Disruption to food systems has been brought into sharp focus by the COVID-19 pandemic, but such disruptions are a persistent feature of these complex systems, so it is important that we learn from the current crisis to be better prepared for the next one. This paper uses novel empirical data to understand disruptions to production, livelihoods and diets in agricultural households in India, to draw lessons from COVID-19 – and particularly its effects on nutrient-dense perishable food items – for making food systems more resilient. The objective is to gain a better understanding of how food system disruption affects the various roles of vegetables in food systems, and we draw on food systems theory and frameworks, and research on food system effects of previous shocks, to frame our study in the Indian context.
Food systems have been defined as “all the elements [...] and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation and consumption of food, and the output of these activities” (HLPE 2014). Key outputs are the diets that people can access through the food system; the livelihoods of those involved across the food system; and the environmental effects of the food system. These complex and spontaneous systems are shaped by a range of drivers, from the biophysical and technological to the political and socio-cultural (HLPE 2020). When there are disruptions to these drivers, there is potential disruption to food systems.
Importantly, different foods are likely to be affected differently by food system shocks. Four months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO 2020) stresses that global stocks of staple food crops such as rice and wheat are adequate and 2020 looks set for a good harvest, depending on how long the pandemic and restrictions last. Perishable foods however – such as dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables – cannot be easily transported and stored and are more vulnerable to food system disruption. Restrictions to movement – whether of people, trucks or ships – have significant potential to disrupt production and trade in vegetables and their inputs, and their perishability means this may result in vastly increased food waste at a time when production is uncertain. It is precisely these perishable foods that are the most nutritious (having the most nutrients per calorie) (Beal et al. 2017) so concerns about food system disruptions also play out in concerns over reductions in diet quality.
Some of these hypothesised impacts from food systems theory have been studied in previous shocks, and signal some areas of the food system that will be important to understand in the current crisis. In terms of production, a study using a system dynamics model suggested that a severe pandemic with >25% reduction in labour availability can create widespread food shortages even in developed nations (Huff et al. 2015). This prediction was in fact witnessed during the Ebola epidemic in West Africa that began in 2014, where movement and labour were severely curtained and production volume of staple crops was reduced by 12% (Huber et al. 2018). In contexts where shocks lead to food gluts or shortages, a second key area is effects on food prices. Often the most nutritious foods increase most: In Indonesia a drought and financial shock in 1997–8 led to a 200% increase in the price of leafy greens alongside smaller rises in other food prices, for instance (Block et al. 2004). A 50% rise in staple food prices during the 2008 food price crisis led to a 21% increase in total food expenditure across low- and middle-income countries, putting pressure on household food baskets (Darnton-Hill and Cogill 2010).
Healthy diets based on diverse plant foods are already too expensive for over 1.5 billion people in the world (Hirvonen et al. 2020), and shocks such as COVID-19 that reduce incomes or increase prices will only exacerbate this situation. Reductions in diet quality (even while maintaining sufficient calories) has been seen in other significant food system shocks, with households tending to protect staple food consumption over the consumption of more expensive but more nutrient-dense foods (Darnton-Hill and Cogill 2010). In the Indonesia example, consumption of eggs fell by over half, and of green leafy vegetables by up to 30% (Block et al. 2004), severely limiting diet quality. Different populations are also affected differently: While COVID-19 does not distinguish between rich and poor, the diets of the most marginalized in society will be most affected and the least able to adapt. The coping strategies employed by farming households during shocks (such as borrowing and relying on social networks) are likely to have broader welfare implications in the longer term that need to be captured and understood (Galiano and Vera-Hernández 2008).
Overall, the type of shock matters: A biophysical shock affects food production and availability, and thereafter perhaps prices (Béné et al. 2015). An economic shock affects farmers’ ability to procure inputs and labour, but also consumers’ ability to afford food and therefore demand (Block et al. 2004). A health shock experienced directly by a household leads to changes in health expenditures and reductions in labour, either in the short term or longer term depending on the type of pandemic (HIV being chronic, Ebola being acute, for instance) (Harris 2014; Gillespie 2008). The COVID-19 pandemic (an acute health shock) and its associated social and policy responses (broader production and economic shocks) are exceptional in that they potentially affect multiple food system drivers at the same time; affect the food system from inputs and production to trade and marketing to price and affordability to consumer demand; and affect almost every scale, from local to global.
In this crisis, it is important to understand how farmers experience the shock of COVID-19 as both producers and consumers of food. The produce of vegetable farmers in particular is likely to be among the most disrupted, as outlined above. Our hypothesis based on previous research is that production might be disrupted and sales might fall for these farmers, impacting livelihoods; reduced incomes are likely to lead to less diverse and healthy diets in these households; and these impacts will be different for different types of farmers across socio-economic groups. We therefore aimed to understand impacts on the livelihoods and diets of vegetable farmers in India through the multi-layered shock of COVID-19.