Skip to main content

Respecting, protecting, fulfilling the right to food in times of Covid-19

A woman farmer in Brazil

This post was written by Ruchi Tripathi, head of resilient livelihoods and climate justice, ActionAid International 

The number of people around the world living with hunger has soared in the past year to 821 million, due to factors such as climate change and conflict. However, this is only going to escalate as we face multiple ongoing crises, from Covid-19 to fall army worm in southern Africa, from swarms of locusts in east Africa to poor governance in many parts of the world. Meeting the global target of ‘Zero Hunger’ by 2030 is so remote as to be little more than a dream.

It’s shocking that we are so desensitised to global hunger that it seems to no longer makes the news. However, now that we are seeing images of empty supermarket shelves and long queues to get food in many European cities the perceived fear of food insecurity is hitting home hard.

We know that a record 45 million people in southern Africa, mostly women and children, face severe food insecurity caused by drought, flooding, and economic disarray. 13 million people’s food security is threatened in east Africa as the region faces its worst infestation of desert locusts for many years. India has the world’s largest number of undernourished people in the world at 194.4 million, including many million children.

The situation I highlight above was already severe. Now add the global spread of Covid-19 into the mix and think about how much harder it is to access to food, access markets, access a daily wage. How many more people around the world will be unable to meet their daily calorific requirements, or two square meals a day? The numbers will be catastrophic.  ActionAid knows from experience that the most marginalised people, especially women and children are affected the most by any food crisis, whether related to price inflation, locust invasion, conflict, climate change, gender bias, or pandemic.  Our system of food production and distribution is already failing hundreds of millions. How many more must suffer hunger and malnutrition?

If we have learned any lesson at all from the food crisis of 2008/2010, it must be that we need investing today to avert a full-blown emergency saves lives, including those of unborn children affected by their mothers’ poor nutrition. We have to get serious about addressing the global food emergency, not just for today and tomorrow, but for next year, for ten years’ time. A good starting point would be to tackle the system’s underlying vulnerabilities and inequalities, such as a deep-rooted gender bias at the household level as well as corporate capture through an increasingly industrialised global food supply chain. 

Preventing the current Covid-19 crisis from becoming a full-blown longer-term food emergency is critical. Food crisis has a long-lasting impact on our health and wellbeing, our productivity and, especially in children and young people, cognitive ability. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Supporting health workers and food producers many of them women at the forefront of this crisis is more urgent than ever before. 

Out of crisis comes opportunity. We have now a singular moment in which we can turn the tide and start fixing our broken food system – one that simultaneously produces hunger and obesity, working against rather than with nature – and a just feminist transition in agriculture that will ensure we can all enjoy nature’s abundance. Here is how we can do it...

Immediate priorities

Food / Cash assistance for informal workers, small scale food producers and farm workers 

  • Public provision of food and cash transfers for millions of informal workers, daily wage labourers, poor urban families and other vulnerable groups who are not able to access food or afford to buy it due to loss of incomes or the access to informal market. 
  • Minimum income support enabling farmers and farm workers to continue producing through to the next season to stop the crisis escalating further, enabling them to produce the next harvest. 
  • Provision of appropriate resilient seeds and inputs where these supplies have been cut off, or local seeds not accessible to ensure continuity of food production. 
  • Ensuring women have access to the social security measures being put in place to respond to covid-19 crisis and particularly impact on right to food and livelihoods. 
  • Provision of food to children out of school for those who benefited from school feeding programmes, as often this was their most nutritious meal of the day.

Market and trade policy 

  • Support for farmers cooperatives, women’s cooperatives, and small-scale producers and processors in accessing consumers directly through collective selling by independent, fair price shops, or direct through direct sales to households. This can be facilitated by local municipalities using digital technology and mobile phones or allowing for alternative space where food distribution can be guaranteed respecting social distances. This will also help avoid food waste due to market closures. 
  • Ensuring any food aid provided is appropriate and flexible as far as possible in the form of support for local procurement where possible, and pushing back at attempts for further corporate capture of food aid by industry supplying ready packaged fortified foods that does little to strengthen local livelihoods.
  • Regulate food markets to support local livelihoods stabilise prices (for example in case there would be exports restrictions), including by prohibiting holding food to generate price hikes.
  • Provide advice for workers involved in food production, handling and processing to help avoid catching and spreading of Covid-19.

In the medium term

  • This crisis, like many others, points to the need for investment in social protection systems, including strengthening right to food laws, participatory institutions, provisions for public procurement and fair price shops. Instituting cash transfers to food producers during a lean season to support them to continue farming – this is essential with the continuing climate crisis.
  • Women’s empowerment and protecting their rights is one of the most effective strategies in the fight against hunger – supporting women food producers, protecting women’s tenure security, addressing violence against women, and reducing their unpaid care and domestic work including food preparation and provision are all part of the solution.
  • Strengthening food processing and storage facilities closer to the farms to ensure food producers are able to add value to their produce and increase shelf life of perishable goods through better storage, including through solar dryers, etc. The control and management of such facilities should be vested in the users, including women food producers and their collectives.
  • Investing in agroecology offers real potential in supporting local communities to produce healthy and nutritious food, taking care of our planet and its people while being more resilient to climate change.
  • Investing in local, community seed and grain banks to provide easy access to food and inputs in times of crisis. 

In the long term

  • Strengthen the policy coordination function of the Committee on World Food Security – the foremost global food governance body, which brings together member states, civil society, private sector and most importantly constituencies most affected by the food crisis to deliberate on a coordinated response. This needs to be supported by financing for the funding arm of the global food architecture – Global Agriculture and Food Security Trust Fund (GAFSP) to provide much needed assistance to countries and communities battling the food crisis.
  • Invest in local food production, and consumption, support right to food policies and institutions.
  • Explore ways for trade agreements and rules to better support the transition towards more sustainable agroecological food systems, and to support local production for local consumption. 
  • Review existing trade and investment deals to ensure they do not undermine local food systems, local food procurements prioritising local farmers’ production and traditional and indigenous communities’ food products and seeds. 
  • Review existing investment treaties and provisions to make sure they enable the strengthening of the domestic agri-food sector in low and middle-income countries.
  • Support low income, net food importing countries to build their food system and strategic food reserves.