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COVID-19 affects the global food system

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says the deadly COVID-19 or Corona Virus will have serious implications now and in the future for food production, agricultural supply chains and markets.

In a report released recently, FAO stressed that the food supply chain is a complex web that involves producers, agricultural inputs, transportation, processing plants and shipping, therefore as the virus spreads and cases mount, and measures tighten to curb the spread of the virus, there are countless ways the global food system will be tested and strained in the coming weeks and months.

As of now, disruptions are minimal as food supply has been adequate and markets have been stable so far. Global cereal stocks are at comfortable levels and the outlook for wheat and other major staple crops for 2020 is positive. Although less food production of high value commodities (i.e. fruits and vegetables) is already likely, they are not as yet noticeable because of the lockdowns and disruption in the value chain.

‘’We are already seeing, however, challenges in terms of the logistics involving the movement of food (not being able to move food from point A to point B) and the pandemic’s impact in the livestock sector due to reduced access to animal feeds and slaughterhouses’ diminished capacity (due to logistical constraints and labour shortages) similar to what happened in China,’’ the report said. As a result of the above, FAO expects the months of April and May to see disruptions in the food supply chains.

Furthermore, the report indicated that blockages to transport routes are particularly obstructive for fresh food supply chains and may also result in increased levels of food loss and waste. Transport restrictions and quarantine measures are likely to impede farmers’ access to markets, curbing their productive capacities and hindering them from selling their produce.

‘’Shortages of labour could disrupt production and processing of food, notably for labour-intensive crops. Spikes in prices are not expected in major staples where there is supply, stocks, and production is capital intensive, but are more likely for high value commodities especially meat in the very short term and perishable commodities,’’ it said.

FAO further stressed that developing countries in Africa are particularly at risk as the disease can lead to a reduction in labour force, and affect labour intensive forms of production (agriculture) but also because most of the food crisis countries are in Sub-Saharan Africa. ‘‘We know that it will eventually retreat, but we don’t know how fast this will happen. We also know that this shock is somewhat unusual as it affects significant elements of both food supply and demand.

Supply will be disrupted due to the disease’s impact on people’s lives and well-being, but also the containment efforts that restrict mobility and the higher costs of doing business due to restricted supply chains and a tightening of credit. Demand will also fall due to higher uncertainty, increased precautionary behaviour, containment efforts, and rising financial costs that reduce people’s ability to spend,’’ FAO said in its report.

FAO noted that the 2008 financial crisis showed what can happen when reduced income and uncertainty make people spend less and result in shrinking demand. “Sales declined. So did production. At the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a significant increase in demand. Food demand is generally inelastic and its effect on overall consumption will be likely limited, although dietary patterns may alter,” indicated the report.

“There is a possibility of a disproportionately larger decline in meat consumption (as a result of fears – not science-based – that animals might be hosts of the virus) and other higher-value products like fruits and vegetables (which are likely to cause price slumps).”
Food demand in poorer countries is more linked to income and here, loss of income-earning opportunities could impact on consumption. Fear of contagion can translate in reduced visits to food markets, and we expect to see a shift in how people buy and consume food – lower restaurant traffic, increased e-commerce deliveries (as evidenced in China), and a rise in eating at home.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 has had several sources of effects over the global economy. First, FAO noted that markets are more integrated and interlinked, with the Chinese economy which contributes 16 percent to the global gross domestic product. Thus, any shock that affects China now has far greater consequences for the world economy.

Second, the group reported that the supply shocks due to morbidity and mortality, but also the containment efforts that restrict mobility and higher costs of doing business due to restricted supply chains and a tightening of credit will affect economies leading to a reduction of economic growth. In March, the OECD cut its forecast for global economic growth in 2020 from 2.9 percent to 2.4 percent, which would be the lowest level since the financial crisis a decade ago, warning that a prolonged and more intensive coronavirus epidemic could even halve this figure to a mere 1.5 percent.

FAO reported that the demand will also fall due to higher uncertainty, increased precautionary behaviour, containment efforts, and rising financial costs that reduce the ability to spend. Finally, there is a significant devaluation of the exchange rate with respect to the US dollar, which will also affect the import dependent countries.

“Global food markets are not immune to these developments. However, they are likely to be less affected than other sectors that are more exposed to logistical disruptions and weakened demand, such as travel, manufacturing and energy markets. But given the complexity of the food value chains and the importance of trade and transportation, these could make them extremely vulnerable,’’ the report said.

While COVID-19 likely represents a deflationary shock for the global economy, reflected in early moves by the FAO Food Price Index, in the short term the real cost of a healthy diet may rise because of the increase in the cost of perishable commodities, which would have a particularly adverse impact on lower-income households and raise the price of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

This effect as shown in 2019 in The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, will most importantly be in countries with high commodity-import dependence. Here, the negative effect is stronger, as a one percent increase in commodity-import dependence causes an average increase in undernourishment of 3.8 percent per year. When the country is food-import dependent, there is an average increase in undernourishment of 8% per year. Furthermore, the demand shock will contribute to prolonging and worsening the effect.

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