Commentary: From farmers to supermarket clerks, a new kind of essential worker has emerged

COVID-19 is a stark reminder of how vulnerable our food supply and the agricultural industry is to new threats, says Peter Ford.

Singapore has planned for food supply disruptions for years, putting in place a comprehensive strategy after the food crisis of 2007 and 2008, which saw the global prices of food shoot up dramatically due to trade shocks, rising oil prices and food stocks diverted to produce biofuels. (Photo: TODAY/Najeer Yusof)

SINGAPORE: Scenes of people standing at their balconies, clapping for frontline medical workers, were mirrored in many cities across the globe during COVID-19.

While the pandemic has rightfully thrust healthcare workers into the spotlight, a new kind of essential worker has also emerged.

From supermarket clerks and food delivery riders to those at the very heart of the food value chain, farmers – the people who ensure that food continues to reach our tables – have been among the unsung heroes of this pandemic.

In April, as COVID-19 spread to much of the world, the United Nations World Food Programme Executive Director David Beasley warned of a looming hunger pandemic.

“There are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse … But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.” he said in a virtual address to the United Nations Security Council.

The worst damage will be felt in the low-income countries least equipped to deal with the fallout from the pandemic.

For many of us, COVID-19 has made the concept of food security a reality for the first time. In a world where 60 per cent of the population has been under lockdown, emerging only to buy food, empty supermarket shelves have been an unnerving sight.

The exemption of agriculture from lockdown measures in countries across Asia Pacific helped to reduce the disruption to our food value chain, bringing to light the integral role farmers play in safeguarding our food security.

People buy eggs at a supermarket amid fears of a disruption in supplies after Malaysia announced the closure of its borders following the COVID-19 outbreak in Singapore, Mar 17, 2020. (Photo: Reuters/Edgar Su)

As we restart our economies, now is the time to ask ourselves: What more can we do for our farmers to build their resilience and ensure the continued supply of safe, nutritious and affordable food for all?


Unlike other regions, the main food providers in Asia Pacific are our 435 million smallholder farms – the majority of which have less than two hectares of land, compared to an average 179 hectares in the United States and 16 hectares in Europe – and often have limited access to newer technologies.

These smallholders produce up to 80 per cent of the food consumed in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, making our farmers producers to the world.

READ: G20 carbon ‘food-print’ highest in meat-loving nations: Report

With Asia Pacific’s population is expected to hit 5.2 billion by 2050, maximising productivity amongst smallholders whilst simultaneously conserving resources and preserving the land is critical to ensure that we all have enough food in the future.

This is easier said than done. COVID-19 is a stark reminder of how vulnerable the agricultural industry is to new threats.

Behind the scenes, the lockdown induced labour shortages, limited transportation and restricted distribution as markets, restaurants and other food channels shut their doors. This led to colossal amounts of wasted produce, threatening the livelihood of millions of smallholders in the region.

The pandemic also puts greater strain on the long-term challenges facing farming communities. Rapid urbanisation over the last 30 years has resulted in depleting arable land and a shrinking agricultural workforce, as younger generations flock to Asia’s cities.

The supply of local leafy vegetables and other produce from Malaysia has been affected by continuous rains, say distributors and farms.

A surge in the long-term demand for food clashes with poor agricultural infrastructure and low economies of scale – as small-scale farmers are unable to maximise productivity – preventing smallholders from accessing profitable markets.

All this falls against the backdrop of the climate crisis as increasingly erratic and extreme weather in the region can wipe out entire crop yields in a matter of hours.

an ever, farmers are finding themselves in greater need of support to weather the COVID-19 storm.


Recognising the urgent need to address the gaps exposed by the pandemic, governments in countries, including Indonesia and India, are revealing bold agricultural reforms to liberalise the sector.

In Indonesia, the government has dedicated around 6 million ha of land to produce basic food products such as rice, livestock and corn, while India is considering a “one nation, one market” system that will free farmers from tight market zones that limit the seamless transaction of goods.

As we rebuild the “new normal”, the decisions we make now have the potential to transform the way we feed the world in the future – to accelerate progress towards a more responsible food system which is kinder to our environment, whilst enabling farmers to flourish.

By focusing these efforts on the root causes of food insecurity – those that are having a direct and detrimental impact on our farmers – we can help them to protect against existing challenges and future threats to enhance levels of food security across the region.

A good place to start is the Global Food Security Index. Developed by the Economist Intelligence Unit and supported by the Corteva Agriscience, the index is an in-depth study of the state of food systems around the world.

A farmer harvests rice on the edge of the evactuation zone as Mount Agung volcano erupts in the background in Karangasem Regency, Bali, Indonesia, November 30, 2017. REUTERS/Darren Whiteside

By identifying the underlying factors which threaten food security at a country-level, the index is a tool to inform the practical steps we should take to strengthen the value chain.

Last year’s Index found several areas of focus for the region to boost the productivity and profitability of smallholders, and consequently, to strengthen our regional food security.

First, improving access to farm financing programs. Access to credit is instrumental in ensuring that farmers can obtain the best possible solutions to improve the quality and quantity of their crops.

The Index also calls for a significant boost in public sector investments in agricultural R&D, especially in countries such as India and China, where the industry has some of the lowest amounts of public investments in Asia Pacific, compared to countries such as Singapore and South Korea who are ranked first and fourth globally for investments into agricultural R&D.

Government investment in high-quality seeds and inputs, greener technologies and low energy- or water- intensive farming methods, such as direct-seeded rice systems, can drive the implementation of sustainable practices on a national scale.

Widening the adoption of agritech will also provide greater market access and improve productivity for smallholders. Digital solutions – which could allow farmers to streamline operations or connect directly to customers through digital platforms at low cost – can democratise the market for smallholders.


It is the responsibility of stakeholders across the value chain to drive sustainable progress in these areas – to increase the productivity, incomes and sustainable farming practices of smallholder farmers to build the resilience of our global food system.

Leveraging the resources and expertise of both the public and private sectors, educational programs in countries can equip farmers with critical know-how on seed and land preparation, marketing, financial management and new information on crop protection technologies.

These efforts will help farmers embed sustainability into their everyday work, increasing yield stability, optimising inputs, and protect against climate threats.

Whilst health and economic support remain the world’s current top priority, our region’s smallholders need us to make smart investments now, so they can continue to feed our population for generations to come.

The hands that feed us need practical, strategic initiatives to prepare them for the food security challenges of the future.