April 3, 2020

Global Food for Thought: Saving Seeds | Food Trade | Growing Resistance

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Climate, History, and COVID-19

This week we’ve ramped up our efforts to keep you informed through the crisis. Next Generation Delegation Alumni are offering their perspectives on how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect global food security. One alumnus analyzes Vietnam’s decision to ban rice exports through a historical lens, warning that without effective crisis diplomacy this could be the beginning of a COVID-19 food price spike. The second considers what the virus could mean for African food systems, already facing severe food security threat—locusts. Our partner blog series, Breaking Ground, features several pieces this week that examine how scalable innovation can build resilience for smallholders, and the impacts of reducing food waste to feed millions. In our agricultural research series, Field Notes, the International Rice Research Institute looks to an urbanized future as it fosters food systems transformation.

Looking ahead, we’ll be hosting a conversation between Senior Fellow Roger Thurow,  Vox’s Science and Health Editor Eliza Barclay, and NASA Senior Research Scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig on what the COVID-19 crisis can teach us about climate change, moderated by Devex reporter Teresa Welsh. 

https://engage.thechicagocouncil.org/l/557772/2018-10-01/5xkyvc/557772/225998/camera_icon.pngPHOTO OF THE WEEK

Volunteers pack rice to be distributed among poor people during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to slow the spreading of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at a residential area in Kolkata, India. (REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri)

https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/globe_icon.pngBIG ACTORS 

A United Front: The WTO, WHO, and FAO have issued a joint statement warning countries to avoid restricting food trade flow as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While countries often restrict food trade and exports to ensure food for their own citizens, this has negative global food supply ramifications that can ultimately impact everyone. As the FAO previously noted that while there is enough food for everyone globally, we must ensure those that are most vulnerable have access.

Relief for those Most Affected: The UN Development Program (UNDP) has issued a further warning that COVID-19 will have disproportionate negative effects for developing countries. Income losses could reach up to $220 billion, and up to half of the jobs in Africa could be lost. In response to the unbalanced risks, the WHO, IMF, and World Bank have announced that they support debt relief to ease the burden on developing nations.


Averting Crisis: In 2008, several nations implemented commodity export bans, sparking others to panic buy and hoard crops. The result? A global food price spike that exacerbated food insecurity and instability. With some nations beginning to take similar steps, food crisis diplomacy is more important than ever. Without effective multilateral coordination, the world could face even higher levels of food insecurity in the midst of an already devastating global pandemic. 


Fighting the Fever: China is pushing farmers to increase hog production to restore national pork output to pre-African-Swine-Fever levels. At the same time, local governments have been asked to restrict transportation of animals, which increases the risk of the disease spreading. Two new outbreaks have been reported, adding a sense of urgency to the matter. 

COVID-19 Changing Food Insecurity: 80-90 percent of food consumed in the Caribbean region comes from other countries. With income from tourism drying up, additional layoffs and temporary business closures have the potential to spark an economic crisis. Uncertainty around the future food supply from the US and limited markets for local products pose additional challenges. However, the current crisis poses an opportunity to diversify local agriculture and cut down on food waste. 

Reviving Cotton: The Central Bank of Nigeria hopes to revive the nation’s faltering cotton sector. Assistance is being offered to every step of the cotton value chain, including processing. Starting with input distribution to 100,000 farmers across Nigeria, the Bank has a goal of 1.5 metric tons of cotton per hectare. National Cotton Association of Nigeria is working with the bank to identify 300,000 farmers to participate in the initiative.

https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/news_icon.pngDEEPER DIVE

How local can we get? International trade, labor, and supply chains are disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, causing many to turn to local food systems or even grow their own food. Yet global supply chains are incredibly complex, and no nation is entirely self-sufficient. Many grocery staple items that consumers depend on make their way through several countries before arriving in stores. Altering those international supply chains would be an immense undertaking, and is unlikely.   

https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/chart_icon.pngDATA CRUNCH

Blockchain for Grain: 12,000 farmers in emerging economies are subscribed and waiting to get started with a new company that uses blockchain to facilitate grain sales. Small farmers don’t always receive the price for their product that they are first quoted. GrainChain connects farmers to buyers to guarantee prices, while providing logistical support to their operations.


