he coronavirus has focused the world’s attention on the woeful lack of ventilators, respiratory masks, and intensive care unit beds available in many countries. Far less attention has been paid to another pandemic-driven shortage lurking over the horizon: food.
As trade walls go up and governments panic about preserving their own food sources, the coronavirus threatens to disrupt global supply chains. Russia, the world’s largest wheat exporter, is limiting grain exports from April to June. Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer, has ramped up grain purchases and stopped exports of legumes.
The looming food shortage has an echo of the financial crisis of 2008, when large exporters that were worried about food supplies limited exports, causing a global price surge. In response, other countries began importing food like there was no tomorrow. This bolstered demand, pushing prices up even further.
As prices shot up, the result was devastating for the world’s poor. Insufficient food increased malnutrition, especially in children, and plunged already poor people deeper into poverty.
Today, trade restrictions and panic hoarding will only intensify the crisis and further disrupt supply chains. Municipalities in Argentina, the world’s largest exporter of soybean products, closed the roads in major soybean production areas—ignoring a federal government order to keep them open. This resulted in the country’s grain supplies shrinking by half until the municipalities loosened restrictions. With planes grounded, Canadian imports of onions and eggplants from India have plummeted over the past two weeks.
Unlike previous food crises, this one stands to be exacerbated by global restrictions on movement. Millions of migrant workers involved in agriculture and food production are now immobile because of border crackdowns. This has left produce unharvested and much-needed food left to rot in fields. Seasonal laborers from Eastern Europe are missing on the farms of Spain, Germany, Italy, and France. The U.K. government, desperate for farm labor, has looked to tap its reservoir of unemployed to pick strawberries or cut asparagus. India has limited rice exports due to labor shortages.
The production of staple crops such as wheat, corn, and soybeans has been less affected by lockdowns, as their harvests are largely mechanized. But the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables depends on people, not machines, to harvest, process, and package them. Fruits and vegetables are also perishable, so logistical problems pose even more threat to their supply.
Shipping accounts for 90 percent of all global trade, including food trade. Due to border closures, commercial ships can’t freely access ports or change crews. This makes no sense, as ports can be maintained with a small staff, whereas their shuttering would have a catastrophic effect on trade.