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According to researchers at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), people in countries such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Kenya and Mali have less to eat due to global corona measures.

In all these countries, women and young people in particular are faced with widespread loss of income. The availability of fresh food such as vegetables, dairy and fish, which is the key to healthy nutrition, is also declining further. Furthermore, productivity is under pressure in the current growing season due to, for example, a lack of seeds and the availability of labor.

There are already several macro models and scenario assessments showing the effects of the COVID-19 crisis in countries where several major problems already existed. A so-called ‘Knowledge Community of Practice’ led by WUR adds a more detailed insight into the impact on food systems. This can help stakeholders take relevant action to prevent the current pandemic from leading to major food and nutrition crises.

Women in informal sectors under pressure

The four country studies show that the position of women, the majority of whom work in informal sectors such as trade in food and services, is hugely affected. On the one hand, women are hit hard by the huge job losses caused by Covid-19 measures. On the other hand, they have to find solutions and food for children and other family members who stay at home now that schools are closed and seasonal work cannot be carried out.
It is not only the women who are affected. Temporary workers – often young people with few savings and possessions – are also out of work and income. Inge Brouwer, Associate Professor of Nutrition and Leader of International Research on Food Systems for Healthy Nutrition (A4NH) at the WUR: “Women and young people are crucial drivers for families’ access to healthy and nutritious food. Many of them are now experiencing declining incomes and are unable to provide enough food for their families. This has huge consequences for food security and also for the dietary patterns of whole families, with devastating consequences for children’s health.”

Rumors are circulating that cooked vegetables and animal food products cause COVID-19.
Inge Brouwer, Associate Professor of International Nutrition

Next season uncertain

The lack of work and the availability of crucial inputs such as seeds and fertilizers also pose a serious threat to the food systems in the four countries studied. Travel restrictions and lockdowns further hamper the travel of traders and seasonal workers, as well as the trade in key inputs. Although the food security situation is currently still acceptable, according to the WUR in a press release, there are worrying signs that productivity will be lower in the current growing season and that the production of nutritious products such as fresh fruit and vegetables is declining. In Bangladesh, for example, it is feared that the winter harvest will be hit much harder than the current cycle.

Reduced confidence in perishable foods

Brouwer and her team worked on a thorough evaluation, together with a panel of experts in Bangladesh. Brouwer: “What we see in Bangladesh is that the production and distribution of perishable foodstuffs in particular are under pressure. The supply chain of milk, for example, was already vulnerable and was one of the first products whose distribution and therefore consumer purchases suffered from the COVID-19 measures. In addition, people distrust the food safety of cooked vegetables and animal food products such as eggs, meat and fish. These foods are the subject of myths that they cause COVID-19 infections. It is very important that we make it clear that this is not the case and that these foods are crucial for people’s nutrition and therefore health.”

Immediate action with partners needed

One of the many partners involved in this project is the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Steve Godfrey, director policy and external communication at GAIN. He says: “Many discussions focus on global food security and the food chain. Little attention has been paid to economic downturns in the informal sector and to the nutritional value of foods that remain accessible to people. The impact on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries is also enormous and poses a major threat to food systems.”

GAIN and WUR, both active in the countries surveyed, have now connected their information and networks. Godfrey says: “We were already analysing the effects on the food system, but the methodological approach of WUR adds breadth and a systematic approach to the work we have done. Together we can make a much bigger difference and take immediate action.”


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About the author

Author profile picture Arnoud Cornelissen has for many years been writing about science and technology in, among others, various Dutch newspapers.