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8 June 2022

Profound impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Livestock Systems and Food Security

Livestock in Uganda. Photo.

Small livestock producers, who represent the majority of producers in low-income countries, have been affected the most due to the small-scale and the informal nature of their activities.

Photo: Maja Malmberg

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on small livestock producers in low-income countries and worsened food insecurity. Assem Abu Hatab, Lena Krautscheid and Sofia Boqvist, researchers at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and the Nordic Africa Institute, explore lessons learned and challenges ahead.

In low-income countries, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the subsequent measures adopted by governments to contain the spread of the virus have exerted unprecedented impacts on livestock systems. In particular, small livestock producers, who represent the majority of producers in these countries, have been affected the most due to the small-scale and the informal nature of their activities.

“…the impacts of the pandemic on livestock systems in low-income countries have substantially undermined livelihoods, worsened food insecurity and increased sustainable development challenges for poor people.”

Over the last two years, there has been accumulated evidence that the impacts of the pandemic on livestock systems in low-income countries have substantially undermined livelihoods, worsened food insecurity and increased sustainable development challenges for poor people. Chiefly, this is attributive to the direct contributions that livestock chains make to the supply and consumption of animal-source foods, and their indirect contribution to employment, livelihoods and overall sustainable development.

Pandemics are expected to happen more frequently in the future

In this regard, the uniqueness of the COVID-19 impacts on livestock systems that make them incomparable with the impacts of previous disease outbreaks, as well as the projections that pandemics will happen more frequently in the future, necessitate comprehensive diagnosis and adaptation strategies to mitigate their consequences on food security in low-income countries.

In this respect, it is intriguing, from a research perspective, and necessary, from a policymaking perspective, to ask three questions:

  1. How has the pandemic affected livestock systems in low-income countries?
  2. What are the consequences of these effects on various dimensions of food security in these countries?
  3. What are the research and policy needs to enhance the preparedness of livestock systems for future pandemics and improve their capacity to foster food security in low-income countries?

To answer these questions, we systematically reviewed the peer-reviewed literature published between December 2019 and February 2021 on COVID-19, livestock systems and food security in low-income countries. At that early stage of the pandemic, a systematic review was sought to help characterize and synthesize the understanding on the interlinkages between COVID-19, livestock systems and food security.

 

Calf in Uganda. Photo.

There is a need for more holistic approaches to recognize the complex nature of livestock chains in low-income countries and address the multifaceted and wide-spread effects of the pandemic on food security.

Photo by Maja Malmberg

Rapid research response – but literature is fragmented

Our results show that the literature in the field is fragmented. Although the research response was rapid in terms of quantity and temporal succession, there has been a disjunction in studies that analyze the interactions between the pandemic, livestock systems and food security in low-income countries. The rich and growing literature exemplifies this on COVID-19 and each of the other two components taken in isolation (that is, “COVID-19 and livestock system” or “COVID-19 and food security”). However, the number of published articles diminishes significantly when considering the interlinkages between the three of them.

Another example that shows the fragmentation of the literature is that only very few studies referred to the ‘one health approach’ to understand the COVID-19 impact on livestock systems and food security in low-income countries. This was quite surprising, given that the one health approach has been widely recognized and promoted in recent years as a versatile cross-disciplinary approach to incorporate human, animal and environmental health in order to solve complex problems, such as infectious disease outbreaks.

Holistic approaches are needed

This emphasizes the need for more holistic approaches to recognize the complex nature of livestock chains in low-income countries and address the multifaceted and wide-spread effects of the pandemic on food security. Such holistic research approaches would offer opportunities to take a systems perspective on all livestock-related activities, including input supply, production, processing, transportation, marketing, distribution, consumption, and beyond.

This would also allow for comprehensive analyses of the combined impact of the pandemic and other burgeoning stressors that livestock systems are increasingly facing on livestock supply chains and food security in low-income countries. Such analyses can provide a framework to link these drivers to more immediate factors affecting food and nutrition security at the household level, for instance regarding availability, accessibility and safety of livestock-source food. In turn, this would contribute to understanding the possibilities for improving food access and ensuring equity across livestock systems for producers, intermediaries and consumers of livestock-source food.

Need for country specific studies

We pointed out an obvious symptom of the literature that addresses the interlinkages between the pandemic, livestock systems and food security in low-income countries, which is the dominance of exploratory and qualitative studies, rather than studies measuring the extent and magnitude of these effects of the pandemic on livestock systems and food security. This is a typical feature of a new and emerging literature. Future research undertakings should focus more on using the findings of these exploratory studies to strengthen the theoretical foundation of research on pandemics and infectious diseases, livestock systems and food security, which can then contribute to quantitative investigations around specific research questions.

