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".
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:
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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