Coronavirus presents ‘looming food crisis,’ FAO warns

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The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that the global coronavirus pandemic may trigger a “looming food crisis.”

While emphasizing that disruptions to the food supply are currently “minimal” and that “there is no need for the world to panic,” the FAO said that the global food system is likely to be affected over the next several weeks by the impacts of the COVID-19.

“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,” the agency wrote on its website.

The FAO said that border closures and disruptions to global trade are already creating logistical bottlenecks and that quarantines and shelter-in-place ordinances are keeping farmers and food processors from processing agricultural products, particularly fruits and vegetables. Shortages of farming inputs like fertilizers and veterinary medicines can further impact food production. All of these factors are likely to cause “disruptions in the food supply chains” in April and May.

‘A food security timebomb’

The agency warned that “the consequences could be drastic” 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. 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.

According to the World Economic Forum, COVID-19’s spread through Africa has increased greatly over the past two weeks and as of March 30, 41 African countries have recorded cases.

The Alliance for Science previously spoke with young scientists in Ghana who said that the coronavirus is already having negative impacts 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.”

“The hard reality facing us all is that Ghana is virtually sitting on a food security time bomb that some attention needs to be paid to,” they wrote.

The FAO said it was not only concerned about COVID-19’s impact on countries that have pre-existing hunger problems. Smallholder 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.

American farmers are also feeling the pinch 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 struggling to find new outlets in the wake of widespread restaurant and school closures.

Global stocks likely to stave off crisis

Despite the FAO’s warnings about a potential food security crisis, the agency stresses that “globally, there is enough food for everyone” in part because worldwide cereal stocks are currently high. It’s largely for that reason that Henning Otte Hansen, a food economics expert based at the University of Copenhagen, said he is not particularly concerned that COVID-19 is going to trigger a global food crisis.

“Normally, stocks have been extremely low during food crises but today we have historically large grain stockpiles and there are no current signs of a bad harvest or dwindling stocks,” Hansen told the Alliance for Science. “There are no fundamental market indications that we will have a food crisis.”

Hansen, who helps advise the EU on how COVID-19 will impact global agriculture, said that grain prices have increased by 10-15 percent in recent weeks but he thinks that is largely driven by panic and uncertainty. Even if major grain-producing countries like Russia were to limit exports, Hansen did not think it would be enough to significantly affect the global food supply.

“We’ve seen that Russia and Kazakhstan may restrict exports and that would increase the risk [of a global food supply crisis] but when compared to the size of the global stocks, it would be a minor threat and I don’t think it would impact the market in the long term,” he said.

Russia, the world’s third-largest wheat producer, is considering limiting its grain exports to seven million tons, while Kazakhstan has suspended its exports of staple crops and some vegetables until at least April 15, according to reports by Reuters.

Hansen didn’t think that these moves or any other potential export decisions by individual countries would affect countries in sub-Saharan Africa or Asia, as they “are often somewhat insulated from the world markets.” The food economics expert did agree with the FAO’s assessment that those countries could experience dire health consequences if regional food production were to be significantly affected by COVID-19.

This article originally ran at the Cornell Alliance for Science and has been republished here with permission. Follow the Alliance for Science on Twitter @ScienceAlly.

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