That strawberry you’re eating while self-isolating from the coronavirus?
Chances are it came from a farm. Or it may have come from a large agricultural operation many, many kilometers away from your home, harvested by hand, possibly by migrant workers brought in from other towns, cities, or even countries.
But can that system continue to bring you strawberries as the global coronavirus pandemic continues? Or bread? Pasta? Cooking oil?
The coronavirus has already sent the global economy into a tailspin, with tens of millions of people being put out of work, as factories from Wuhan to Bavaria to Michigan suspend operations.
What does this mean for the food we eat?
If you live in a rural setting in a temperate climate where the growing season is under way, you might be preparing to eat produce from your backyard or your dacha.
But if you live in a city – as more than half the world’s population does — chances are you rely on the global food supply chain to make sure your bread and milk, or noodles and bananas, are in stock at the market.
What happens when the people picking our fruits and vegetables get sick or have to quarantine? What happens when the packers who make sure the potatoes and onions are boxed and put onto trucks to be driven to towns and cities can’t work? What happens when wheat can’t be milled or shipped to bakeries to be baked into bread and sold at markets and food stores?
Could we be facing global food shortages in the coming months?
“Massive disruptions to global food supply system will result from the pandemic,” Chris Elliot, a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, wrote in a post on Twitter.
Here’s what we know about how the coronavirus is affecting food supplies.
What’s Going On?
In mid-March, the pandemic was accelerating in most countries, even as a handful began to show signs of “flattening the curve” – the term used for slowing the rate of new infections.
But the stress on the global food supply system was already clear.
“A protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers, and more,” Maximo Cullen, the chief economist for the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, warned in a paper.
Panic buying and hoarding in some places added to worries that retailers and wholesalers whose inventories might be small already could be wiped out.
By early April, the World Food Program – another UN agency – tried to reassure nervous consumers.
“Global markets for basic cereals are well-supplied and prices generally low,” the program said in a report released on April 3.
“Disruptions are so far minimal; food supply is adequate, and markets are relatively stable,” spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs was quoted as saying.
“But we may soon expect to see disruptions in food supply chains” if big importers lose confidence in the reliable flow of basic food commodities, she said.
For industrialized nations, whose food supply chains were already undergoing a shift due to changing consumer habits and tastes, that bodes for more uncertainty.
“We’re talking about a radical change to a food chain that was already going through a radical chain,” James Tillotson, a retired professor of food policy and international business at the Friedman School at Tufts University in the United States, told RFE/RL.
Who’s Most At Risk?
For major industrial nations, whose populations tend to be particularly concentrated in urban and suburban centers, the food supply chains are longer, more complex, and, possibly, more vulnerable.
For less industrial, more rural, and agrarian economies, supply chains tend to be shorter and simpler. If you’re not getting your eggs and milk from chickens and cows and goats in your backyard, for example, then you might be getting them from the farmers in the next village over.
Other commodity goods — such as wheat, corn, or soybeans — are sold and shipped in bulk, often over long distances. That means there are more points where the supply chain can be disrupted.
Add to that the fear factor: Consumers fearing the possibility of shortages rush to buy more than they otherwise would, thus causing the shortages they’d feared. Some food markets in Moscow, for example, reported shelves being emptied of ready-to-eat buckwheat.