Early COVID-19 responses in the seafood sector offer crucial lessons for dealing with future shocks in food systems

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New research on the impacts of COVID-19 disruptions to a highly globalised seafood sector, released by Penang, Malaysia-based Worldfish reveals crucial lessons for making food systems more resilient in the face of future shocks, limiting threats to global food and nutrition security, and their negative impact on livelihoods and local economies. WorldFish is an international, nonprofit research and innovation institution that creates, advances and translates aquatic food systems science into scalable solutions. 

Published in Global Food Security, the study outlines a food system resilience ‘action cycle’ framework to explore three central issues:

  1. the impact of COVID-19 on seafood systems at different levels;
  2. the types of responses and actions to restore critical systems functions; and
  3. distill critical learnings from current and past shocks to inform the way in which various actors and institutions can build resilience to effectively respond to future disruptions or large–scale food system disruptions. 

The seafood sector is highly globalised, while fish and other aquatic foods are amongst the word’s traded commodities with an estimated value of over US 162 billion in 2018. COVID-19 disruption to the seafood sector—particularly in low- and middle-income countries—has exposed critical food systems vulnerabilities, including power imbalances, disparities in nutrition and public health, and broader socio-economic inequalities. Disruptions in some regions are also magnified by existing stressors such as climate change, natural hazards (Pacific cyclone season, African locust season), resource management, and political or economic instability.  

 One of the paper’s authors Ben Belton, WorldFish Value Chain and Nutrition Senior Scientist and Associate Professor at Michigan State University, said: “In order to rebuild toward a more resilient food system, it is necessary to understand the scope of recent disruptions, impacts, and range of  responses. We mapped out the seafood sector’s early reactions to COVID-19 during the first five months of the pandemic; looking at impacts to demand, distribution, labor and production in the low- to high-income economies.” 

“Researchers, policymakers, and businesses can use the current responses combined with lessons from past shocks in order to build resilience. The paper proposes ways of learning from, anticipating and preparing for future impacts with a special focus on those most vulnerable.” 

Another author Eddie Allison, WorldFish’s Research Chair for Equity and Justice in the Blue Economy, said: “Aquatic foods are highly traded, both globally and regionally, and composed of many species and production and distribution strategies. Much can be learned about food systems in pandemics by studying COVID-19-related shocks and responses in the aquatic food sector.” 

“We are taking an approach to ‘build forward better’ not just get back to normal. We must think beyond the obvious need to react and cope and learn from the more successful coping strategies. Evaluating the success and failure of the temporary adjustments we saw at the start of the pandemic helps everyone in the sector think beyond the current crisis and start focusing on building longer-term resilience in seafood supply chains.” 

Lead author Dave Love, Associate Scientist, Seafood, Public Health & Food Systems Project at John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future based at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health said, “The seafood sector has faced many challenges during the pandemic. Our research can help the sector document the impacts as well as help the sector respond, learn, and become more resilient to future shocks.” 

“I am encouraged to see some businesses, institutions, and groups showing signs of greater resilience in the face of the pandemic, and hope the lessons they learn can be shared and more widely adopted.” 

Read the full study in Global Food Security here. The researchers recommend strategic research priorities to support learning from COVID-19 impacts and responses. They propose a series of key immediate and longer-term needs: 

Immediate priorities:  

  • Use survey tools to document and better understand COVID-19 impacts on people working at all levels in seafood value chains and seafood consumers in order to direct support to vulnerable actors in the seafood system.  
  • Learn from case-studies of actors in the value chain that have adapted to shifts in supply and demand of seafood so their strategies can be more widely adopted. 
  • Improve open data and data sharing platforms to facilitate the exchange of information about the societal impacts of COVID-19, to enable more rapid and coordinated responses to future shocks.  

Longer-term priorities: 

  • Design future response strategies to support small-scale fish producers and traders, draw on lessons from social safety net programs in other food sectors, and experience with implementing the Human Right to Food. 
  • Improve information systems to track fish prices and trade volumes typically consumed by different types of consumers to reduce wasted fish and enable value chains to respond to consumers’ nutrition needs and demand preferences.  
  • Focus resilience research on those parts of the aquaculture and fisheries system that supply populations most nutritionally dependent on seafood and those which, through employment, support food security of low-income value chain actors. 
  • Develop and apply an evaluation framework and resilience indicators for seafood value chains, that include social-economic, and environmental aspects, to identify and learn from resilience ‘hot-spots.’ 
  • Study temporal effects of the shock on employment in the sector, on migration, on the adoption of technologies for production and processing, to better design future crisis-coping strategies and recovery efforts. 
  • Understand how the fisheries and aquaculture sectors may or may not be different from other food sectors from a resilience perspective for COVID-19 and other large-scale disturbances.
  • Fig. 1. Food system resilience action cycle. Actors and institutions respond to- and to prepare for disruptions and ongoing environmental, political, and economic stressors using a series of reactive and preventative actions. Modified from (Tendall et al., 2015).

 

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