The COVID-19 pandemic has created concerns about the stability of food security in affected countries. In China, where the virus was first identified, restrictions on movement have caused difficulties for meat production. This has exacerbated existing problems caused by African swine fever, a disease that has led to a 40 per cent reduction in China’s pork supplies. Farms have also experienced difficulties in accessing migrant workers, due to the travel restrictions. Additionally, Hubei, the province most severely affected by the virus, is China’s main producer of chemical fertiliser (Chinese agriculture uses more fertiliser than any other country). The province also produced nearly one-tenth of the country’s rice last year. The heavy toll COVID-19 has taken on the province makes it likely that recovery will take longer than in the rest of China.
China’s early experiences with the pandemic may provide some indication of what is to come for other affected countries. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has warned that the pandemic affects significant parts of both food supply and demand. According to the FAO, not only will the disease impact peoples’ livelihoods (and therefore demand for food), but it will also create barriers to accessing food, by restricting mobility and creating higher costs of doing business due to the tightening of credit. Because of this, the FAO expects that the pandemic could restrict access to a nutritious and sufficiently diverse diet, especially in countries that are already vulnerable to food insecurity.
Although there has so far been little reduction in food supplies in general, there are concerns that the pandemic may disrupt supply chains. Although most movement restrictions are on passengers and not cargo, trade flows have been disrupted. Exports to China fell significantly in the first quarter of 2020 and disruptions at ports in February prevented imports from being transported across the country in a timely manner. This stopped vital supplies from reaching farms. Furthermore, ports exceeded capacity, preventing refrigerated containers from being plugged in and causing some food products to go to waste. As China has started to recover, supply chains have become similarly stressed in other countries. In Europe, a lack of air freight, due to airport closures and difficulties finding truck drivers, has not only increased the time it takes to move supplies, but has also increased the cost of shipping.
While there have so far been no major blows to food availability in most places during the COVID-19 crisis, there are concerns that a number of flow-on effects may constrain the ability of poorer people to access food. In China, food prices increased by 21.9% on average in February, while pork prices jumped by 135.2%. As a result, food costs neared an eight-year high, making it difficult for vulnerable people to afford a sufficiently diverse diet.
The effects of COVID-19 on inflation have so far been subdued in much of the West, but the FAO has warned that lockdowns and panic buying may spur global food inflation in the future. Furthermore, there have been significant price increases across much of Africa, due to profiteering, panic buying and factors relating to the global trade environment (such as much of the continent’s dependence on China for imports). The FAO has warned that Africa is particularly vulnerable to the food-related consequences of the pandemic, partly because food production in Africa tends to be more labour-intensive than in other places and also because the majority of food crises are in Sub-Saharan Africa.
The COVID-19 pandemic also threatens to cause significant economic shocks, with the world’s largest economies likely to fall into recession in the coming months. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned that economies are already suffering from a more severe shock than during the 2008 financial crisis, or the September 11 terrorist attacks. It is unclear how bad the economic fallout will be, but the last global recession caused a spike in hunger around the world and forced the poor to limit the diversity of their diets.
As with the other effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the long-term effects on food security are currently uncertain. It seems likely, however, that food access and availability will be affected, to varying degrees, across much of the world.