Opinion-A Diet for Immunity: Experience from other illnesses has taught us that malnourished individuals are more risk. We also know that certain nutrients can help boost immune systems and potentially help combat the novel coronavirus. During this global pandemic, it is essential to provide support to those experiencing food insecurity and begin broader conversations around a more nutritious food system. 

Saving Seeds: A plant virologist who developed virus-resistant super-seeds managed to take them with her when escaping violent conflict in her native Syria. In response to climate-related viruses spreading in Syria and surrounding countries, Dr. Safaa Kumari spent 10 years working on a virus-resistant seed to protect fava beans, a prime protein source for many in the region. Dr. Kumari is working to distribute the seeds for free to local farmers.



An Opportunity to Improve: Before the COVID-19 crisis, many families worried about how to put food on the table. Now consumers at every income level are paying attention to food—but what about governments and businesses? The crisis will affect the global food system, and governments, communities, and businesses have the chance reshape the food system to be more equitable for all. 
SEE ALSO: Preventing a Global Food Crisis

Growing Resistance: Prices for vegetables from China—90 percent of available produce—have gone up for shoppers in Hong Kong. Consumers are increasingly turning to local farms for their groceries, continuing a trend that began during the 2019 protests. Although a government rezoning proposal currently threatens to build homes on agricultural land, farmers are determined to continue growing.


Open for Comment: USDA is now looking for public and private sector input and comments into its recently revealed Agriculture Innovation Agenda. The Agenda aims to innovate for increased agricultural productivity and environmental conservation through private and public sector-aligned research. USDA will use public commentary to identify central research themes and efforts to concentrate innovation.

https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/market_icon.pngTRADE & COMMODITIES

The Price isn’t Right: Rice and wheat prices have risen sharply across the world, largely due to logistical issues. Between Vietnam and Kazakhstan banning exports of rice and wheat flour, respectively, and labor shortages for transporting commodities, prices of both commodities have increase over 10 percent. At the same time, overall food prices have fallen globally. The drop in the FAO’s food price index results from suppressed demand and a drop in oil prices. 
SEE ALSO: Thailand Expects Increase in Rice Exports

 https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/calendar_icon.pngUPCOMING EVENTS

Foodtank Live Virtual Interviews
Date: Daily

COVID-19 & Global Food Security Implications
Date: April 7
Time: 9 am CT

Virtual Launch - 2020 Global Food Policy Report: Building Inclusive Food Systems
Date: April 7
Time: 11:15 am CT

LIVE STREAM: Confronting COVID-19 in Latin American Cities
Date: April 8
Time: 4 pm CT

LIVE STREAM: Learning from COVID-19 to Fight Climate Change
Date: April 7
Time: 1 pm CT

African Green Revolution Forum
Date: 8-11 September
Location: Kigali, Rwanda

Please share any tips or thoughts on what we can do better here.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


1,000 Days Blog, 1,000 Days

Africa Can End Poverty, World Bank

Agrilinks Blog

Bread Blog, Bread for the World

Can We Feed the World Blog, Agriculture for Impact

Concern Blogs, Concern Worldwide

Institute Insights, Bread for the World Institute

End Poverty in South Asia, World Bank

Global Development Blog, Center for Global Development

The Global Food Banking Network

Harvest 2050, Global Harvest Initiative

The Hunger and Undernutrition Blog, Humanitas Global Development

International Food Policy Research Institute News, IFPRI

International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center Blog, CIMMYT

ONE Blog, ONE Campaign

One Acre Fund Blog, One Acre Fund

Overseas Development Institute Blog, Overseas Development Institute

Oxfam America Blog, Oxfam America

Preventing Postharvest Loss, ADM Institute

Sense & Sustainability Blog, Sense & Sustainability

WFP USA Blog, World Food Program USA


| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet. 

| By Janet Fierro

Guest Commentary - Rural Niger Women find Opportunity and Hope through Innovative Business Model

When researchers set out to find natural ways to manage a crop-destroying pest in sub-Saharan Africa cowpea fields they knew the results could have significant positive impact on smallholder farmers. What they may not have expected was the significance of the cottage industry it inspired and the entrepreneurial spirit of the rural women of Niger who led it.