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Covid-19 and the impact on food security and safety

Covid-19 and the impact on food security and safety interview image

Pieter Badenhorst, Director: Legal, risk and compliance, Afri Group Holdings

Coronavirus image

What started in a “wet” wildlife food market in Hubei, China has reverberated across empty food isles in supermarkets across the world. The Covid-19 pandemic has brought food security and safety firmly into the world’s spotlight. It will – and should –  inevitably lead to a global regulatory reform of food security and safety legislation.


According to the UN, food security is a situation in which all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active healthy life.

Africa, by far the world’s poorest region, will record the largest amount of population growth of any world region between now and 2050.  Africa’s population is expected to more than double, rising from 1.3 billion today to at least 2.4 billion by 2050.  Nearly all of that growth will be in the 51 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the region’s poorest.

A third of all people living in sub-Saharan Africa face severe food insecurity. They do not have enough money, or the resources to grow food, and regularly go for more than a day without food. This is caused by a combination of conflict, climate variability and weather extremes, according to the UN. New evidence continues to signal a rise in world hunger and a reversal of trends after prolonged decline.

It is clear is that global food production will have to increase dramatically over the next 30 years. In fact, it is estimated that we will have to produce between 25 and 100 per cent more than current levels.


Food security is dependent on food safety. A breach of food safety leads to food insecurity.1 Where malnutrition traditionally has been an African and Asian problem, Covid-19 has unequivocally demonstrated that food safety is a worldwide concern.


Covid-19 should not have come as any surprise to the world.

Three out of four new or emerging diseases in humans are transmitted by wildlife or livestock, according to estimates published by the Centres for Disease Control.

Covid-19 in all likelihood is a result of a breach of food safety.

Scientists now suspect Covid-19 originated in a bat, presumably at a “wet” wildlife market in Hubei, hopped to another animal, possibly the pangolin, which then passed it on to humans. The disease is now spreading between people without any animal intermediary.

The SARS outbreak in 2002 led to more than 8,000 infections worldwide with a mortality rate of 10%. It was caused by a coronavirus that jumped from bats to farmed civet cats bred for human consumption in China and on to humans. MERS originated in bats, jumped to camels and then to humans. The deadly Ebola virus originated in bats and jumped to primates.

Viral diseases do not only impact humans directly, it also threatens their food supply. African swine fever originated from wild boars and decimated the pork herds of China, the world’s largest supplier and consumer of pork. Avian flu originates from wild birds and then infected poultry stock in China, Brazil, Europe and the US.

Viral diseases do not only impact humans directly, it also threatens their food supply.

Closer to home, South Africa suffered the largest outbreak of listeriosis in history, which killed 180 South Africans. Listeria is bacteria that infected processed meat. South Africa also recently suffered the viral Foot and Mouth disease outbreak in its cattle herds, which led to bans on auctions and exports with devastating financial effects for cattle farmers.


Similarly to the Enron scandal which led to the Sarbanes–Oxley Act and the 2008 financial crisis which led to a an immense volume of financial market legislation, the Covid-19 pandemic and other virulent diseases will – and should –  inevitably lead to a comprehensive global regulatory reform of food security and safety legislation.

On February 24th, 2020, the 13th National People’s Congress issued a decision “Comprehensively Prohibiting the Illegal Trade of Wild Animals, Eliminating the Bad Habits of Wild Animal Consumption and Protecting the Health and Safety of the People.” as a direct responses to Covid-19. China, however, has had wildlife trading bans on the books for three decades, but these have not stopped pangolins from becoming the most trafficked mammal in the world, nor have they prevented the spread of Covid-19 and other viral diseases.

China’s first wildlife protection law dates back to the late 1980s and includes an official list of some 330-endangered species. Illegally poaching, smuggling or trading pangolins, for instance, can carry lengthy prison terms. In 2000, China issued detailed regulations for more than 1,700 protected species considered to have biological, scientific or social value. In 2007, the sale of pangolin products outside of specially-certified hospitals and clinics was outlawed. As recently as 2018, Hubei Province, in which Wuhan is located, cracked down on unlicensed hunting and trading, but none of this has helped curb the trafficking of pangolins. Enforcement of legislation has been lax, and there were exceptions for licensed retailers. The latest ban also has loopholes that will allow the trade of wildlife for medicine or research.

It is clear therefore that not only global regulatory reform, but the universal strict enforcement of such legislation is required to protect food safety and humanity from viral diseases. If not, Covid-20 or 21 is a certainty.

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