Asim Nisar Chaudhry
Following the coronavirus crisis, the world is now faced with a looming food crisis.
The heads of three global agencies have warned of the risk of a worldwide “food shortage” if authorities fail to manage the ongoing coronavirus crisis properly. Qu Dongyu, head of the UN´s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) and Roberto Azevedo, director of the World Trade Organization (WTO) have in a joint statement said:”In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage from developing”.
Some of the world’s biggest food companies, including Unilever, Nestlé and PepsiCo, along with farmers’ organisations, the UN Foundation, academics, and civil society groups, have written to world leaders, calling on them to keep borders open to trade in order to help society’s most vulnerable sections of population, and to invest in environmentally sustainable food production. They have urged governments to “take urgent coordinated action to prevent the Covid-19 pandemic turning into a global food and humanitarian crisis”.
According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) the global coronavirus pandemic may trigger a worldwide shortage of food. Although, there is no immediate threat, the global food system is likely to be affected over the next several weeks by the impacts of the COVID-19. To quote FAO, “We risk a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system.”
As per the latest media reports, border closures and disruptions to global trade have given rise to logistical bottlenecks. Quarantines and lockdowns are keeping farmers and food factors from processing agricultural products, particularly fruits and vegetables. There are also emerging shortages of farming inputs like fertilizers and veterinary medicines which impacting food production. Experts expect these factors to cause disruptions in the food supply chains in April and May.
In the overall context, the situation could turn for the worse if the number of COVID-19 cases were to rapidly increase in the 53 countries that are home to more than 113 million people who already face severe food insecurity. It is feared that the pandemic could prove particularly catastrophic in those areas that are already hit by other food-related crises, like the countries in sub-Saharan Africa that are contending with vast swarms of desert locusts that are devouring crops and threatening food security. Another warning has come from the World Economic Forum which says that COVID-19’s spread through Africa has increased greatly over the past few weeks and 41 African countries have recorded cases. In this connection, the Alliance for Science has quoted young scientists in Ghana saying that the coronavirus is already having a negative impact on food security. As in many other countries around the world, worried citizens there have turned to panic buying, but the situation in Ghana has been made worse by soaring food prices. A statement signed by three Ghanaian scientists warned that the nation’s “food supply in these difficult times is in trouble.”
This reading of the situation is supported by recent media reports that Africa is virtually sitting on a food security time bomb. The FAO is not only concerned about COVID-19’s impact on countries that have pre-existing hunger problems but also about small farmers everywhere are particularly vulnerable to the fallout from the pandemic, as they might be kept from their land by quarantine or other movement restrictions and their access to markets is also likely to be limited as long as the global food supply remains disrupted by the virus. The US is agriculturally rich, but American farmers are also said to be feeling the heat as they grapple with uncertainties around bringing in seasonal workers from Mexico to help get crops in the field and pick fruit ripening in the nation’s orchards. They are also trying to find new outlets in the wake of widespread restaurant and school closures. Despite the FAO’s warnings about a potential food security crisis, knowledgeable quarters are of the view that there is no immediate threat as worldwide cereal stocks are currently high. That is why many food economics experts say that they are not concerned that COVID-19 triggering a global food crisis. According to reports from various sources, the world at present has historically large grain stockpiles and also there are no current signs of a bad harvest or dwindling stocks. All fundamental food market indicators are in positive zone.
No doubt, worldwide grain prices have increased by 10-15 percent in recent weeks but that is largely due to by panic buying and uncertainty. In view of this, experts say that even if major grain-producing countries like Russia were to limit exports, it would not significantly affect the global food supply. However, the need to remain on high alert cannot be overstated. The countries in sub-Sahara Africa are particularly at risk