By Joseph Kanyamunyu
Although the deadly Coronavirus (COVID-19) is currently posing global health and economic threats, agriculture experts contend that the pandemic is poised to cause an even worse world food crisis, because of its adverse impacts on agricultural production and the food supply chain.
The Food Supply Chain is a complex web of interactions and of actors: producers, inputs, transportation, processing plants, shipping, etc.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic is still evolving, it is difficult to know the geographic reach and degree of impact it will have on food production and distribution systems.
The effects of Coronavirus are so adverse that they will manifest in several ways, but the ultimate phenomenon is going to be a long spate of famine across the world.
Actually, on Wednesday this week, the heads of three global agencies warned of the risk of a worldwide “food shortage” if authorities fail to manage the ongoing Coronavirus crisis properly to ensure steady food supply.
“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market,” said a joint statement signed by 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).
“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 shortages from developing,” they said in their statement.
Here are some of ways Coronavirus is set to adversely impact agricultural production and is bound to cause a world food crisis;
It should be noted that many governments around the world, including in Uganda, have put their populations on lockdown to prevent the spread of Coronavirus.
However, the lockdown has caused severe slow-downs in international trade and food supply chains, mainly because production at plantations and farms has since ceased, just like subsistence farming done.
There is currently no importation of food stuffs due to high perishability and limitations imposed by government on transport means.
This means that there is currently no agricultural production in several countries, Uganda inclusive, which in turn is going to result into severe famine for the best part of 2020/2021.
The minister for agriculture Vincent Ssempijja recently urged Ugandans to utilize this rainy season to cultivate crops. However, the suspension of public transport means, lack of food and the curfew not only limit people’s movements to and from their gardens but also curtails their access to agricultural inputs, which has slowed down farming in the country.
Bandwagon Purchase Of Food
Panic-buying of food items by people going into confinement has already demonstrated the fragility of supply chains as supermarket shelves emptied in many countries, yet there is no restocking because the suppliers (farmers) are no longer producing.
This means that very soon the demand for agricultural products is bound to increase along with prices, which will leave those who can’t afford the limited available food starving.
Absence Of Labour And Markets
Experts contend that in the long term, confinement orders and travel restrictions risk causing disruptions in agricultural production due to the unavailability of agricultural labour and the inability to get food to the markets.
“Such disruptions including hampering the movement of agricultural and food industry workers and extending border delays for food containers, result in the spoilage of perishables and increasing food waste,” said the three leaders in their statement about the effects of Coronavirus on food production.
They also stressed the need to protect employees engaged in food production, processing and distribution, both for their own health and that of others, as well as maintaining food supply chains.
History Repeats Itself
It is perhaps useful to reflect upon the food system disruptions that occurred during the 2013—2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa, primarily in DR Congo Guinea Bissau, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
Research studying Ebola Virus Disease’s (EVD) effect in Liberia found a reduction in incomes for households across the board, not just in the communities where EVD was present, leading them to suggest that the impact of the outbreak had both direct and indirect income effects.
They also “found that the community-level incidence of EVD negatively affected crop production of farm households, which may have exacerbated the problem of food insecurity throughout the country.”
In Sierra Leone, the EVD outbreak and the responses to it led to disruptions across the food chain that had “system-wide impacts” on food security and nutrition, on a scale similar to the fallout from disasters like earthquakes.
As government policies restricted people’s movements through road blockages and quarantines, markets became disrupted, leading to less available food, less diversity of options, and higher prices, especially on more scarce foods.
The Kivu EVD outbreak of 2018-2020 in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo disrupted food production and supplies in an otherwise humanitarian assistance-dependent context. This led to severe starvation, displacement and death not only due to violence but also famine.
Despite the effects of Coronavirus on the global food supply chain, governments across the world have a range of mitigating measures they can undertake to reduce the impact of the pending crisis and these include;
Stabilizing Food Prices
In China and Uganda we are already seeing an increase of food prices more than twenty percent above last year’s prices, the highest since the 2008 economic crisis.
This could be due to a host of coinciding factors, but may well include both hoarding, panic buying and food chain disruptions.
According to IFPRI, one lesson we can take from China is that food availability in Wuhan, where COVID-19 was first detected, has been somewhat stabilized through “green channels” that send food from outside production hubs, such as Shuoguang located hundreds of miles away.
Thus, having a diverse and decentralized food supply landscape linked through secondary cities and stabilizing food prices, has proven effective in reducing food insecurity in locked down urban and rural areas.
Some governments like in China, Canada, USA, Australia, South Africa and others have maintained agricultural production through Greenhouses, as a way of ensuring steady food supply for their people.
Experts also advise that government can ensure food security for their people by opening national reservoirs but rationing the supply to ensure that the food sustains their countries for a long time.
It should be noted that without adequate preparation, response plans, and resources, second-order impacts on the economy, security, food security, education, and more will be exacerbated by non-data-driven and possibly uncoordinated policy responses.
Agriculture Is Backbone of Economy
Experts also warn that shocks to the food chain may disrupt flows of production and trade, which can have volatile market effects and implications on both food prices and agrifood-based incomes.
Certain economic impacts will persist beyond the height of the pandemic. These may include increased disabilities in human/cognitive development due to extended lean season and other caloric shortages particularly among those who are already food insecure, which will lead to next-generation reductions in human capital and ensuing economic impacts, especially reduced production.
It is thus imperative that sound food security and agricultural policy are vital for countries to be able to weather viral outbreaks like Coronavirus and the shockwaves they send throughout food supply chains.