Strict government-mandated measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 coronavirus could potentially spark food shortages around the world.
It’s limited exports, a lack of workforce, and people’s purchasing behaviors that could cause problems, however, rather than the issue being a lack of supply, experts say.
With fewer field workers tending to crops as well as export bans, issues could arise soon, according to Maximo Torero, chief economist of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.
Most retailers have reliable supply chains and have planned for interruptions, said Dr. Liz Goodwin, World Resource Institute senior fellow and director of food loss and waste.
“In the medium and longer-term, there should not be significant problems as a result of coronavirus,” Goodwin said in an e-mail to Global Citizen.
“However, short-term issues might arise because people buy more than they need and more than they normally would at any given time,” she continued. “This could result in short-term shortages at retailers — as has already been seen in stores in several countries.”
Here's a presentation where I explain how the #CoronavirusPandemic might affect food and nutrition, and lay out a detailed plan of action to keep the #foodsupplychains alive amid drawn-out lockdowns. @FAOhttps://t.co/Vr06Qqdo0g— Maximo Torero (@MaximoTorero) March 24, 2020
Once people reduce their purchases and their confidence in continuing supplies increases, retail shortages will subside, Goodwin said.
“The worst-case scenario would be that governments restrict the flow of food,” Torero told the Guardian. “Now is the time to protect the flow of food around the world.”
Governments do not need to restrict exports to protect their country’s food supply, Torero said.
Some countries, however, are already taking export precautions. For example Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest sources of wheat flour, has banned exports of the staple and set restrictions on buckwheat, onions, carrots, potatoes, and other vegetables.
Vietnam, meanwhile, the world’s third-largest rice supplier, has temporarily halted rice exports; and India, the world’s biggest rice exporter, is running into logistical roadblocks amid the country’s lockdown.
Border delays have also raised animal welfare concerns in the UK as it is taking longer to transport livestock, raising the risk of disease.
In food crises, trade barriers can change things quickly for the worse, Torero continued.
Most countries have enough food, but issues may still arise in the next couple of weeks and coming months when staple fruits and vegetables come into season without enough skilled laborers to pick them. The UK, for example, has already put out a call inviting British workers to apply to pick produce amid travel restrictions that are blocking seasonal laborers from entering the region.
Countries have yet to enforce regulations to ensure food can keep moving freely. Meanwhile, there need to be policies in place for the labor force to continue operating smoothly and protect workers, Torero said.
“Governments can keep the food supply chain operating and make sure there are enough workers to keep food markets from panicking," he said.
Torero recommends individuals avoid panic buying and hoarding food, and cut down on food waste to prevent food shortages.
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