Food Nationalism amid Invisible Enemy

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Syed Tahir Rashdi;

A handful of countries are hoarding food items to ensure supplies for their population as the virus crisis deepens. The export curbs could prove especially harmful for poorer nations that survive on imports. As COVID-19 continues to disrupt trade flows and keeps billion people under lockdowns, some grain exporters, including Russia and Kazakhstan, by restricting or planning restrict exports to ensure enough supplies for their own populations. The export curbs take place against the backdrop of panic buying that has left supermarkets with aisles of empty shelves. The scarcity is not due to a shortage of supplies but to logistical hurdles created by measures to contain the pandemic. Experts fear restrictions on the exports of wheat and wheat flour could lead to higher prices of essential items such as bread, proving lethal for many of the poorer countries in Africa that rely on imported food. High bread prices are known to have sparked riots and caused political instability, especially in Africa.

“Since most poor countries, many of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, are net food importers, sudden price hikes will almost inevitably raise poverty and hunger, because these countries have very limited capacities to respond to shortages and price rises e.g. by drawing down buffer stocks,” Rainer Thiele of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy told DW. Trade restrictions are reaking supply chains, and coronavirus lockdowns are preventing laborers from working on farms. Countries need to step back and stop panicking. The coronavirus has focused the world’s attention on the woeful lack of ventilators, respiratory masks, and intensive care unit beds available in many countries. Far less attention has been paid to another pandemic-driven shortage lurking over the horizon: food. This bolstered demand, pushing prices up even further. As prices shot up, the result was devastating for the world’s poor. Insufficient food increased malnutrition, especially in children, and plunged already poor people deeper into poverty. Today, trade restrictions and panic hoarding will only intensify the crisis and further disrupt supply chains. Municipalities in Argentina, the world’s largest exporter of soybean products, closed the roads in major soybean production areas—ignoring a federal government order to keep them open. This resulted in Country’s grain supplies sharking by half until the municipalities loosened restrictions. With planes grounded, Canadian imports of onions and eggplants from India plummeted over the past two weeks. Unlike previous food crises, this one stands to be exacerbated by global restrictions on movement. Millions of migrant workers involved in agriculture and food production are now immobile because of border crackdowns. This has left produce unharvested and much-needed food left to rot in fields. Seasonal laborers from Eastern Europe are missing on the farms of Spain, Germany, Italy and France. The U.K. government, desperate for farm labor, has looked to tap its reservoir of unemployed to pick strawberries or cut asparagus. India has limited rice exports due to labor shortages. The production of staple crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans has been less affected by lockdowns, as their harvests are largely mechanized. But the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables depends on people, not machines, to harvest, process, and package them. Fruits and vegetables are also perishable, so logistical problems pose even more threat to their supply. Shipping accounts for 90 percent of all global trade, including food trade. Due to border closures, commercial ships can’t freely access ports or change crews. This makes no sense, as ports can be maintained with a small staff, whereas their shuttering would have a catastrophic effect on trade. To be perfectly clear, there have been just a handful of moves and no sure signs that much more is on the horizon. Still, what’s been happening has raised a question: Is this the start of a wave of food nationalism that will further disrupt supply chains and trade flows? We’re starting to see this happening already — and all we can see is that the lockdown is going to get worse,” said Tim Benton, research director in emerging risks at think tank Chatham House in London. Though food supplies are ample, logistical hurdles are making it harder to get products where they need to be as the Coronavirus unleashes unprecedented measures, panic buying and the threat of labor crunches. Consumers across the globe are still loading their pantries — and the economic fallout from the virus is just starting. The specter of more trade restrictions is stirring memories of how protectionism can often end up causing more harm than good. That adage rings especially true now as the moves would be driven by anxiety and not made in response to crop failures or other supply problems.

As it is, many governments have employed extreme measures, setting curfews and limits on crowds or even on people venturing out for anything but to acquire essentials. That could spill over to food policy, said Ann Berg, an independent consultant and veteran agricultural trader who started her career at Louis Dreyfus Co. in 1974.