Coronavirus: Another chance to transform the global food trade

For many, though, that crisis neither began nor ended in 2008. Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the fragility of the globalized system of trade in food is apparent again.

In addition to conflict, climate change and impoverishment, COVID-19 threatens 265 million people with famine and billions with food insecurity.

Hunger was on the rise in 2019 before the pandemic began. Despite ongoing calls for change, trade organizations and top food-exporting countries have yet to acknowledge that the current global food trade system is ill-suited to respond to local needs in an increasingly volatile world.

In the years following 2008, Olivier De Schutter, the then-United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, argued that food trade should be restructured around the idea of food as a right — not merely a commodity. He advocated returning decision-making power to communities, investing in agro-ecological practices for our health and environment and moving away from a dependence on food imports.

The same transformative opportunity is presented to us today.In short, he argued in favour of transforming a system that was ineffective long before the price increases in 2008 were referred to as a crisis.

Full COVID-19 impact still unknown

Encouraging predictable supplies and stable markets are the stated aims of the trade system. But markets are repeatedly destabilized when financial, energy or health challenges emerge.

While the full impact of the pandemic on food security is still unknown, it’s likely to take different shapes around the world.

The logistical challenges of moving food around the world during the pandemic are exacerbated by the globalized nature of supply chains. Disruptions to planting and harvesting due to illness outbreaks have an impact on food supplies, and restrictions on the movement of migrant farm workers compound the issue as well as reduce worker incomes.

It’s also clear that food availability is easily threatened in a trade system that encourages import dependence and export-oriented agriculture, but cannot require countries to export food.

For example, grain-exporting countries like Russia and Ukraine are restricting exports due to domestic supply concerns. These types of restrictions are detrimental to countries that depend on imported food.

Restrictions also lead to price shocks; even if there’s enough food globally, it becomes inaccessible to many people. Even small price increases can push staple items out of reach. As in 2008, low-income people who spend large portions of their budgets putting food on the table are most affected.

Relying on international markets to balance supply and demand has led to food waste. This problem isn’t new, but it’s more pronounced during the pandemic. Because food production is a slow, seasonal process, it takes time to respond to shifting demands — and communicating demands is complex in long supply chains

Global South left out

In response to the 2008 price spikes, tools were created to improve market transparency and policy responses in crises. But few countries from the Global South developed or participate in them — and many do not have the capacity to respond to market changes even if information is available to them.

New concerns over animal-to-human virus transmission could also have serious implications in domestic and international trade settings. Countries have curbed access to wet markets where wild animals are sold for the purpose of consumption. But if zoonotic spillover concerns are used to erect new food safety barriers, they’ll impact exporters in the Global South who are already disproportionately burdened by food safety standards set by the north.



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