Projecting the likely impact of COVID-19 on food and nutrition security in South Africa

Major global outbreaks, including Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), had a heavy impact on food and nutrition security in the affected countries. While the long-term effects on countries’ food systems will depend largely on the unique course of COVID-19, this pandemic will be no exception. Drs Admire Nyamwanza and Sikhulumile Sinyolo explore the likely short- to medium-term impact of COVID-19 on food availability, access, utilisation and stability of supply in South Africa.

A child receives food at an emergency school-feeding programme in the Western Cape.
Photo: Western Cape Government

A major concern related to the escalation of pandemics, such as COVID-19, is whether food will remain available and accessible to all South Africans at prices they can afford and whether this food will be nutritious and safe. In the short- to medium-term, South Africa is unlikely to experience severe food availability challenges. Estimations from several institutions, including the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy, indicate that the country will have enough food for at least a year. For example, indications are that there will be a bumper harvest of maize, the staple diet for many, such that the country is poised to increase its maize exports to other countries.

Good harvests are also expected for most domestically produced food crops, such as fruits. In addition, indications from global institutions, which include the Food and Agriculture Organisation, World Food Programme and the International Food Policy Research Institute, are that global food supplies are at comfortable levels. This suggests that South Africa should be able to access important food imports such as wheat and rice, barring massive disruptions in global supply chains. However, some countries have started putting restrictions on exports.

These include Kazakhstan and Vietnam, which are key exporters of wheat and rice, respectively. Should this trend continue, and other countries also start restricting exports, there is a chance that there may be shortages in South Africa. There are no indications, as yet, that there would be shortages of highly perishable foods such as milk, fruit and vegetables in South Africa. However, disruptions in the supply chain due to restricted mobility are likely to increase food waste and loss, particularly of these perishables.

Food access
The main challenge in a highly unequal South Africa, even in non-crisis times, has been ensuring food availability and access at the household level, especially among marginalised communities in rural areas and informal settlements. The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019 report, for example, showed that, on the one hand, the country’s food availability status, as measured by the food balances, was higher than the world average, but on the other hand, a third of the population (29.9%) experienced severe levels of food insecurity. The country performed significantly below the world average (8.7%) or even Africa (22.1%).

According to the definition of ‘severe food insecurity’ (page 31 of the report), this means that almost one out of three South African households “have likely run out of food, experienced hunger and, at the most extreme, gone for days without eating, putting their health and well-being at grave risk”, more than the average household in Africa. These figures suggest that, while food is largely available in South Africa, the challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic is in improving the logistical and resource means of poor households to access it.

As researchers from the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies argued in a recent article, the primary danger in South Africa in the context of COVID-19 is not necessarily that supermarkets will be empty, but that an increasing number of people will not be able to afford to buy from them. This is particularly so for households whose livelihoods have been put on hold by movement restrictions as has occurred during the lockdown, such as informal street traders and restaurant workers, who do not qualify for relief under existing relief measures. In rural areas, movement restrictions may interfere with farming activities, reducing potential yields for the year. Smallholders cannot afford to have reduced output, which could lead, in turn, to reduced potential income and increased food unavailability.

Consequently, reduced incomes are likely to force these households to rely on cheaper and less preferred foods.

Food utilisation
Food utilisation focuses on how households use food through adequate diet, clean water, sanitation and health care to reach a state of nutritional wellbeing. There is currently no evidence to suggest that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is transmitted through food, and therefore, the negative impact of the disease vis-à-vis food utilisation will mostly be secondary. The first short-term implication for food utilisation will most likely be around an increase in unhealthy consumption patterns.

As a result of the movement restriction and lockdown, there is likely, in the immediate term, to be an increase in preferences for more staple, non-perishable and ready-to-eat foods, which can easily be stored. Most of these foods are ultra-processed and generally of poor nutritional value. Secondly, with schools having closed earlier and with a possibility of remaining closed for some time, COVID-19 has also compromised the nutrition of many of the over nine million learners who currently benefit from the National School Nutrition Programme (NSNP) as their primary source of reliable and nutritious food.

With its far-reaching, devastating implications, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to heightened awareness of the need for good hygiene and sanitary practices, which are in turn linked to food safety. Personal hygiene practices that are being promoted at an accelerated pace, such as regular hand washing and the cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces, are likely to continue.

Food stability
The food stability dimension points to the fact that, to be food secure, people must have access to adequate food at all times and they should not be at risk of losing access to it due to sudden shocks or cyclical events. COVID-19 itself is a serious worldwide shock and it may be too early to make definitive conclusions on its potential ripple effects vis-à-vis the two main food stability factors related to such pandemics: disruption of the food supply chain and food-price inflation. As far as the former is concerned, restrictions on movement, including that of farmworkers, may affect food production in the country. As Qu Dongyu, director-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, warns, even when the situation begins to normalise, ‘basic aversion behaviour’ or the fear of contagion by workers, could, for a period, impede farming activities.

Furthermore, food processing, which, in most cases, requires people to work in close proximity, may slow down, as social-distancing measures are likely to continue to be encouraged in South Africa, as in many other countries, for the foreseeable future.

Implications of the pandemic on food-price inflation in South Africa remains unclear in the immediate term. As Wandile Sihlobo, a chief economist of the Agricultural Business of South Africa wrote in a recent article, South Africa has adequate food supplies for 2020 and the 2020 food-price inflation should remain at about 4% year-on-year. In the context of such pandemics as COVID-19, food-price spikes are mostly caused, among other factors, by panic buying, which results in temporary food shortages as happened in China during the 2003 SARS outbreak. This seems not to be the case in South Africa (at least during the March-April 2020 period, at the time of the writing of this article). It is important to note, however, that stability of food supply in the context of this pandemic will effectively be dependent upon the intensity and reach of the spread of the disease and the success of various measures put in place to contain it.

There are still many unknowns regarding the progression and successful containment of COVID-19 in South Africa; however, proactive action by the government is needed to ensure and guarantee citizens’ food and nutrition security in the context of this disease. We submit that the following three broad measures will be critical in the short- to medium-term: firstly, expanding focused social assistance and food relief to the most vulnerable e.g. the very poor, beneficiaries of the NSNP and the elderly, including encouraging the expansive involvement of non-governmental organisations in this regard. Secondly, continued close monitoring of food prices and consumer behaviour, especially in the context of restriction of movement measures. Lastly, ensuring the continued smooth logistical operation of agricultural and food supply chains.

Authors: Drs Admire Nyamwanza and Sikhulumile Sinyolo, research specialists in the HSRC’s Inclusive Economic Development Division