Food Security, Food Safety and COVID-19

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020

By Ariel Garsow

Individuals in low- and middle income countries experience a disproportionate burden of foodborne disease (Havelaar et al. 2015). In other words, individuals with lack of access to financial or other resources experience more frequent or severe foodborne disease for a longer period of time. With the additional environmental stressors of COVID-19, an increasing amount of individuals will experience food insecurity. Being food secure means having access at all times to safe, nutritious food that is appropriate for one’s culture and lifestyle (Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion 2020).

Pre-pandemic, 820 million people worldwide were identified as food insecure (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations 2019), 135 million of whom were acutely food insecure in levels of crisis, emergency or famine (Food Security and Information Network, Global Network Against Food Crises 2020).

The image below shows the scale of acute food insecurity in Eastern Africa in the last year (Integrated Food Security Phase Classification 2020).

Acute food insecurity in Eastern Africa in the last year

To see data for other countries around the world, you can click on the photo.

Due to travel restrictions and disrupted supply chains from the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of individuals facing acute hunger could nearly double in 2020 (World Food Programme 2020).

In response to the impact of COVID-19 on food security, the United States Agency for International Development released a statement that, “in a vicious cycle, shocks to nutrition will increase vulnerability to COVID-19 and other diseases” (USAID 2020).

What might these shocks to nutrition look like for COVID19?  One illustrative example of a “shock to nutrition” is an increase in mycotoxins due to a locust plague. Mycotoxins are toxins produced by fungi that have been associated with adverse health outcomes such as stunting and liver cancer (Wu, Groopman, and Pestka 2014). Crop damage caused by insects or other pests creates an opportune environment for the fungi to grow and produce mycotoxins. The current locust plague is causing damage to crops which could lead to (1) an increase in food waste, since mycotoxin contaminated crops may be discarded or (2) adverse health outcomes due to the consumption of contaminated crops. Already, due to COVID-19, distribution of needed supplies to control the locusts is taking more time. Additionally, travel restrictions are barring individuals with expertise from traveling to locust-infested areas to provide assistance (Johnson 2020). 




It is likely that “shocks” like this will result from the COVID pandemic.  As COVID-19 continues to spread, attaining the UN Sustainable development goals “No Poverty” and “Zero Hunger” by 2030 is becoming even more challenging than they already were (United Nations 2020).



Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. 2019. “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.” 2019.

Food Security and Information Network, Global Network Against Food Crises. 2020. “2020 Global Report on Food Crises.”

Havelaar, Arie H., Martyn D. Kirk, Paul R. Torgerson, Herman J. Gibb, Tine Hald, Robin J. Lake, Nicolas Praet, et al. 2015. “World Health Organization Global Estimates and Regional Comparisons of the Burden of Foodborne Disease in 2010.” PLoS Medicine 12 (12): 1–23.

Integrated Food Security Phase Classification. 2020. “IPCINFO Website.” 2020.

Johnson, Kiersten. 2020. “Tracking the Perfect Storm in West Africa: COVID-19 & Desert Locusts.” 2020.

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. 2020. “Food Insecurity.” 2020.

United Nations. 2020. “About the Sustainable Development Goals.” 2020.

USAID. 2020. “Responding to COVID-19’s Impact on Resilience and Food Security.” 2020.

World Food Programme. 2020. “COVID-19 Will Double Number of People Facing Food Crises Unless Swift Action Is Taken.” 2020.

Wu, Felicia, John D. Groopman, and James J. Pestka. 2014. “Public Health Impacts of Foodborne Mycotoxins.” Annual Review of Food Science and Technology 5 (1): 351–72.

Ariel Garsow

Graduate Research Associate

CFAES Department of Food Science and Technology

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July 28, 2020 - 3:05pm --

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