borne diseases, such as cholera and typhoid.
The restructuring of markets was undertaken under the Urban Resilience Project implemented by UNDP, UNICEF and the Government of Zimbabwe with support from CARE and Oxfam.
Generally, the agricultural and food production sectors were not directly at risk due to the pandemic.
However, according to the World Food Programme (WFP), a food crisis was already imminent, especially in Africa.
In Zimbabwe while the agricultural sector and agri-food industry were expected to be negatively affected by the pandemic, these sectors fared slightly better than the informal sector, the SMEs, education, transport and tourism sectors that were highly negatively impacted.
COVID-19 devastated Africa, including Zimbabwe’s aviation, travel and tourism sectors.
This significantly undermined the continent’s ability to recover the developmental progress lost in 2020.
And with the prospect of travel restrictions continuing well into 2021, it did not bode well for the future.
Additionally, reduced access to inputs such as seeds, were potential risks that emerged due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This, coupled with the lack of labour due to mobility restriction measures, endangered food production in the next agricultural cycle, and ultimately food security.
A study suggested that as a direct result of the pandemic, poor households were likely to shift their spending away from fresh fruits and vegetables with high micronutrient content to less nutrient-rich staple foods.
Other studies showed a shift towards consumption of more processed foods.
The shift in consumption toward more processed foods and fewer fruits and vegetables during the crisis also contributes to poor nutrition.
Healthy diets are underpinned by biodiversity: a diversity of species, varieties and breeds, as well as wild sources – i.e.: fish (matemba), bushmeat, insects (ishwa, madora), plants (neve, amaranth, blackjack,), and fungi (mushrooms), provide a range of nutrients. Wildlife, from aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems, is a critical source of calories, protein and micronutrients such as iron and zinc for more than a billion people worldwide.
In North America, there was a resurgence of interest in community supported agriculture (CSA), during the pandemic, as people grew progressively more concerned about the safety of shopping in supermarkets and looked for more direct access to fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish products.
However, most community-supported agriculture farms were unable to meet the demand.
There was also an increased interest in home and community gardening as people sought to grow their own food to ensure their food security and nutrition as the pandemic mutated and endured.
These changes to food environments had variable impacts on food diversity and nutrition.
The dietary shifts had reinforcing impacts for people already experiencing malnutrition, especially in Africa, making them more vulnerable to contracting the disease and developing health complications.
“After COVID-19, Africa’s health depends on improved nutrition.” (WHO)
More than any other dimension of food security, food access was arguably the most affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
The global economic recession triggered by lockdowns had a very negative impact on people’s ability to access food.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian researcher, industrial design consultant and is a published author in her field.
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