Looming Food Crisis Looms Over COVID-19

By Henrylito D. Tacio

“The disease is spreading quickly. This is no longer a regional issue – it is a global problem calling for a global response.” That was the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations states recently in its website fao.org of the current health pandemic that is rampaging around the world.

Already, some 2.5 million cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID) have now been reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), and more than 160,000 deaths. “Make no mistake: we have a long way to go.  The virus will be with us for a long time,” pointed out Dr. Tedros, the WHO-Director General in his opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 last April 22.

The FAO believes that this pandemic — caused by SARS-CoV-2 as it is related to the coronavirus that causes Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — will “eventually retreat, but we don’t know how fast this will happen.” It adds that “this shock is somewhat unusual as it affects significant elements of both food supply and demand.”

FAO warns a looming food crisis is in the offing, “unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep global food supply chains alive and mitigate the pandemic’s impacts across the food system.”

At the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, there has been a significant increase in demand.  “Food demand is generally inelastic and its effect on overall consumption will be likely limited, although dietary patterns may alter,” FAO explains.

Vegetables for sale

There is a possibility of a disproportionately larger decline in animal protein consumption.  This is a result of fears – not science-based – that animals might be hosts of the virus, and other higher-valued products like fish, fruits and vegetables.

Fear of contagion can translate in reduced visits to food markets.  “We expect to see a shift in how people buy and consume food – lower restaurant traffic, increased e-commerce deliveries, and a rise in eating at home,” FAO says.

Following the outbreak of coronavirus, countries around the world started to implement a number of policy measures aimed at avoiding the further spread of the disease. In the Philippines, for instance, President Rodrigo R. Duterte urges Filipinos to “stay at home.”

Green leafy vegetables

Most countries implement some measures to contain the contagion.  Border closures, movements restrictions, and disruptions in the shipping and aviation industries have made it harder to continue food production and transport goods locally and internationally, the FAO reports.

Right now, there is no need for the world to panic. “Globally, there is enough food for everyone,” FAO points out. “Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now,” says the UN food agency in its report released last March.

But FAO urges policy makers around the world to be careful not to repeat the mistakes made during the 2007-08 food crisis.  Instead, it suggests to turn this health crisis into an entirely avoidable food crisis.

Access to fruits

“As the virus spreads, cases mount and measures tighten,” FAO says, “there are countless ways, however, that the global food system will be tested and strained in the coming weeks and months.”

Currently, FAO says some 820 million people around the globe are already experiencing chronic hunger – not eating enough caloric energy to live normal lives. Of these, 113 million are coping with acute severe insecurity – hunger so severe that it poses an immediate threat to their lives or livelihoods and renders them reliant on external assistance to survive.

“These people can ill-afford any potential further disruptions to their livelihoods or access to food that COVID-19 might bring,” FAO stresses.

The problem may not be felt right now. But by May, FAO expects to see disruptions in the food supply chains.  “Blockages to transport routes are particularly obstructive for fresh food supply chains and may also result in increased levels of food loss and waste,” it reports.

Crop production

Fresh fish and aquatic products, which are highly perishable and therefore need to be sold, processed or stored in a relatively limited time are at particular risk. Also, transport restrictions and quarantine measures are likely to impede farmers’ and fishers’ access to markets, curbing their productive capacities and hindering them from selling their produce.

In addition, shortages of labor could disrupt production and processing of food, notably for labor-intensive industries like high-value crops, meat and fish.

To avoid disruptions to the food supply chain and food production, FAO is urging all countries to:

  • Keep international trade open and take measures that protect their food supply chain (from obtaining inputs such as seeds to assuring smallholder farmers have access to markets to sell their produce);
  • Focus on the needs of the most vulnerable, and scale up social protection programs including cash transfers;
  • Keep their domestic food supply value chains alive and functioning;
  • Take all necessary precautions, seeds and planting materials must continue to flow to smallholders; animal feed to livestock breeders; and aquaculture inputs to fish farmers;
  • Keep agricultural supply chains alive by any means compatible with health safety concerns; and
  • Maintain agricultural activities.

To ensure enough food supply during the COVID-19 pandemic, Agriculture Secretary William Dar recommends the “full opening” of the agriculture sector – while following physical distancing, hand washing, and other recommended measures.

Dried fish

“The threat of hunger is as real as the threat of COVID-19,” the agriculture department stated in its website, da.gov.ph.

That’s why it launched recently the Plant, Plant, Plant Program or Ahon Lahat, Pagkaing Sapat (ALPAS) Laban sa COVID-19.  “It aims to further improve our food adequacy levels through increased rice, food crops, livestock, poultry and fish production, including that of attaining efficient food processing, marketing and distribution to major consumption centers,” Dar explained.

“Now, more than ever,” he pinpointed, “our food security frontliners – farmers, fishers, and other workers in the food value chain – will play a crucial part in our fight against COVID-19.  That’s why it is important that we continue to empower them to ensure availability of rice in the country.” – ###

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