News Release – The critical importance of ensuring that developing economies are supported by the
international community as they prepare to contain the spread of COVID-19 was highlighted in a Scientific
Roundtable organized and coordinated by the International Union of Food Science and Technology
(IUFoST) on April 17, 2020. COVID-19 Crisis: Implications for Food Systems in Developing Economies
(Focus on Africa) brought together internationally renowned experts in food science looking at nutrition,
agriculture, regulation, epidemiology, and industry to address challenges specific to Africa and Lebanon
related to the impact of COVID-19.
The Scientific Roundtable was co-chaired by John McDermott, Director, CGIAR Research Program on
Agriculture for Nutrition and Health (A4NH), and Ruth Oniang’o, Chair of Sasakawa Africa Association,
Founder Rural Outreach Africa. Presentations were made by Catherine Bertini, World Food Prize
Laureate, Former UN Under Secretary and Executive Director of the World Food Programme; Cheikh
Ndiaye, Executive Director, African Food and Agriculture Skills Development Centre, Senegal; Samuel
Godefroy, Senior Food Regulatory Expert, United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Arab
Food Safety Initiative for Trade Facilitation (SAFE); Lara Hanna Wakim, Vice Director of Higher Center for
Research, Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, Lebanon; Theo Knight-Jones, Senior Scientist Epidemiology,
Animal and Human Health, International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI); and Silnia Badenhorst, Group
Food Safety Manager (SME) Massmart/Walmart.
Speakers raised warnings about the potential impact of measures taken to contain the virus that could
result in a food crisis with dire implications beyond those of the virus itself unless solutions matching the
African reality are developed and implemented now. The expectation is that COVID-19 will move 80
million Africans into extreme poverty. While each expert presented a different aspect of COVID-19,key
concerns identified were the critical need for financial support for African government measures in
fighting virus spread; the importance of communication of factual information; ensuring the integrity of
both informal and formal food supply and distribution; and accurate definition of essential goods and
services to include all activities and processes which support the production, processing, distribution,
consumption, and waste disposal of food in the system.
“While there will be some challenges in global food supply chains, most disruptions in food production,
supply chains, markets and services will come from domestic circumstances and livelihood shocks.”
Ruth Oniang’o compared the COVID-19 pandemic to a conflict, with major disruptions in people’s lives
impacting food production for a majority of smallholder farmers and the food supply chain. With the world
predicting the worst for Africa’s 54 sovereign states, countries with very weak economies have been
forced to get ready, despite the fact that these governments do not have social safety net programs to
cushion the impact on their populations. They have no reserves and have coped with their periodic food
crises through donors who now have to mobilize all resources to help themselves.
Following on this theme, Cheikh Ndiaye stressed that the strategy of everyone solving their own problems
is unsustainable and counterproductive. The globally accepted practice of closing down cities and
businesses is difficult to implement in the African context without food shortages, price increases and
starvation in vulnerable populations. Efforts should be made to assist workers in all sectors of food
systems impacted in the hope that with support from the international community it may be possible to
mitigate some of the foreseeable negative impacts.
“Guidance needs to be provided for practices of sanitation, but also how to protect workers’ health and
conditions in order to make sure that they continue to operate.” (Sam Godefroy)
Regulators must continue to play an important role in limiting supply disruption and maintaining
operations through communication of scientifically credible information, especially with regard to
transmission of the virus; including providing guidance to food and agri-food producers in sanitation and
worker protection standards, amongst other things; and ensuring that no new threats or hazards are
introduced, including food fraud and prevention of dumping to avoid shortages. Sam Godefroy noted that
guidance must be adapted to African food production sector and supply chain realities, including how to
practice social distancing in the context of farmers markets and small farmer production.
“From villages to nations, leaders must be nimble and must quickly fix disruptions in the food chains.”
The inevitable rise in demand for food and the need for innovation on how food can be safely sold and
distributed rules for acceptable sales and distribution to avoid wasting food also was a key issue. Catherine
Bertini advocated against knee-jerk political decisions, such as closing borders, that negatively impact
consumers, farmers, and processors and strongly supported finding creative approaches for delivery of
food and food aid including sufficient production of special food for children from birth to two years of
age to avoid the potential creation of a generation of stunted children during a food shortage.
“Continuous tracking of operations within the value chain will be necessary. A disruption of activities
at any single point in the value chain will have knock-on implications for others. Furthermore, problems
with cross-cutting services, such as transportation of employees and goods, could impact at multiple
nodes simultaneously. In this regard, the importance of logistical services within the chain, to ensure
efficient movement of both products, services and labour, cannot be overemphasised.” (Silnia
With regard to food access, the focus was on the importance of a number of measures, including
promotion of school feeding at home; establishment of food banks; compelling food-producing
companies and food retail stores to recycle consumable foodstuffs and make it available to the most
vulnerable; establishing humanitarian food reserves; ensuring emergency foodstuffs are mobilised; and
scaling up nutritional support and feeding schemes. The informal sector plays an essential part of the
‘business as usual’ food system, as it supplies a variety of essential food and related services to the poor
and vulnerable groups, Silnia Badenhurst emphasized.
“This global health crisis is not an ordinary shock to supply and demand or access to food; it is a shock
to the world as a whole. It is a human crisis.” (Lara Hanna Wakim)
The specific issue is the access to inputs in time for the agricultural planting season, as delays due to
transport and market disruptions may affect yields and income. A declining demand due to a decline in
purchasing power will in turn affect the ability and willingness of farmers and producers to invest and
adopt adequate technology and will consequently further shrink food production and availability.
Thus the COVID-19 pandemic creates a spike in demand, due to panic buying and hoarding of food by
consumers, which is increasing food demand in the short-term, primarily among those who have the
means to over-buy food for storage in their homes. There is an urgent need to raise awareness among
people to reduce food waste, and to better look after the categories of food they are buying in terms of
nutrition facts. Therefore, in the absence of responsive social safety nets and robust income assistance,
the working poor will see their ability to access nutritious food decline in many situations, pointed out
John McDermott requested panelists to provide advice as to what IUFoST might do in the COVID-19
response and recovery phases. Advice included:
1. Engage with government policy makers and community leaders
2. Compile food lessons from other epidemics (Ebola in West Africa) and the 2007-9 food price crisis
3. Look beyond the urgent response to continue to build food science and regulatory capacity
4. Engage IUFoST Adhering Bodies in workshops on food science and food safety
5. Monitoring and rapid learning of changing food supply chains
6. IUFoST to support resources for food scientists and for food supply practitioners.
Relative to the challenge of COVID-19 in Africa, Ruth Oniang’o closed by saying:
“We have a chance to actually begin to find local solutions, to begin to see how further engagements
with other partners can emerge in a way that is completely different.”
A full summary of this IUFoST Scientific Roundtable, Speakers’ Biographical details and other reference materials
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