Diets in a time of coronavirus: Don’t let vegetables fall off the plate

Vegetables are a key source of essential nutrition and play a crucial role in healthy diets. In this post, which originally appeared on 13 April 2020 on the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) website, Jody Harris, the World Vegetable Center’s Lead Specialist for Food Systems, explains that vegetable production, trade and consumption are particularly affected by COVID-19 because of their highly seasonal nature, high labor needs, perishability, and the need for good storage and distribution logistics—with significant implications for nutrition security.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has changed the world so suddenly and so enormously that the pandemic’s many food system effects will take time to fully understand. However, a food systems perspective suggests places we should monitor for potential disruption.

What we already know is that malnutrition in all its forms is increasing the underlying risk for the severity of the virus, and global levels of malnutrition were already hugely concerning before the pandemic. Unhealthy diets were a leading cause of death and disease before COVID-19, while healthy diets are a driver of immunity and overall health, so a focus on diets containing the nutrients we need to thrive, not just to survive, is crucial. Vegetables are a key source of these essential nutrients, but they also have very specific food system characteristics that shape the potential impact of coronavirus on our ability to keep them on our plates.

Vegetable production is marked by its highly seasonal nature, its high labor needs, and perishability of fresh produce and the associated need for good storage and distribution logistics. COVID-19 restrictions are already posing serious logistical challenges for the movement of food—a particular concern for perishables. Transport and quarantine restrictions are likely already limiting farmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as seed, which must be accessible during planting season. Labor for fruit and vegetable harvests is highly migratory around the world, including from low-to high-income countries, and travel is also being severely restricted.

Much vegetable produce is consumed close to its source, feeding rural communities or urban neighborhoods close to where it is produced. While we are not yet seeing widespread national disruptions in the availability of vegetables, traders’ access to traditional wet-markets—where much fruit and vegetable produce in low-income countries is sold, and which many poor people depend on as a food source—is being limited, and some local actions are restricting traders’ legitimate activities in troubling ways.

Vegetables are also among the faster-growing commodities in global trade, much of it from poor to rich countries. Increased trade costs and government restrictions to cross-border movement of vegetables have significant potential to disrupt trade, most likely through slower and more complex logistics that increase costs. Exceptionally, government interventions such as export bans might be imposed, not yet seen for vegetables but recently imposed for another nutrient-dense perishable, eggs, in Thailand.

In the short and medium term, accessibility of vegetables is a more pressing concern than availability: Healthy diets based on diverse plant foods were already too expensive for over 1.5 billion people in the world, and COVID-19 will only exacerbate this situation. Vegetable prices are highly sensitive to supply changes, and increased price volatility is therefore likely with COVID-related disruption. Meanwhile, layoffs and reduced incomes driven by lockdowns and other restrictions in the short term are compounding existing food and nutrition insecurity in many contexts, further reducing the affordability of vegetables for many.

In the short term, households facing uncertain incomes and uncertain access to shops under lockdown are expected to shift their demand. Demand for fruits and vegetables is highly elastic, so changes in affordability are likely to alter dietary patterns through a disproportionately large decline in consumption, with consumers favoring cheaper staples or less perishable processed foods. Households also choose food based on their own preferences and beliefs; one of these is food safety. Though the risk of transmission of COVID-19 through food is extremely low, concerns that produce could carry the virus may also be depressing demand. The value of comfort food—which often includes soothing starches rather than nutritious vegetables—in a time of high stress should also not be overlooked.

Both availability and accessibility issues play out differently for different groups of people: a clear equity issue. Much of Africa’s horticulture and vegetable selling is conducted by women, for instance, so the pandemic may disproportionately affect the incomes of women in agriculture. While COVID-19 does not distinguish between rich and poor, the diets of the most marginalized in society will be most affected, as with other major health shocks such as HIV/AIDS. Those with the power to make food systems decisions in the current crisis should look to protect the powerless from the worst impacts.

What should be done? In looking to protect healthy diets, policy debates should focus on the trade-offs between international trade and local or common production systems; consolidation in the food system that leaves government with few policy levers in times of crisis; and how the most vulnerable can be supported in access to healthy diets. Elaborating on the FAO’s initial list of three actions countries should follow in order to minimize impacts on food security, we should add a focus on healthy diets:

  1. Countries should meet the immediate food needs of their vulnerable populations. This effort should emphasize healthy foods where possible, and governments should support suppliers in making vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods available safely, including through more distributed or direct purchase markets or delivery systems. China, the world’s largest vegetable producer, maintains domestic supply in part through the national Vegetable Basket Project, which prioritizes vegetables as part of healthy diets, and logistical tweaks to this program may have improved access to fresh and nutritious produce for urban residents during the coronavirus lockdown.
  2. Countries should boost their social protection programs. Vegetables should be included in food basket or food bank programs. Cash-based initiatives should be strengthened, providing information and enabling food environments to prompt consumers to purchase healthy foods and support local markets. Home vegetable gardens, being taken up by households in many country contexts, are also a potential pathway to dietary resilience for those with access to land or less connected to markets.
  3. Countries should gain efficiencies and try to reduce trade-related costs. Horticultural producers should be included on countries’ lists of vulnerable yet vital industries to protect. Vegetables and their necessary inputs should be part of discussions on keeping national and global trade running. The huge migration of workers back to rural areas in many low-income countries under COVID-19 restrictions offers a potential source of agricultural labor, to support the industry and the workers themselves. In the longer term, some suggest international development actors might prioritize local vegetable markets as well as exports, diversifying food markets and food environments for greater resilience.

The seismic impact of COVID-19 has just begun to reveal important weak points in our highly interconnected global and local food systems, with hugely different diet impacts for rich and poor countries and households. Addressing those problems in the short- and medium-term is essential to prevent a rise in malnutrition and related health problems. Post-crisis, these efforts offer an opportunity to continue building more equitable food systems that promote healthy diets for all.

Jody Harris is a Senior Scientist and Lead Specialist for Food Systems with the World Vegetable Center in Thailand. The analysis and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.