Global food security was further hampered by the coronavirus pandemic, which aggravated the global hunger crisis. Moreover, food insecurity in China is driven by food waste, which is connected to cultural norms that are deeply rooted in Chinese society. Applying a gender-sensitive approach to such issues may be particularly successful, as women often play a fundamental role in food systems. However, this role is frequently not recognized (especially in developing countries), leading to a loss of concrete opportunities to mitigate food supply chain issues.
Selected daily news on food chain disruptions and countries responses to the COVID-19 impact on food chains.
FOOD CHAIN DISRUPTIONS
The coronavirus pandemic has aggravated the global hunger crisis because of the disruptions it caused all along the food supply chain. Women have a fundamental role in agriculture (and therefore in the food system), but especially in developing countries the part they play is often invisible. An exception is represented by the so-called “market queens” in Ghana, who manage very prominent markets in towns and have recently developed a system of rotating vendors and expanded the physical space for the market, so that vendors can be more spread out. Solving the gender inequalities that cripple food systems around the world would be key to mitigate the hunger crisis.
A 2015 estimate by the FAO underlines that China wastes up to 35 million tons of food annually, which account for around 6% of the country’s annual food production. These staggering numbers partially have their roots in cultural norms: in Chinese society, preparing or ordering more food than necessary has long been regarded as a symbol of hospitality. Over the years, on the one hand people in China gained more disposable income, and on the other public funds were used for official receptions that included extravagant dining.
IMPACT ON COMMODITIES AND FOOD PRICES
The prices of fundamental staple commodities like rice, maize and wheat have increased in Brazil and Ethiopia. More in particular, rice prices were driven by a weak currency and an overall low productivity in Brazil’s main rice-producing state, while maize and wheat prices rose in Ethiopia because of transport disruptions and other difficulties along the food supply chain, caused by the measures that were taken by the government to limit the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the Centre of Advanced Studies in Applied Economics (Centro de Estudos Avançados em Economia Aplicada), the average rice price in Brazil’s main rice-producing state of Rio Grande do Sul has increased by 17% to BRL 75.90/50kg over the last month, which represents a 74% year-on-year increase. This was partly caused by a relatively low production, and partly by the fall of the real against the dollar this year, due to economic uncertainty. The weakness of the real also determined an increase in rice exports (which totalled 701,061 tons) due to a lack of competition.
Due to transport disruptions in Ethiopia (possibly caused by unrest in early July) maize prices increased in some monitored markets (which generally reported low demand dynamics), and the availability of fruits and vegetables across Ethiopia diminished. The prices of other key staples (sorghum, teff and wheat) remained generally stable albeit high, with some minor increases as availability narrowed due to seasonality and to the restrictions caused by the coronavirus lockdown. Cross-border supply corridors for imported food items remain open, and various supply chain factors in Somalia could impact on the future availability and prices of imported food items.
In the United States, academic institutions and state administrations are focusing on reducing food insecurity levels by providing financial support (in Massachusetts under the Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program) and by investing in technological improvements that allow farmers to leverage on digital tools in order to mitigate the negative effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Furthermore, different companies worldwide are investing in blockchain developments to improve the transparency around the products they process and distribute, and to better manage food supply chains.
The Virginia Cooperative Extension, an educational outreach program of Virginia’s land-grant universities and of one of the agencies of the US Department of Agriculture, is developing innovative solutions and digital tools that help farmers adapt to the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, it has been working to facilitate the coordination between farmers and various organizations that led them towards direct-to-consumer sales with online e-commerce software or by curbside service, and modified the community-supported agriculture models.
The food and beverage industries worldwide have been relying on technologies including blockchain amid the coronavirus pandemic, in order to better trace and manage food supply chains. IBM, for instance, will assist a renowned consumer packaged goods company in tracing a specific single-source coffee brand through a food tracing platform built on IBM Blockchain, thanks to which consumers will be able to immediately access to information through QR codes on the packaging (improving transparency for both the manufacturers and the consumers).
Following the recommendations from the administration’s Covid-19 Command Centre’s Food Security Task Force, the governor of Massachusetts has recently announced the second round of a USD 36 million Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program (which amounts to USD 3.3 million) to address the rising levels of food insecurity in the state. The program will also make sure that farmers, fishers and other local food producers are better connected to a resilient food system, in order to mitigate future food supply and distribution issues.
The disruptive effects of the coronavirus pandemic on African food supply chains are widespread, and specifically affected the tea and coffee industries respectively in Kenya and Ethiopia, which are particularly susceptible to transport limitations. Such issues further expose the flaws of the African transport infrastructures, which are poor and scarce; however, governments and international donors have been focusing on this area lately, and have achieved substantial developments in countries like Liberia, Tanzania, Uganda and Egypt, where inland water transport is particularly important for agriculture.
Africa has the lowest density of roads in the world (around 204 kilometres per 1,000 square km), meaning that the potential for growth due to improvements in transportation infrastructure is large in the continent. This is why governments and donors in Sub-Saharan Africa have devoted more and more resources to the construction and rehabilitation of roads: the World Bank, for example, commits a larger share of financial resources to transport infrastructure, rather than education or health. This is especially true for Liberia, Tanzania, Uganda and Egypt, where inland water transport developments provide effective support to the agricultural production and trade.
The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on trade and value chains in Ethiopia and Kenya have been analysed in a working paper that was released jointly by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute and the UN Economic Commission for Africa. Food shortages, price hikes and breakdowns are widespread in Kenya, where the tea and cut flower value chains have been particularly affected (because of the transport limitations for fresh agricultural products), similarly to Ethiopia’s coffee supply chain. The implementation of the African Continental Free Trae Area will be fundamental to mitigate such issues and improve the resilience of the value chains throughout the continent.
The EU-27 heads of state are currently discussing proposals to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (the EU policy to provide financial support to farmers), which are based on the European Commission’s intention to focus on the protection of the environment, but will also take into account the changes to the European economies that were caused by the coronavirus pandemic. For example, the Commission intends to increase the portions of sustainable agricultural lands (which are treated with 50% less fertilizers) to 25% by 2030.