Food Security in the Time of COVID-19
This post is written by Robert Zeigler, Director General (Emeritus), International Rice Research Institute.
Until recently, focus on the havoc caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been on the human health toll and the massive economic disruption it is leaving in its wake. Nonetheless, a number of individuals raised concerns early on that impacts on the global economy, trade, and supply chain along with the stay-at-home orders (SAHO) issued in many countries may have a serious impact on the agricultural sector. Institutions such as the FAO, World Bank and USAID are raising alarms about the potential impact on food security, especially on countries where food security is tenuous for large segments of their populations, even in the best of times.
One immediate impact of SAHO has been on migratory workers who are essential to many parts of the crop production chain from land preparation through post-harvest. Likewise, in some developing countries transportation of key inputs, such as seed and fertilizer, is showing signs of disruption — suggesting that this year’s crops may be delayed or even lost due to narrow planting windows. Fortunately, the largest countries with vulnerable populations — India and China — have record grain reserves. In aggregate, they should have enough grain to feed their people assuming the next harvest is near normal. On the other hand, global grain markets had factored in that both India and China would be exporting grain in 2020. This is clearly no longer the case. Likewise, major rice exporters like Vietnam, Thailand and Pakistan are implementing or seriously considering curtailing or blocking exports. It is unsurprising then, that we are seeing international prices of rice and wheat rising sharply. This is a chilling reminder of the global food price crisis of 2007 – 08.
Rising internationally traded grain prices is very bad news for countries dependent on international trade to meet their food needs such as in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Many Middle Eastern countries can buy at virtually any price, but that is not the case for most African countries. And even in countries with good grain reserves, such as India and Bangladesh, the quality of their storage facilities is variable, with significant amounts being stored under very poor conditions. It is not clear, then, if all their reserves will be fit for human consumption. Vulnerable countries in the horn of Africa are being further challenged by severe locust outbreaks, and Africa and South Asia are also facing substantial crop losses from rapidly spreading Fall Armyworm infestations.
Countries responded to the 2007 – 08 crisis by increasing their local production and limiting exports in order to become self-sufficient in their most important staples. We can expect a similar response to the threats posed by COVID-19. While economists debate whether or not this is the most efficient approach to achieve food security, it is widely seen as a political necessity. Unfortunately, it may not be as effective as anticipated on account of inadequate in-country storage capacity. It is essential that for any food self-sufficiency strategy, or for global food security measures to work, there must be the means to store the harvests for at least one to two seasons.
The technology for very large, hermetic, and/or climate-controlled storage facilities is mature, yet costly. For many developing countries a suite of post-harvest storage technologies will have to be part of the mix to insure food supplies. High quality on-farm and village level post-harvest processing, especially drying and storage will be important, and technologies are already available. But, in addition to these scale-appropriate technologies, there need to be mechanisms in place for farmers and small traders to be able to carry the costs of storage. Perhaps more importantly, farmers need to have the means to repay their loans and meet other cash obligations they face at harvest time. Here are some steps that governments can take to assure that harvests will be available in times of need and are efficiently and safely stored in the meantime:
Provide low-interest, perhaps forgivable, loans for farmers and local traders to purchase scale-appropriate post-harvest technologies. These can include driers of varying capacity, and a range of hermetic storage options from single 50 kg bags, several ton storage pods, through small- to mid-size silos.
Effectively purchase at a minimum price support level, with payment immediately upon harvest, a substantial portion of the harvest from farmers who have installed good post-harvest processing and storage. Farmers would be free to sell on the open market after a specified time period.
Use blockchain-based technology to link credit, storage capacity, payments and sales to track food supplies and establish a credible relationship with farmers.
Robert Zeigler serves as Chair of the External Advisory Council for the Feed the Future Post-Harvest Loss Innovation Lab. In his recent book, Sustaining Global Food Security: The Nexus of Science Policy several authors address in substantial detail issues around national policies and international trade.