The Millenium Bug threatens food supply systems - developing countries are also vulnerable, FAO warns

The so-called "Millenium Bug" - or Year 2000 (Y2K) problem - which could throw computers into chaos at the turn of the century, threatens serious repercussions for food supplies in developing countries. FAO has warned that, "at least in the near term, the Millenium Bug could prove to be one of the most dangerous pests threatening farmers, along with the locusts and brown planthoppers they have battled with throughout the centuries".

What is the Year 2000 problem?

For years many computers and computer programs have saved space by using only two digits to represent a year - 98 for 1998, for example. The first two digits were assumed to be 19. When the date changes from 31 December 1999 to 1 January 2000, that assumption will no longer be valid. The consequences could be dire. Computers rely on dates to time stamp and sort files and data, to make calculations and to initiate actions. Problems have already started to occur in many systems:

computers in food processing plants and warehouses have ordered tonnes of food to be destroyed after calculating that the period during which they could be consumed safely had ended almost 100 years ago, in 1900;

cash registers in supermarkets have rejected food purchases on cards that appear to have expired a century ago.

There is a substantial risk that around the turn of the millenium similar problems will erupt simultaneously all around the world, affecting both individual transactions and global systems.

This is an excerpt from an FAO brochure on Food, agriculture and the millenium bug. To download the brochure in pdf, click here

Computers control food production and distribution systems worldwide
FAO/19486/G. Bizzarri

Governments and industries in developed countries have been working for years to anticipate potentially disastrous problems with computer systems and all that they control as we enter the third millenium. The total cost of achieving Y2K compliance has been estimated by the Gartner Group at US$600 billion. But developing countries typically lack the resources and the capability to take the same precautions. In particular, very little attention has been paid to the dependence of agriculture and food supply systems on computers.

FAO has warned that the whole of the food chain - from seed supplies through to distribution networks and market information systems - is vulnerable to the Y2K problem: "Even small farmers who till their fields with ox-drawn ploughs probably rely on supplies produced in high-tech factories and transported thousands of kilometres over computer-controlled transportation networks." On the production side, this means that basic inputs like seeds and fertilizers could be threatened - as well as supplies of irrigation water and electricity.

Transportation is the weakest link in the food chain

Computer malfunctions are also likely to cause severe problems once crops are harvested in the processing, marketing and distribution systems that are crucial to food security at national and household levels. Most experts pinpoint transportation as the weakest link in the food chain.

In many countries, the computerized telephone switching systems are also thought to be highly likely to fail. Farmers, traders and ministries rely on telecommunications systems to deliver a steady flow of information on weather, prices and shipping. "If you don't know who needs grain," asked Geri Guidetti, who moderates an Internet forum on Y2K and agriculture, "if you don't know what global prices are ... what's going to happen to the normal grain commerce?"

The possible impact of Year 2000 problems on agricultural production, trade and transport poses a particular threat to:

  • countries that depend heavily on exports of agricultural commodities as a major source of income;
  • countries that rely on food imports and food aid to feed their people.

Contingency plans to cope with computer failure are one solution

FAO has advised that, in many cases, the most realistic approach may be to concentrate limited time and resources on developing and implementing contingency plans to cope with failures that countries do not have the means to prevent. Such plans would include diversifying sources of supplies and services in order to reduce the impact of failure by any one supplier, as well as taking steps to ensure that failures are promptly identified and alternative delivery systems are ready to be called on if computer systems fail.

In some cases, farmers and governments may decide to review the level of their food security stocks and inventories of essential agricultural inputs. But FAO warns that this should be done with care not to exacerbate the "Fear 2000 problem", whereby panic buying and hoarding could have worse effects than the feared computer malfunctions.

19 April 1999

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