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Global Forum on Food Security and Nutrition • FSN Forum

Re: Responding to the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on food value chains through efficient logistics

Christian Häberli
Christian HäberliWorld Trade InstituteSwitzerland

First, allow me to share the “relatively good news” in these difficult times (don’t we all need a break from bad news?).

The Covid-19 fallout on agrifood trade is so far quite limited! The WTO Secretariat has established a new Website “Covid-19 and world trade” (https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/covid19_e/trade_related_goods_measure_e.htm). For perhaps the first time, it consists not only of government notifications (actually, extremely scarce). Most measures listed in the field of merchandise trade were actually notified or found by other organisations and in internet searches. By 12 June 2020, and of a total of 199 Covid-related entries, only six trade restrictive measures concern foodstuffs, in the form of export bans or quotas, or export licensing (in order to ensure local food availability). As many measures are actually facilitating trade (tariff waivers, VAT elimination, exemption from weight control of food transporting vehicles). All measures are temporary, and at least one has already been lifted (adjournment of new export licensing).

Other news is less good, under a global welfare enhancement free-trader philosophy – and in a poor and mainly importing developing country perspective. “Go local” is not only a necessity, or a simple “confined consumer” preference; it now comes under the ominous name of “shortening supply chains” and is actively promoted by governments wanting to add local value, at the expense of their consumers and of more efficient producers abroad. This rings a bell for those having to reckon with, for example, “America first” or “strategic sovereignty for facemasks” politicians. For staple food, and regardless of their WTO-compatibility or impact on foreign suppliers, such trade and investment measures may well increase what some other idealists call “food sovereignty” but which, in more sober terms, might well end the vital contribution of trade to global food security.

Another hurdle for food aid providers has had a too long life. Despite the calls by the Directors-General of FAO, WHO and WTO, food export bans apply even to the procurement of international food aid by the WFP or the ICRC. When you remember the G8 and G20 endorsements and commitments for a (WTO) prohibition of such bans, back in the food crisis 2007-09, you wonder what kind of pandemic is needed if even Covid-19 cannot bring governments to listen to the world’s best economists that these export restrictions are bad for their own farmers.

Governance is hard to come by in a crisis. Nevertheless, perhaps we can still learn lessons before the next global crisis hits our screens?