Food the next battle in the COVID-19 period

By Dr Theo de Jager

As the lockdown for families in their homes and the economic impasse regarding businesses that have been closed are beginning to take a toll on communities and households, the reality of food shortages in poor areas is gradually becoming a bigger threat than the coronavirus itself.

In South Africa, the scenario of masses of poor people from squatter areas streaming to chain stores and other food outlets in central business districts to loot, is a realistic one. Anton Rupert said: “As long as they are poor, we can’t sleep!” On a larger scale this also goes for neighbouring countries that do not enjoy national food security like South Africa. If food supplies in Zimbabwe and Mozambique run out, border fences will not stop them.

However, South Africa is not the only country that has to manage more than the spread of infections in its strategy against COVID-19. Dr David Nabarro, the UN’s special envoy in the global fight against the coronavirus, recently said the impact of the virus on the world’s food systems could have more serious consequences than infections. He is especially concerned about the two ends of food chains: farmers and consumers.

All over the world, farmers are experiencing problems in getting seed, fertiliser, diesel and other inputs to their farms, and the transportation and management of labour in compliance with the rules of physical distancing are creating challenges.

With restaurants, schools and industrial consumers of farm products being closed, and in the absence of street hawkers, the demand for many products is subdued, resulting in huge volumes of milk, chicken and eggs, and even fruit and vegetables, being wasted. The sensitive market systems for perishable products have been disrupted to such an extent that some farming enterprises will not be able to recover. In many countries, farmers’ cash flow crises are overwhelming, viewed against the backdrop of farming debt.

Furthermore, the logistical systems for the transportation of basic foodstuffs, both domestic and international, are under exceptional pressure, often owing to restrictions or owing to the interpretation of those restrictions by law enforcers.

Purchasing power of the poorest sections of populations across the world is collapsing. This results in hungry families while there are scarcities owing to hoarding by panicking more affluent households, and the prospect of potential job losses following the restrictions is adding fuel to the fire.

School feeding programmes in many countries have ground to a halt. Old people in homes for the aged require special assistance to get a balanced diet, and the restrictions keep their families away from them. Cash flow at household level inevitably has consequences for the pantry, with children and old people being most vulnerable.

While welfare organisations, civil structures and agricultural associations have an important role to play in addressing the need, there are communities where such community organisations do not exist. The role played by Helping Hand, AfriForum and Solidarity in the Afrikaner community and elsewhere in South Africa is unequalled. Unfortunately, few other communities have the luxury of such an efficient self-help and help-each-other system, and even this movement depends on cash contributions from limited sources.

This puts the focus squarely on governments. The foundation of emergency measures is first aid, with both in essence being a government function. The next step in managing the corona crisis in the developing world is where governments render special assistance at the two ends of the food chain: food supplies in poor communities and inputs such as seed, fertiliser and diesel to producers.

“It will cost too much! Where will the money come from?” is the general reaction to an increasing demand in this regard, particularly from United Nations circles. But just consider for once the cost of not doing this!

The COVID-19 pandemic is serious. Measures to combat it should be adhered to strictly, but the point of contact between these measures and the ability to survive of families and communities should be managed with greater wisdom than has been the case so far. Food and health have more in common than is recognised by the world’s political leaders in the present situation, and we dare not allow them not to see the wood for the trees.

The virus unexpectedly and unmanageably has pushed the world’s “reset button”, resulting in chaos. From the chaos, opportunities arise for those who can identify them. Gaps for renewal, redesigning and restructuring now are wide open. I am praying that in the process we from agriculture will succeed in establishing two principles in the new normal:

  • That in a world with enough food to feed everybody (even though 40% is wasted), nobody will go to bed hungry. There is a possibility that the Covid-19 crisis could hasten a world without hunger.
  • That nobody in the food system will have enough power to block the road of any individual to achieve his full potential as food entrepreneur by diligence or resourcefulness.

After all, there is only one way to eradicate poverty, and that is by creating prosperity.

Dr Theo de Jager is President of the World Farmers’ Organisation (WFO), as well as Board Chairman of the family farming organisation Saai.

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Farmers Review Africa
Farmers Review Africa