CoE Articles

Slew of food-related ‘pandemics’ await in the wake of COVID-19

Published October 22, 2020, by Mologadi Makwela

National and global food systems are not working for the billions around the world who suffer from hunger and malnutrition. This will have devastating consequences for those afflicted.

This was the resounding message coming out of a social dialogue on World Food Day, 16 October. Titled ‘Food is Our Right: The Struggle for Equitable Food Systems’, the event was co-hosted by the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security (CoE-FS), the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS) at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), and C19 People’s Coalition Food Working Group.

Speakers shared experiences from the likes of Brazil, Colombia, Ghana, India, Tanzania, Uganda and South Africa, countries all battling high levels of food insecurity. More concerning, argued panellists, is that food-related policies in these countries are often at odds with the stated objective of addressing food insecurity.

The speakers pointed to the slew of shortcomings in many countries’ measures. These include regressive state and market developments that deny the poor access to sufficient and nutritious food, or the right to produce their own. Policies continue to favour Big Food. Across the globe, landless peoples, including small-scale farmers, are unable to fend for themselves or compete with large-scale commercial producers.

In India for instance, said Dr Sagari Ramdas of the Food Sovereignty Alliance, the sweeping embrace of a capitalist food system in the 1990s has increasingly favoured an elite. Even over the pandemic, as widespread hunger became a prominent concern, new bills have only sought to consolidate the food system in the hands of big commercial farming, she insisted. “Our political governance, the decision-makers… have brought in policies which today has enabled the entire capture of the system.”

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and associated lockdown measures have also disproportionately hurt the already precarious livelihoods of small-scale farmers or fishers. And food insecurity grew sharply among the homeless and those labouring in the informal sector.

Speaking about the South African context, Professor Julian May, director of the CoE-FS, cautioned that the detrimental impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be felt for some time to come.


Over the past months, many children have been born to mothers who themselves have had little to eat, and have not been consuming the prescribed nutrients. Not only have their own diets been compromised, but they have now passed on that food- and nutrient-deficiency onto their newborns.

Professor Julian May, Director, Centre of Excellence in Food Security

In South Africa alone, where between 25-30% of children under the age of five suffer from stunting and are at risk from its long-term effects, that could prove calamitous. Already, some 30,000 of the estimated one million babies born in South Africa every year die from food-related issues before they turn one. On top of this, some 15.5% of children in South Africa re born with a low birth weight, with around 3.5% being attributable to maternal under-nutrition. What’s more, 78% of toddlers (those aged 6-23 months) do not receive a diet considered adequate for infants and young children.

“I want to propose that we are facing a series of as yet unknown and invisible pandemics,” May said.

This will require that over coming years South Africa will have to doggedly track birth-weight indicators, particularly over the critical first thousand years of children’s lives, he added. “So I think we need to be vigilant about monitoring things such as vitamin-A deficiency, anaemia and other deficiencies in the period immediately following COVID, so that we can have better targeting of our limited public health resources to ensure that we are not jeopardizing the status of a generation of children.”

Making real and lasting changes to the global food system could then be, May and the other speakers agreed, would be a silver lining to come out of the global pandemic.

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