Fractures and resilience of agri-food value chains in the context of COVID-19: a review of recent evidence
Value chains change over time, often in sudden, unpredictable ways in response to internal and external shocks. The COVID-19 pandemic is a prominent example of an external shock that, abruptly and unexpectedly, has led to disruptions in agri-food value chains affecting segments, entire value chains, or food systems at large. Farmers, processors, and traders have been facing the consequences of the pandemic including the effects of policy measures to limit the spread of the virus. Policy makers and NGOs alike have adopted mitigating policies, strategies, and interventions to minimize disruptions, absorb supply and demand shocks, provide relief to affected producers and consumers, and support the recovery of food chains. This paper reviews the literature on agri-food value chains published up to September 2021 for evidence of fractures and resilience in the context of the pandemic. The review includes 140 publications that met established criteria of methodological robustness. Geographically they focused on Asia and the Pacific (41%), Africa (31%), Latin America and the Caribbean (6%) and the Global North (2%) or had a cross-regional or global focus (21%). Agricultural producers (80%) were the principal value chain actors addressed, while retailers (38%), consumers (29%), food processors, and itinerant traders or wholesalers (27% each), input dealers (19%), transporters and distributors (12%), and providers of technical, business, or financial services (8%) were less covered. Commodity focus was on cereals and other staples (49%), fish and other aquatic products, fruits and vegetables (44% each), poultry and eggs (30%), meat (20%), milk and dairy, forest and tree products (6% each), or general agricultural products (20%). Based on existing evidence, disruptions induced by the pandemic affected primarily value chains of perishable products, such as meat, poultry and eggs, milk and dairy, fish, and fresh produce. Fractures were mainly caused by the disjuncture between farm production and food markets due to lockdown measures limiting the movement of people and goods and involving partial closure of markets. Logistics disruptions also reduced farmers’ access to agricultural inputs, such as seeds, animal feed, fertilisers, and agrochemicals, particularly in value chains for fish, poultry and livestock products. Less perishable products typically fared better in view of longer shelf life and public procurement programs prioritizing cereals and other staples. Price fluctuations were reported across numerous value chains, mostly for the tightest lockdown periods. In general, farm gate prices for producers decreased as logistics disruptions caused a disconnect between supply and demand. Retail and consumer prices, in turn, rose as limited supplies reached the market. Prices mostly returned to pre-pandemic levels shortly after lockdowns had been relaxed unless factors other than the pandemic were at play. Worst-case scenarios involving a collapse of agri-food value chains and resulting famines have not materialized. The interplay between private sector response, public policy, and NGO support has prevented a catastrophic downturn in food production, mounting food losses and waste, and major disruptions at retail level. Still, agri-food value chains remain vulnerable, especially in low-income countries and where pre-existing business conditions and shortcomings in regulatory frameworks continue to hamper value chain development. But value chain stakeholders and policy makers can now draw on experiences and insights that inform mitigating policies and private sector responses in future pandemics. In support of better preparedness, more in-depth analysis is needed to better understand pre-existing conditions and their bearing on value chain performance as well as mid- and long-term effects of specific policy, private sector and civil society interventions in agri-food value chains in response to the pandemic. Addressing shortcomings in public policies, regulatory frameworks, and public-private investments can bolster the resilience of agri-food value chains.