In the same context, the results also show that the reviewed literature is focused on regions and continents and lacks a connection to specific countries. Such an approach do not take into consideration the unique situations of individual countries in terms of the specific characteristics of livestock value chains and the magnitude of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition, making it impossible to draw generalizations under conditions of such heterogeneity.

In this respect, there is a large body of literature showing that data gaps are an inherent part of livestock systems in low-income countries. This highlights the need for disaggregated country-level data and research on livestock systems in order to identify and measure the impact of various stressors on livestock systems and actors involved.

“Traditionally, research on livestock supply chains in low-income countries has always perceived intermediaries as opportunists who take advantages of livestock producers’ unawareness of market price and their weak bargaining power. However, intermediaries play vital roles in livestock value chains…”

We also found that the literature focuses on the production and consumption stages of livestock supply chains, whereas other nodes and actors along these chains (for instance distributors, processors and retailers) receive comparatively less attention.

Traditionally, research on livestock supply chains in low-income countries has always perceived intermediaries as opportunists who take advantage of livestock producers’ unawareness of market price and their weak bargaining power. However, intermediaries play vital roles in livestock value chains. They transfer livestock products from farm gates to consumers, increase added value of agrifood commodities by performing grading, packaging and processing activities, and provide marketing services to small producers who would bear high transaction costs if they had to perform these activities.

The interconnectedness of food systems entails that a shock, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, that influences any stage of the supply chain will undoubtedly affect subsequent stages. The lack of research that examines the propagation of shocks through livestock supply chains limits our understanding of the true effects of the pandemic on the livestock systems as a whole and the subsequent effects on food security. Therefore, more consistent research endeavors are needed to develop better understanding of the dynamics of propagation of COVID-19 impacts across livestock supply chains in order to inform adequate interventions that can enhance the performance and sustainability of these chains and mitigate the food insecurity outcomes.

Cow and calf in Uganda.

The literature tends to focus on the production and consumption stages of livestock supply chains, whereas other stages and actors along these chains (for instance distributers, processors and retailers) receive comparatively less attention.

Photo by Maja Malmberg

Preparedness for future pandemics and potential risks

Another major finding in our review is related to the resilience of livestock value chains to risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The majority of the reviewed literature focused on the ‘absorbance’ and ‘recovery’ phases of resilience, whereas only a few articles addressed actions taken by the supply chain actors to ‘plan’ or to ‘adapt’ livestock systems to reduce their vulnerability and enhance their learning from and resilient to the COVID-19 pandemic. This suggests a lack of awareness of the important role of these criteria to build resilience and in risk management settings.

“…future research should not only seek to reduce the effects and vulnerability of livestock systems in low-income countries but also to foster their preparedness and adaptive capacity to future pandemics and potential risks…”

While projections indicate that pandemics will be more frequent events in the future, prospective research should not only seek to reduce the effects and vulnerability of livestock systems in low-income countries but also to foster their preparedness and adaptive capacity to future pandemics and potential risks, particularly the barriers and enablers that determine their ability to adapt and recover from such events. Integrated resilience-based approaches are crucial in order to take on effective preventive measures before supply chain disruption and recovery measures after disturbances have occurred.

Finally, our findings indicate that the consequences of the pandemic on food security are defined narrowly with a focus being placed on the ‘availability’ of livestock commodities and ‘accessibility’ to livestock-source foods. Considerably less attention is given to ‘utilisation’ and ‘stability’ dimensions of food security. Furthermore, lesser attention is given to discussing two additional dimensions (agency and sustainability) that have recently been suggested and have become increasingly recognized as dimensions to achieve food security and sustainable food systems.

A shock, such as a pandemic, can generate differential effects on various dimensions of food security, emphasising the need to expand our understanding of the impact of shock events beyond their effects on production and food availability. It is crucial to acknowledge all dimensions that drive food security and their interlinkages in order to minimise systemic risks and enhance the capacity of low-income countries to build resilience of livestock systems against future pandemics that can help achieve food security objectives.

This research was possible thanks to financial support from SLU Global and the Swedish International Agricultural Network Initiative (SIANI).

Written by:

Assem Abu Hatab, Department of Economics, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) and Senior Economist at the Nordic Africa Institute, Uppsala

Lena Krautscheid, Department of Economics, SLU

Sofia Boqvist, Department of Biomedical Science & Veterinary Public Health, SLU

Link:

Livestock Systems and Food Security in Developing Countries: A Systematic Review of an Emerging Literature by Assem Abu Hatab, Lena Krautscheid and Sofia Boqvist, Pathogens, 2021.

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