Date released
17 September 2020

While we know the COVID-19 pandemic has caused health and economic crises across the globe, it is also threatening to cause a prolonged food crisis in countries where food supply chains are vulnerable to disruption, including many of Australia’s neighbours.

In Timor-Leste, for instance, crop productivity in nutrient-poor soils relies on seasonal application of fertiliser. Farmers also rely on outside supplies of seed and other crop materials.

However, COVID-19 travel and transport restrictions have seen farmers go without these essential resources due to scarcity or price constraints. The results for many may include lower crop production, less food availability and, for smallholder farmers, inability to invest in future crops.

Then there’s the impact of government intervention. Australians have had the benefit of social protection from the pandemic through a range of government financial relief payments. But in other countries across the Indo-Pacific, the extent of relief schemes is variable, with countries having little social protection being more vulnerable to the impacts of COVID-19 on food security.

These are just some of the threats being identified in a three-stage assessment initiative being undertaken by ACIAR.

The first assessment—‘Food systems security, resilience and emerging risks in the Indo-Pacific in the context of COVID-19: a rapid assessment’—was released in May and involved significant input from people on the ground in partner countries.

The impacts identified in that first assessment include the sudden movement of people from urban to rural areas, putting pressure on local food-growing systems; freight restrictions disrupting the transport of food, fertiliser and other resources; adverse consequences of government policy—for example, around food trade restrictions and ‘wet’ markets; and long-term health implications for groups such as the urban poor as existing food insecurity is amplified by the latest disruption.

Since that first assessment, a team from the Australian National University (ANU) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have been working with ACIAR and in-country partners to do a more detailed assessment of key threats, impact hotspots and potential solutions in Timor-Leste, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Indonesia, the Philippines, and some Pacific island nations.

Partners recently discussed the COVID-19 impact assessments with three of the contributors: Dr Dan Walker, ACIAR Chief Scientist; Dr Todd Sanderson, ACIAR Economics and Policy Program Manager; and Dr Steven Crimp, a Research Fellow with the Fenner School of Environment and Society at the ANU.

Smallholder farmer vulnerability

In some countries—for example, Pacific island nations, where infection rates were low at the time of writing—the pandemic’s most damaging effect is not so much its direct health impact but the indirect impact on food supply chains and markets.

Dr Walker relates an example of a smallholder vegetable farmer in PNG who was unable to sell his harvest of one hectare of sweetpotatoes as the PNG Government issued a state of emergency and closed all local food markets.

The farmer was left with no income, a surplus of sweetpotatoes—now his family’s sole source of food—and no cash to invest in future crops.

‘It’s a simple story but it brings home the impact of COVID-19 on smallholder farmers in countries like PNG. Coronavirus is happening on top of other threats to food security in the region, like fall armyworm and African swine fever,’ says Dr Walker.

‘The impact assessments will help ACIAR and its partners explore how to build more resilient food-production systems and more resilient value chains to minimise the impact of future disruptors.’

Impacts of government policies

Dr Sanderson says COVID-19 impacts on food value chains can be further weakened or strengthened through the ‘knock-on’ effects of other factors, such as government policy.

An example is the balance between trade policy and options to support farmers in the Philippines. With the onset of the pandemic, Filipino farmers faced difficulties getting their crops to storage and processing centres quickly enough, resulting in spoilage and loss of income, leaving farmers with limited funds to invest in the next cropping cycle.

With the Philippine Government facing pressure to protect domestic production, the option to reverse the liberalised trade policies that led to the country’s greater reliance on lower-cost rice imports could be appealing. However, if this led to higher prices for rice and other food staples, the urban poor would be the most likely to be negatively affected.

Year to decade timeframes for action

Dr Crimp was involved with compiling the second assessment, which included input from governments, NGOs, community groups, and food producers and processors in PNG, Indonesia, the Philippines, Timor-Leste and a group of Pacific island countries.

This information is being used to assess the resilience and recovery potential of food systems in each of these places and will inform the third assessment.

‘That report will provide recommendations for short-term (within the next year), intermediate (up to five years) and long-term (up to a decade) interventions,’ he says.

‘They will include suggestions on how to pivot existing ACIAR projects to address some of the research gaps and identify new investment and partnership opportunities to address other gaps and bring about solutions.

‘It’s a complicated series of drivers and sensitivities. Some of them cut across all five geographical regions but others are specific in how they’re impacting local food security.’ 

All three assessments are progressively providing ACIAR with deeper insights and knowledge. This is allowing ACIAR to act quickly where help was needed quickly and to plan for an effective long-term response to best support its partners. 

Key points
  • ACIAR is undertaking a three-stage assessment initiative to understand and better respond to COVID-19.
  • The first assessment (May 2020) was a rapid qualitative assessment that identified 10 key impacts.
  • The second assessment (scheduled for October 2020) is a detailed assessment of key threats, impact hotspots and potential solutions for a selection of ACIAR partner countries.