Preventing a COVID-19 Food Crisis

The pandemic is amplifying the risk of a world-wide food-price spike, which would trigger outright crises in many developing countries. Governments must therefore work together to address disruptions to food supply chains and prevent food protectionism from becoming the post-pandemic new normal.

ST. PETERSBURG/SINGAPORE – Even before the pandemic, there were signs that global food prices could soon surge. Extreme weather events induced by climate change have become more common. African swine fever wiped out over one-quarter of the world’s pig population last year, causing food prices in China to increase by 15-22% year on year so far in 2020. And more recently, the worst locust blight in 70 years has destroyed crops in East Africa. In Kenya, the price of maize, a staple food, has risen by over 60% since 2019.

    COVID-19 is amplifying the risk of a worldwide food-price spike, which would trigger outright crises in many developing countries. In the poorest of these, food accounts for 40-60% of the consumption basket, about 5-6 times its share in advanced economies.

    While lockdowns have led to a collapse in demand for durable goods and discretionary services, the opposite is true of food. In cities around the world, reports of panic buying and food hoarding have proliferated since the pandemic began.

    On the supply side, global grain stockpiles are healthy but could quickly be depleted as the virus disrupts food production and distribution. And shortages of animal feed, fertilizers, and pesticides have increased both the costs of farming and the risk of bad harvests.

    Moreover, from harvesting fruits and vegetables in India to operating meat plants in America, labor shortages are becoming increasingly apparent as cross-border travel restrictions in much of the world disrupt the normal seasonal cycle of migrant farm workers. And transportation shortages are making it more challenging to get produce to market – when there is one.

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    © Project Syndicate

    © Project Syndicate

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