How the coronavirus disrupts food supply chains

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The coronavirus is putting each link of the food supply chain under immense stress. From agricultural production and transportation to supermarket sales, governments around the world face tough political decisions to stem rising food costs and the real possibility of economic and humanitarian crises.

Some countries have begun to stockpile certain provisions or impose strict trade restrictions to ensure domestic supply. Some key suppliers, such as Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Russia have limited, or are considering, limiting their food exports.

The United States exports more food than any other country, but even America has experienced periods of decline and growth over the last 20 years. This is largely due to two main factors: the diversity of crops and the volatility of international demand.

Farmer/ProducerProcessorDistributorRetailerConsumer

PRODUCERS

ELEVATED RISKS OF FARM WORK DISRUPTIONS

The availability of seasonal workers is the most pressing issue. As an increasing number of countries restrict the movement of people to prevent the coronavirus spreading, migrant workers find themselves unable to work on French farms or pick fruit in Australia. Labourers also risk infection by working and living in close proximity to others, and transiting to and from work. Lockdown restrictions also limit farmers’ access to markets to purchase and sell produce. Consequently, produce begins to accumulate on farms, resulting in food loss.

FARM LABOUR

The rich agricultural regions of Europe rely on seasonal migrant labour, mostly from Eastern Europe, and provide limited-time work visas for hundreds of thousands of workers.

EUROPE’S GIG ECONOMY

Temporary workers in countries with more than 10 per cent of workforce in temporary employment

CROP CALENDARS

Crucial months for the food supply chain in producer countries

FOOD SUPPLY PROBLEMS BEFORE COVID-19

The pandemic is likely to affect food prices internationally and plunge developing economies into deeper debt. If the world can cooperate internationally and agree to activate food markets, vulnerable populations might be sheltered from dramatic food shortages.

A number of countries were facing food shortages before the Covid-19 outbreak. Here are some of the problems:

DESERT LOCUSTS

Plagues of desert locusts are threatening crops and food security, as well as livelihoods in the Horn of Africa, and beyond. The fast-moving swarms ravaged Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia during the rainy season when the planting season begins, which is also when locusts lay their eggs. These hatch in May, giving rise to new swarms in June and July — the harvest season.

Desert locusts can eat their own weight in a single day with swarms containing hundreds of millions of insects that bear two to five generations per year. They migrate over long distances and have already travelled as far as the west coast of Yemen on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula.

Swarms have also been seen along the coastline with Oman and north of Aden with hopper bands detected in Iran and Pakistan.The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned in January that the number of locusts could increase 500-fold by June.

AFRICAN SWINE FEVER IN ASIA

The virus causes a haemorrhagic fever resulting in a high level of mortality in domestic pigs. In some cases, the animal can die as quickly as a week after infection. Countries that have experienced contagion risk spreading the disease to other countries in East and Southeast Asia through the movement of live pigs and pork products. As the largest number of pigs are produced in Asia, especially China, the escalation of the virus will severely affect the health of livestock and food security at a global level.

OUTBREAKS SINCE 2019

Domestic pigs with sporadic cases reported in wild boars

FOOD SECURITY

“Food security means that all people, at all times, have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life” — United Nations

Food security is vital for all countries, rich or poor. Factors causing food prices to fluctuate can create unpredictable markets with the potential to escalate into economic crises, social unrest and even the collapse of a government in an unstable country wholly dependent on the import of food.

COUNTRIES IN NEED OF EXTERNAL SUPPLIES OF FOOD

Percentage of imported food

Typically, countries dependent on food imports tend to be small with land reserved for urban planning. Countries such as Djibouti, Tuvalu or Brunei have virtually no space for agriculture. Other countries that depend heavily on food sourced elsewhere include the Middle East, some Asian countries, as well as developing nations in Africa.

Some countries like the United States, China, Germany, Japan, Britain and other developed economies are large importers of food, but this does not mean those countries are food insecure. It is important to understand that many countries importing large amounts of food are also among the richest, and are potentially capable of becoming fully self-sufficient if they so choose. In these cases, the importation of food is due to the desire for a greater diversity of produce to satisfy demanding consumers, not to guard against famine.

CASE STUDY: SINGAPORE

Singapore is highly urban, with arable land particularly inaccessible. The island city-state has 724sq km with just one per cent allocated to food production.

In 2017, Singapore imported 90 per cent of its food from 170 countries, one of the highest percentages in the world. Food destined for Singaporean plates comes from neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, as well as from as far away as Argentina and Uruguay. In recent years, this has led to significant increases in prices and shortages of products like eggs and some types of fish and shrimp, particularly from Malaysia.

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