Lockdowns must not disrupt food supply chains – FAO, AU

With statistics prior to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic suggesting that one in five people in Africa suffers from hunger, it is important that agriculture be recognised as an “essential service” on the continent.

This was stated in a joint declaration issued following a recent meeting between agriculture ministers and representatives from all 55 members of the African Union (AU) and officials from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

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According to the declaration, the food and agriculture system in Africa was an “essential service that must continue to operate during periods of lockdown, emergency, curfew and other containment measures”.

Qu Dongyu, FAO director-general, said strategic action was necessary to lessen the impact of the pandemic on food security in Africa.

This came at the same time as the ‘2019 State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World’ report revealed that the continent was the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment in the world, with “one in five Africans going hungry”.

Dongyu stressed that pandemic containment measures, such as border closures, could negatively impact food security.

“Border closures restrict trade and limit food availability in many countries, particularly those dependent on food imports.”

He called for measures that did not lead to disruptions in food supply chains, which he said needed to be “kept alive”.

This sentiment was echoed by South Africa’s Minister of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development, Thoko Didiza, who also participated in her capacity as chair of the AU’s Specialised Technical Committee.

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The FAO said in the declaration that Didiza had cautioned against any moves that would weaken inter-regional trade, and also highlighted the effects of lockdowns on a continent where most consumers depended on informal markets rather than supermarkets.

Supporting documentation and background briefs for the meeting dealt with issues ranging from the need for social protection to interventions aimed at supporting domestic markets and enabling trade channels on the continent to function.

The briefs also contained data related to crop calendars and an emphasis on the need to safeguard both upstream and downstream value chain linkages.

According to this data, it was estimated that smallholder farmers produced up to 80% of the food consumed in Africa, employed some two-thirds of the population, and worked about 62% of the land.

These farmers were already facing risks including climate shocks or disease or pest issues, such as the ongoing desert locust emergency in east Africa, for example.

It was emphasised that not acting now to secure input supply chains could have knock-on effects that made access difficult during the planting seasons in the various regions later in the year, thereby negatively affecting food production.

“This would be devastating in some areas of the sub-region that experienced cyclones and severe drought last year, and were already facing rising levels of food insecurity,” the brief stated.