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27.03.2020 |

Coronavirus measures could disrupt food chains, FAO warns

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Onions waiting to be harvested (Photo: CC0)

Coronavirus measures imposed by national governments could disrupt food chains around the world, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has warned. On March 26, the food agency’s Director-General, QU Dongyu, urged leaders of the G20 countries to take measures in order to ensure that food systems continue to work well, especially in relation to access to food for the world’s poor during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We have to ensure that food value chains are not disrupted and continue to function well and promote the production and availability of diversified, safe and nutritious food for all,” he said in an online address. “The poor and the vulnerable will be the hardest hit, and governments should strengthen social safety mechanisms to maintain their access to food,” he added.

QU Dongyu stressed that the supply of food is functioning well but there is growing concern that protectionist policies and restrictions on movement could disrupt food production, processing, distribution and sales, both nationally and globally. He drew a parallel to the 2007-08 global food price crisis, saying that uncertainty at that time triggered a wave of export restrictions by some countries, while others started importing food aggressively. This contributed to excessive price volatility, with negative consequences for low-income food-deficit countries. The same warnings are issued by Maximo Torero, chief economist at FAO, who underlined that governments must resist calls from some quarters to protect their own food supply by restricting exports. “Trade barriers will create extreme volatility. (…) That’s what we observe in food crises,” he told British newspaper The Guardian.

Torero warned that some countries have already introduced tariffs and export bans. Kazakhstan, for instance, has halted exports of wheat flour, and has imposed restrictions on buckwheat and vegetables including onions, carrots and potatoes, The Guardian reports. According to the newspaper, Vietnam, the world’s third biggest rice exporter, has temporarily suspended rice export contracts. It is suspected that Russia, the world’s biggest wheat exporter, might also threaten to restrict exports, as it has done before, not to mention measures which could be taken by US president Donald Trump. Another problem that could arise quickly in the coming weeks is the shortage of field workers caused by the corona pandemic. As governments close borders, recruiting seasonal workers is becoming impossible. “We need to be careful not to break the food value chain and the logistics or we will be looking at problems with fresh vegetables and fruits soon,” Torero told the Guardian. “Fruit and vegetables are also very labour intensive, if the labour force is threatened because people can’t move then you have a problem.” These types of produce often have short ripening times and are highly perishable, and need skilled pickers to work quickly at the right time. Torero said measures need to be taken to ensure workers can still move around, while preventing the virus from spreading. (ab)

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