Before coronavirus affected more than two million people across the globe, more than 820 million people went to bed hungry. Global hunger could worsen due to the impacts of the pandemic, experts say. With the virus rapidly spreading in more and more cities, fears of food shortages caused by panic buying and supply chain disruptions increase.
While there’s enough food that can feed all of us during this crisis, a big question mark hangs over supply chains. Reports show that quarantine regulations and partial port closures are causing slowdowns and logistical hurdles in the shipping industry. Elizabeth Byrs, the senior spokesperson of the World Food Programme (WFP), said that while disruptions are so far minimal, we may soon expect to see disruptions in the food supply chain. This will likely happen if big importers lose confidence in the reliable flow of basic food commodities, which could result in more panic buying and drive prices up.
Arif Husain, the chief economist of the WFP, said that it’s still too early for an accurate assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. However, there are several indications that the pandemic could heavily increase existing food insecurity. “What is sure is that an economic downturn is to be expected at the global level and that this is likely to trickle down to developing economies. In these contexts, a slowdown in the economy can exacerbate existing food insecurity. It limits people’s ability to access nutritious food in different ways, including through reduced income or increased job insecurity,” Husain explained.
A Threat to Global Food Supply
Countries are having a difficult time continuing food production and transporting goods internationally due to border closures, movement restrictions, and disruptions in the shipping and aviation industries. There are reports that many containers of food, medicine, and other products on tarmacs and holding areas are stranded because airlines have canceled flights and ports have closed. Australia, for instance, is facing export pressure.
According to CNN, an American news-based pay television channel owned by AT&T's WarnerMedia, Australia exports about 65% of all its agricultural products. Nearly all of its major export markets are in the Asia Pacific region, with China spending the most ($8.9 billion). The country is followed by Japan ($4.5 billion), the US ($3.9 billion), South Korea ($3.4 billion), and Indonesia ($3.3 billion). Now that this crucial trade is under threat, the entire Australian economy is also under threat. If farmers aren't able to export their goods, it could cost the country tens of billions of dollars in lost income.
Some Asian countries will not be heavily affected like Hong Kong and Singapore. While both have tiny agricultural sectors and import more than 90% of their food, they are in little danger of food shortages. But, it’s not the same for import-reliant, low-income countries like the Pacific Islands. Reports show that the Pacific Islands rely heavily on imports for their food supply, with Tongo as the most important reliant with 43.3%. "The most at risk are those without solid economic bases, like Kiribati or Micronesia or Tuvalu," said David Dawe, FAO senior economist.
According to Phys.org, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, fears of supply disruptions have also become evident in India and the Philippines. Indian and Filipino farmers have had to dump their produce or feed it to livestock because of incapacity to transport them to urban markets. In other countries, social distancing measures have caused the shortage of labor to grow, process, and handle food. Other movement restrictions have also caused decreased availability of fresh produce like vegetables and fruits to consumers.
Husain said that for people in marginalized communities who rely on imports for their food and fuel needs and exports of primary commodities to pay for them, this pandemic could end up hurting them more than the disease itself. For them, the global economic recession caused by the virus will mean a lot more expensive imports and a lot less money through exports. According to Insight.wfp, an online site for the leading humanitarian organization, a poorer and more food insecure country could take a heavier toll on the economy than in those currently affected.
“Countries with high levels of food insecurity are generally more vulnerable and less prepared for an epidemic outbreak and would likely see higher mortality rates. In addition, malnutrition increases vulnerability to disease,” Husain added.
Ensuring Food Insecurity
In a joint statement, the directors-general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) said that food trade restrictions would disrupt the food supply chain, affecting food systems and all dimensions of food security across the world.
"When acting to protect the health and well-being of their citizens, countries should ensure that any trade-related measures do not disrupt the food supply chain," the statement said.
According to CGTN, an international English-language news channel, the international organizations called for cooperation in such a time to avoid food shortage and "panic buying," emphasizing the importance of guaranteeing trade flows as freely as possible and protecting food producers and food workers.
"Now is the time to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to our common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition, and improving the general welfare of people around the world. We must ensure that our response to COVID-19 does not unintentionally create unwarranted shortages of essential items and exacerbate hunger and malnutrition,” the leaders said.
However, experts said that countries could use this crisis as an opportunity for food security. Philippines and Singapore, for instance, have used this crisis to spur self-production, such as through increasing urban farming of vegetables. Hong Kong has also seen an increased demand for its existing urban vegetable farms which in turn have intensified planting. However, governments at the regional and global levels should also increase cooperation and coordination in all the dimensions of food security.
Husain said that the smooth flow of global trade will help secure food supply. “And monitoring food prices and markets — an area where WFP has longstanding expertise — and sharing relevant information transparently will strengthen government policies and prevent people from panicking,” he said.