In awarding the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize to the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized and acknowledged the critical and central role food security plays in stabilizing societies by ensuring that one, if not the most, basic need is met. In a statement acknowledging the award, David Beasley, executive director of WFP, said, “Today is a reminder that food security, peace, and stability go together. Without peace, we cannot achieve our global goal of zero hunger, and while there is hunger, we will never have a peaceful world.”
This past spring, Beasley warned of the additional threat of food insecurity posed by the emergence of SARS-CoV-2, which he said could result in a “hunger pandemic.” That was in April. By November, hunger rates were “skyrocketing around the world,” he said. Beasley noted that the socio-economic impact of the pandemic “is more devastating than the disease” and is causing the loss of livelihoods for many people and moving many people into poverty. COVID-19 lockdown restrictions on mobility, trade, and economic activity are pushing millions of people into extreme poverty.
Caitlin Welsh, director of the Global Food Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies cites the Global Food Security Act (GFSA) as one of the key laws addressing food insecurity. Passed in 2016 with bipartisan support, the law codifies the commitment by the U.S. government to “the productivity, incomes, and livelihoods of small-scale producers, particularly women, by working across agricultural value chains and expanding farmers’ access to local and international markets.” The law was reauthorized in 2018 and is up for reauthorization again in 2023. It requires an updated global food security strategy per each reauthorization, the next one due in 2021, and Welsh says she will be looking specifically at a number of issues left unaddressed in previous versions.
One issue is a strategy to help poor urban residents who have suffered severe job and wage losses during the pandemic. “COVID is having an effect on food insecurity around the world, not because of food scarcity but because of lost jobs and wages that prevent people from accessing food,” she says. Although low-income people are being hit the hardest during the pandemic, Welsh cites a report from the International Food Policy Research Institute that showed an increase in poverty of 44% in urban areas of Africa during this time, compared with an increase of 15% in rural areas.
Other regulatory measures were discussed during the recent 2020 Ag & Food Policy Summit meeting held virtually in September. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, emphasized the extraordinary year for American agriculture and consumers. “Perhaps for the first time since the Great Depression, the significance of food security has resonated throughout the entire agriculture and food value chain, impacting nearly every kitchen table around the country and the world,” he said during a virtual session. “As COVID-19 has demonstrated, if any singular component in the food supply chain is vulnerable or harmed—the seeds, plants, feed, animals, workers, or infrastructure—significant challenges can result, and have resulted,” he said.
He listed a number of legislative efforts to protect the nation from threats to food security, including programs established within the 2018 Farm Bill to help USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS), including the new vaccine bank, the America’s Food and Agricultural Act enacted into law in March 2020, and the creation of the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility (see “Regulatory Programs That Address U.S. Food Insecurity,” below).
According to a USDA spokesperson, the programs through the 2018 Farm Bill to fund animal health programs are aimed at keeping foreign animal diseases out of the U.S. to keep the livestock healthy and protect export markets for U.S. livestock producers. For example, the National Animal Vaccine and Veterinary Countermeasure Bank, the only vaccine bank in the U.S., will allow the stockpiling of animal vaccines and related products for use in case of an outbreak of high-impact animal diseases such as foot-and-mouth disease. “Vaccines are an important part of our strategy to eradicate any incursions of the disease [foot-and-mouth], and they can be a critical tool to allow American farmers and ranchers to get back on their feet more quickly,” said the USDA spokesperson. “While an outbreak would temporarily disrupt international markets, vaccination would allow animals to move through domestic production channels.”
On July 8, 2020, APHIS made an initial purchase of a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease. “This purchase will significantly enhance the number of vaccine doses already available to the U.S. through the North American Foot and Mouth Disease Vaccine Bank, providing critical support for the U.S. livestock industry,” said the spokesperson.
Going forward, other issues may move toward legislative consideration, given the stresses on the food supply chain and industry during COVID-19. Becca Jablonski, PhD, assistant professor of food systems extension economics in the department of agriculture and resource economics at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, thinks there will be more discussion about the trade-offs in food manufacturing and processing between efficiency and resilience. “We have favored efficient systems in our policies that have led to more consolidation in our food processing and manufacturing sectors in the U.S.,” she says, adding that the policies make sense, given the desire to provide affordable food products of consistent quantity and quality.
However, citing major disruptions to the food supply chain with, for example, the closure of meat packing plants during COVID-19 that led to reduced access to products, she thinks more people will be looking at whether policies that support small and mid-sized plants that can pivot more quickly in a time of emergency or disaster make more sense. Important considerations will need to be made about the implications of such policies on product pricing, which, she emphasizes, has major food security implications. “I think what is going to happen now, particularly with a Biden administration, is more discussion around these issues,” she says.