Covid-19: how to mitigate shocks to agriculture and food systems

Covid-19: how to mitigate shocks to agriculture and food systems

April 22, 2020

Covid-19: how to mitigate shocks to agriculture and food systems

Interview with Maximo Torero Cullen - FAO Chief Economist 

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis which is already affecting the food and agriculture sector”, say experts from Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, asking for measures to protect food supply chains and to mitigate the risk of large shocks, especially on the most vulnerable populations. 

FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero Cullen explains how to create and optimize plans to deal with the threats posed by the new coronavirus while keeping food systems alive.

This interview has been produced with the kind collaboration of the FAO Press Office.

As more countries adopt lockdown policies to contain and mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, is there a risk that we will run out of food?

The short answer is both yes and no. There is that risk, but we have plenty of ways to reduce its likelihood, and the sooner we adopt them the more we can avoid exacerbating the global health crisis. Right now, supermarket shelves remain well-stocked. But already we can see signs that pressures due to lockdowns are beginning to impact supply chains, such as the slowdown in the shipping industry. Disruptions, particularly in the area of logistics, could materialize in the coming months. Governments are rolling out large-scale campaigns against the coronavirus, and battle plans should include measures aimed at lessening the shocks to their food supply chains. These have to be kept alive, for everybody obviously and in particular for the most vulnerable, keeping in mind that the public health imperatives require everyone to collaborate and so must be possible for all. So the long answer, so to speak, is no because we can't afford to make the mistakes that would exacerbate suffering now.

What is the first step?

Coordinated policy responses encompass all steps, but let me emphasize the priority of bolstering capacities to enhance emergency food assistance and bolster safety nets for vulnerable populations. It's important that such measures (promoted by single governments to deal with the emergency; Ed.) are robust and credible, as predictability is essential in a situation where workers are being forced to stay home and practise physical distancing. To be sure, food banks and efforts by charities and non-governmental organizations can also be mobilized to deliver food.

What's the role of global food trade?

Global food trade has to be kept going. One of every five calories people eat have crossed at least one international border, up more than 50 percent from 40 years ago. Countries that depend on imported food are especially vulnerable to slowing trade volumes, especially if as has been happening their currencies decline. While retail food prices are likely to rise everywhere, their impact is more adverse when sudden, extreme and volatile, and where food costs account for a larger share of household budgets and where spikes can have longer-term effects on human development and economic productivity in the future. Countries should immediately review their trade and taxation policy options - and their likely impacts - and work in concert with one another to create a favorable environment for food trade. 

Beggar-thy-neighbor policies, which popped up in the form of higher export taxes or outright export bans by some countries during the global food price crisis of 2008, must be prevented. At the very least, we must make the Hippocratic Oath of doctors our own.

What about domestic markets?

The bulk of food-supply actions take place within countries, to be sure. But there are still supply chains, which in the case of farmers are a complex web of interactions. A global pandemic will quickly strain such webs, so to prevent food shortages, every effort must be made to keep them intact and moving efficiently. Insuring the safety of food-system workers is paramount, […]. More than a fourth of the world's farm work is done by migrant workers, so to avoid labour shortages visa protocols should be expedited, regardless of how counterintuitive that may seem right now. Just as frontline healthcare workers are hailed as heroes, those who staff the critical infrastructure of our food system deserve recognition and gratitude, not stigma and neglect, during these trying times.

What about smallholder farmers?

A paradox of global hunger is that, despite their activity, smallholder farmers in the rural areas of developing countries are disproportionately at risk of food insecurity themselves, with low incomes a major reason for that. It would be tragic if that problem were to be exacerbated, and their ability to produce food reduced, at a time when we are trying to make sure that food supply remains adequate for everyone. So policy makers must pay attention to them.  So what to do? Temporary cash handouts for poor farmers are essential, as well as grants to restart production. Banks can waive fees on farmers' loans and extend payment deadlines; capital can be injected into the agriculture sector to help small and medium-sized agribusinesses - and their work force - stay afloat. Governments can during the emergency make a point of purchasing agricultural products from small farmers to establish strategic emergency reserves for humanitarian purposes.

Are you optimistic?

We must and we will survive the coronavirus pandemic. But we must understand - now - the enormous damage that measures taken to combat it will inflict on our global food system. FAO has a lot of expertise on these matters and can help countries that need fast-tracked policy advice. By working together, we can mitigate that, and need to do so. Enacting the measures mentioned above, and actively seeking international cooperation, can help all countries brace for the battle to be engaged jointly.

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