Brock biologist leading international research on COVID-19 and food security in West Africa

COVID-19 lockdowns have seen shortages of a number of items, from toilet paper to lumber to disinfectant. But what happens in communities where the supply of food itself dries up?

That’s a huge problem in countries across sub-Sahara Africa where food security was already an issue before the pandemic. Fragile agricultural systems in which food is produced, transported and sold have been threatened or destroyed by lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions.

Liette Vasseur, Professor of Biological Sciences and UNESCO Chair on Community Sustainability, is lead researcher on an international team directed by the Centre for International Studies and Cooperation investigating the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food and social systems in Senegal and Burkina Faso.

This one-year project – “Assessing the response to the COVID-19 pandemic through social protection and the strengthening of local food systems” – is one of five initiatives funded with a total of $4 million by the federal government’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The team is working with the West Africa think tank Initiative Prospective Agricole et Rurale (IPAR) and two universities, Université de Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and École nationale supérieure d’Agriculture (ENSA) in Senegal.

“We’re trying to figure out how much food security has been impacted, not only in terms of food production but also access, transformation and quality of the food: what food do the communities have and do they have enough?” says Vasseur.

In conjunction with colleagues from Senegal and Burkina Faso, the team will document and analyze COVID emergency measures that the two governments have taken and will conduct interviews and focus groups in communities to see how peoples’ agricultural livelihoods and food access have been affected.

Vasseur says many political, economic, social and cultural factors complicate food security in the time of COVID.

“For women, there is also the question of power struggles and relations with men,” says Vasseur.

Most of these women also trade between countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali. “The restriction of transboundary work during the pandemic has significantly reduced their revenues,” she says.

Vasseur explains that the situation is rather complex as the area is battling malaria outbreaks as well, a life-threatening disease originating from a parasite transmitted by mosquitos. In 2019, 94 per cent of the world’s cases of, and deaths from, malaria, occurred in sub-Saharan Africa.

The high incidence of malaria may dwarf concerns over COVID-19, makes it more difficult to detect the virus and also threatens livelihoods, as people might be too sick to farm and sell their produce in urban and rural marketplaces, says Vasseur.

Lockdowns and social distancing requirements may also delay or stop shipments of seed and other agricultural inputs for use in the next growing season, which may result in little or no future harvests, she says.

In addition to exploring challenges in ensuring food security, the research team’s work will look at how communities are coping with COVID-19 and what measures they took to build resilience.

“The ultimate goal for us is to try to better understand the situation and, from there, find alternative solutions and considerations for government policies to increase food security in times of pandemics,” says Vasseur.

She says their research aims not only to address the current COVID-19 situation but also to better prepare for future pandemics of diseases such as influenza, Ebola and others.

Vasseur, who is a member of Brock’s Environmental Sustainability Research Centre (ESRC), has long been researching sustainability issues around the world. She is President of the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, Vice-chair (North America) and Chair of the Ecosystem Governance Thematic Group) at the Commission for Ecosystem Management of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and Visiting Scholar, Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University, Fuzhou, China.

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