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Coronavirus disrupts global food supply chains

14 May 20206 min reading

Across the globe, millions of farmers cannot get their produce to consumers because of lockdowns that aim to stop the spread of coronavirus. In absence of labor, transport, fear of pandemic, farmers staring at disaster, as nations head for possible food shortage.

In many parts of the world, restrictions on population movement are wreaking havoc on farming and food supply chains and raising concern of more widespread shortages and price spikes to come. Across the globe, millions of laborers cannot get to the fields for harvesting and planting. There are too few truckers to keep goods moving. Air freight capacity for fresh produce has plummeted as planes are grounded. And there is a shortage of food containers for shipping because of a drop in voyages from China. In the absence of labor and means of transportation due to lockdown to stem the spread of coronavirus, millions of farmers are staring at another disaster, watching their produce rotting in their fields across the plains of Pakistan and India. Farmers, desperately looking for labor to harvest wheat, mainly in Punjab, and southern Sindh, the two bread-baskets for Pakistan. Around 70% of Pakistan's small farmers rely on traditional farm laborers, who come from the remote or the low-income areas before the harvesting season. They could not make it this time due to weeks-long lockdown. In nearby India, the world's second-most populous country, the situation is no different. Farmers in Punjab, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat -- the key food basket states -- are desperately looking for labor to harvest wheat and gram. "Now is the time to harvest crops like wheat and gram, while the harvesting season for mustard is already over. But there is no labor available,” Surendra Singh Bhati, a small farmer, told Anadolu Agency.

NO MEANS TO TRANSPORT THE CROP TO MARKETS Even those farmers, who have harvested their crops taking help from their relatives and neighbors are not able to sell the produce in the absence of transportation. Apart from wheat, heaps of plucked vegetables are lying in the fields in different states, shattering the hopes of farmers to get bumper profits this year. Reports coming from different parts of rural India suggest that the farmers are dumping fruits and vegetables outside their villages or feeding them to their cattle. The governments in both the countries have also delayed procurement of crops from farmers, an annual exercise to a full-up buffer stock of food grains, which also acts as an incentive to farmers to ensure a minimum support price. In India, the central government has asked the farmers to delay harvesting given the situation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi imposed a 21-day lockdown with just a few hours’ notice on March 25, leaving many of its 120 million migrant laborers struggling to get home and with no money for rent, food or transport.

Experts fear that the delay in the harvesting of crops, mainly wheat may lead to serious food security issues in the two nuclear neighbors, which together share 1.5 billion of the total world population. Supply problems in one place are quickly felt on the other side of the world. In Canada, imports of speciality Indian vegetables such as onions, okra, and eggplant have dropped by as much as 80% in two weeks as air cargo space dwindled, said Clay Castelino, president of Ontario-based Orbit Brokers, which helps shipments clear customs. Castelino figured the sharp decline meant the food had simply gone to waste: "With perishable food, once it's gone, it's gone," he said.

In Florida, a lack of Mexican migrant laborers means watermelon and blueberry growers face the prospect of rotting crops. Similar shortages of workers in Europe mean vegetable farms are missing the window to plant. Such sprawling food production and distribution shocks illustrate the pandemic's seemingly boundless capacity to suffocate economies worldwide and upend even the most essential business and consumer markets. There has been limited disruption so far to supplies of staple grains such as rice and wheat, although problems with planting and logistics are mounting.

The potential impact of planting and harvest disruptions is most acute in poorer countries with big populations, said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

SHORTAGE OF MIGRANT WORKERS IN EUROPE Spain has a shortage of migrant workers from countries such as Morocco who cannot travel. In Italy, about 200,000 seasonal workers will be needed in the next two months. The government may have to ask people receiving state benefits to pick the fruit and vegetables, said Ivano Vacondio, head of Italy's Food Association Federalimentare. In France, Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume has issued a rallying cry to what he called France's "shadow army" of newly laid off workers to replace the usual crews of migrant workers on the farms. "If the call is not heard, the production will remain in the fields, and the entire sector will be damaged," said Christiane Lambert, head of France's largest farm union, FNSEA.

In Brazil - the world's top exporter of soybeans, coffee, and sugar - farm lobby CNA said the industry faces a range of problems, including challenges hiring truck drivers to haul crops and a shortage of spare parts for farm equipment. In Argentina, the world's top exporter of soymeal, exports have been delayed as the government ramps up inspections of incoming cargo ships. The emerging supply-chain disruptions are much different than the food crises of 2007-2008 and 2010-2012, when droughts in grain-producing nations caused shortages that led to higher prices, unrest and riots in several countries. Those price spikes were driven in part by state hoarding of rice and other staples. Now, staple grain supplies are relatively plentiful and global prices have been low for years as farmers in the United States, Brazil and in the Black Sea region have planted more and improved yields. Although there are signs that big importers such as Iraq and Egypt are boosting grains purchases amid rising food security concerns, other countries are boosting exports. Second-largest rice exporter Thailand, for instance, is taking advantage of higher rice prices by increasing exports from stockpiles.

Top rice exporter India, however, has stopped rice exports due to labor shortages and logistics problems. Third-largest exporter Vietnam has also curbed exports.

African nations - where many people spend more than half of their income on food - are among the most vulnerable to disruptions in staple food supplies. The continent is the fastest-growing consumer of rice, accounting for 35% of global imports and 30% of wheat imports. Sub-Saharan Africa alone is the third-largest rice consuming region, yet holds the smallest grain inventories - relative to demand - of all regions, because of tight government budgets and limited storage. While the earlier food crises involved supply shocks, today the problem is getting plentiful supplies to the people who need it - many of whom have suddenly lost their income.

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