The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the potential vulnerability of the world’s food supply chains. This is galvanising governments in emerging economies to boost domestic production through new agricultural inputs and investment in agri-tech and logistics networks.
The UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that 265m people globally could face acute food insecurity by the end of the year – double the figure before the pandemic.
This dramatic spike is based on a number of factors. For example, the lockdown measures have led to severe labour shortages in key agricultural areas, meaning that many crops were simply left to rot in fields.
This was compounded by disruptions to local and international supply chains, which meant that some produce did not make it to markets, suppliers or export hubs, placing a further strain on supplies.
As a result of shortages, the prices of key staples increased, which meant that many people in lower socio-economic demographics were unable to afford basic goods.
These factors have combined with existing challenges, such as the impact of climate change on agricultural yields, to create an acute food security challenge. In light of this, countries around the world have been proactive in trying to stabilise food supplies.
Agricultural innovation in Africa
Even before the outbreak of Covid-19, around half of Africa’s population – an estimated 670m people – were facing some form of food insecurity. It is therefore no surprise that the continent has been considerably affected by the pandemic.
The uptick in personal financial insecurity has also heightened the risk of food insecurity, with food prices in many countries rising as a result of panic buying, transport restrictions and a drop in production.
For example, a World Bank survey found that 70% of urban and 75% of rural Nigerians were facing food insecurity as a result of the pandemic.
To make matters worse, the continent is also experiencing a locust outbreak around the Horn of Africa, placing further pressure on regional agricultural production.
While a series of government stimulus packages and inter-governmental financial aid has sought to provide immediate relief, efforts have also been made to address structural inefficiencies and bolster Africa’s food supply network.
One area of focus is the quality of inputs. Available seeds are often poor quality and unable to withstand periods of inclement weather.
To help address this issue, in June the Nigerian government, along with the International Crops Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, announced that more than 10,000 farmers across 13 states would receive high-quality sorghum, pearl millet, cowpea and rice seeds to bolster crop production.
This follows the lead of Mozambique, where a pilot programme for newly developed, heat-tolerant bean seeds is ongoing; and Ethiopia, where the introduction of rust-resistant wheat varieties has seen farmers’ yields increase by around 40%.
Although the focus on inputs is welcome, the need for a holistic approach to improving food security has been underlined.
The IMF estimates that due to the underdeveloped nature of many agricultural regions, improvements to finance, telecoms, housing and health care can reduce a family’s chance of facing food shortages by 30% – as a result of enhanced purchasing power, storage facilities and weather warnings, among other factors.
A turn to to agri-tech in the Middle East
The Middle East is another region that is particularly vulnerable to food insecurity.
As a result of hot and dry weather, it is the world’s most water-stressed region. Middle Eastern countries are therefore among the largest food importers globally, with most relying on imports for around half of their food needs.
As a result of Covid-19 disrupting many of the world’s trade links, countries in the Middle East have sharpened their focus on regional cooperation and self-sufficiency.
As part of the deal, member countries set up special arrangements at border controls and Customs posts to facilitate the movement of basic food and medical supplies.
Parallel to this, there has been an increase in agri-tech investment in the region.
In April, Kuwait’s Wafra International Investment Company announced that it was to invest $100m in Abu Dhabi-headquartered start-up Pure Harvest.
The funding, which is the largest ever commitment to an agri-tech firm in the Middle East, will support the company’s plans to construct high-tech, climate-controlled greenhouses that use natural sunlight to produce pesticide-free fruit and vegetables.
This was followed by news that fellow Emirati company Smart Acres is expected to launch a series of high-tech vertical farms in the third quarter of 2020.
The indoor vertical farms, which use the internet of things to monitor humidity, temperature and nutrients, need on average 90% less water than traditional farming techniques, and are expected to produce 8000 kg of lettuce per cycle.
High-risk groups in Latin America
As one of the world’s leading food producing and exporting regions, Latin America is facing its own set of challenges when it comes to food security.
Covid-19 has placed significant strain on particular countries and social groups, with the WFP estimating that the number of people in Latin America and the Caribbean facing severe food insecurity could increase from 3.4m in 2019 to 13.7m this year.
The situation is particularly acute in Haiti, where 1.6m of the 11.4m-strong population are facing severe food shortages, and Central America’s so-called dry corridor, consisting primarily of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where the number of people facing severe food insecurity is expected to almost double to 3m.
To combat these shortages, made worse by virus-related border closures, there has been increased emphasis on improving logistics connections to areas in need.
Elsewhere, despite being responsible for the bulk of the region’s agricultural produce, rural areas are at greater risk of food insecurity, with coronavirus-related disruptions to employment exacerbating existing levels of poverty and leading to food shortages.
At-risk groups, such as indigenous communities and the 3m Venezuelan migrants in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, also face significant threats to their food supplies.
In light of these concerns, in Colombia the WFP has been assisting nearly 400,000 people every month with cash transfers or food rations. In Ecuador it has been providing monthly food vouchers to 96,000 people, while in Peru it is providing logistical support to the government to deliver 240,000 food kits to vulnerable households in Lima and Callao.
Asia battles locust infestation
The world’s worst locust infestation in 25 years has provided fresh challenges for many parts of south-west Asia.
In addition to East Africa and parts of the Middle East, locust outbreaks have badly affected crops in India and Pakistan, placing many communities at risk of food insecurity.
While efforts are under way globally to try and rehabilitate areas affected by locusts, new forms of technology are also proving useful.
In May drones were used for the first time in the state of Rajasthan, northern India, to spray insecticides designed to disperse swarms of locusts. In addition, drones have been used to carry out pest surveillance and monitor crop growth.
The use of data is also expected to play a key role in managing future insect infestations, with industry figures working towards the development of an open data resource in India that would track locust population interactions and movements, as well as seasonal rainfall, to help identify the areas at most risk.