Three imperatives to keep food moving in a time of fear and confusion

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The sight of supermarket shelves temporarily out of staple products is always unsettling. Combined with sweeping travel bans affecting many countries grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be tempting to think that shortages are linked to low global food supplies. But that’s simply not the case.

Production levels and global stocks for staple foods are at an all-time high and world prices for most food commodities have been remarkably stable since 2015. There is plenty of food, globally, to go around. The real risk is from export restrictions – behavior from exporting countries that urgently needs to stop.  The global food market is one of the rare things that is relatively stable these days. Policies should preserve that stability, not destroy it.

So, what do the empty shelves mean? And what can we learn from the past –and from each other– to keep food moving in a time of fear and confusion caused by the coronavirus? 

First, we need to recognize that local issues – not global supply -- are behind empty shelves at this time. It’s critical to get the diagnostic right if we are to avoid prescribing the wrong medicine. During the 2007-2008 world food price spike, global food stocks were low and oil prices were high. In 2010-2011 when prices spiked for a second time, there had been significant weather-related production declines in major exporting countries. Not so today. With some localized exceptions, all major staples (wheat, rice, maize) production levels are above the average for the past five years, oil prices are low and global food stocks are at historic highs. 

Empty shelves are rather a result of domestic forces.  We see around the world precautionary buying by consumers who worry about the future and want to stock up to feed their families, putting exceptional pressure on certain goods. Closure of restaurants and a sudden stop to out-of-home food consumption has increased food purchases at wholesale and retail outlets, and domestic supply chains are still reorienting to these changed consumption patterns. The local availability of food is also impacted by farm and food processing labor shortages and the disruption of domestic distribution channels, caused by lockdown restrictions, curfews, traditional market closures, and morbidity linked to the COVID-19 disease. Finally, people’s ability to buy what’s on the shelves will become increasingly constrained by the loss of income resulting from sweeping business closures and mass unemployment. Food security does not stop at well-stocked markets and supermarkets – we need to worry about the domestic purchasing power of the poorest. 

Second, countries should forget export bans – they are the wrong policy response and risk making things worse. In the 2007/2008 crisis, as many as one third of the world’s countries adopted trade restrictions, increasing food prices for everyone. An estimated 45 percent of the increase in world rice prices, and almost 30 percent increase in world wheat prices was due to insulating behavior. Today, we hear the first rumblings of temporary export bans coming out of countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Asia. Though they have not yet had significant impacts on export flows or global food prices because they account for a fairly small share of global exports, it’s imperative that these protectionist measures are reversed and do not spread further. Given historically high food stocks, export bans will cause unnecessary harm and only exacerbate the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 crisis.   

It’s encouraging in this regard to hear countries beginning to heed the calls for concerted and constructive policies that came out of the United Nations, the G20, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Food Policy Research Institute in recent days and take steps to reverse previously announced export bans. There is a collective responsibility to stay informed and spread reliable information about the state of global food production  to curtail misinformed trade decisions that would disrupt a stable global food market and put importing countries in a major bind. Learning from the 2007/2008 crisis, G20 Ministers of Agriculture established the Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) in 2011 to improve market transparency and policy co-coordination in food markets. AMIS is providing assessments of global food supply and actively engaging with international agencies and G20 countries and provides a platform for coordinated policy response. (AMIS’ latest market monitor was released on April 2.)

Third, we can learn from proven good practices, as well as emerging lessons from countries dealing with the coronavirus, to keep food moving from farm to fork in a safe and affordable way.  Good practices under current conditions would include:

  • Putting money in people’s pockets through targeted cash transfers so they can buy food;
  • Ensuring delivery of food to complement cash transfers as part of safety net operations in areas where availability of food is severely disrupted;
  • Continuing to provide school meals as “take-out” packages to ensure nutrition is maintained for vulnerable children, including food for other family members, effectively turning schools into emergency food distribution points;
  • Declaring food as an essential commodity, and all food-related services as essential;
  • Opening “green channels” for food, trade and agricultural inputs to ensure supply chains are kept open and functional;
  • Ensuring access and availability of key agricultural inputs (seeds, labor, fertilizer, machinery, etc), by keeping input supply chains functioning to ensure timely production for the planting season coming up and providing special permits for migrant labor;
  • Working with food logistics companies to develop health screening protocols and providing targeted, time bound and transparent incentives to hire workers to maintain food transport and logistics, including deliveries to remote and needy areas;
  • Reviewing regulations to permit closed food service establishments (restaurants, food centers, e-commerce companies) to redeploy their equipment and assets to deliver essential foods to areas needing it the most;
  • Supporting informal and formal food-related Small and Medium Enterprises to maintain cashflow and survive potentially catastrophic drops in demand so they can recover when the crisis is over.

At the end of the day, food is a hyper-local issue: Is there money in my pocket for the next meal?  Does my village or my city have food for sale today? Do I have seeds to grow food for the next season? Within countries and regions around the world, the World Bank is closely monitoring agricultural supply chains and food security in partnership with governments and other organizations. Together, we can make sure countries adopt the right policies and programs to keep food systems delivering vital services every day, everywhere, even in times of crisis.  

Authors

Juergen Voegele

Vice President for Sustainable Development at the World Bank

Join the Conversation

Marimuthu Swaminathan
September 10, 2021

Informal agricultural marketing systems are the predominant supply chain in many South Asian smallholder farming systems. Enabling support for these local aggregators and traders with appropriate policy instruments and food safety measures will ensure an uninterrupted farm level aggregation and local marketing. Many perishable farm products face severe challenges of procurement by organized value chain actors.

Binny Varma
September 10, 2021

It is important to let the farmers harvest the crops so that the supply is not disrupted. The farmers will have enough food for their own sustenance and the govt should purchase any excess stock for the market distribution.With the current scenario, especially in India where we hear the farmers are not being allowed out due to the lock down i fear for the future supply. The crops will get destroyed if not harvested in time. The imports and exports are also disrupted. These are my heartfelt thoughts.

Katia Marrouche
September 10, 2021

Hello,

I found this blog really interesting, and have a few questions:

How should lower and middle-income countries begin to enforce these cash transfers? What would the criteria be for eligibility to receive these cash transfers as individual households? Can banks or other financial institutions lead such initiatives locally? Is this a sustainable long-term solution?

Do these practices also need long-term planning? For instance, shouldn’t it also be a goal, by sustaining agricultural and other food businesses and their supply chains, to aim to create new permanent jobs (at various skill levels) and sources of income, for the masses who have been made or could be made redundant due to the crisis?

Do you think there should be plans in parallel to reduce future unemployment, through the mentioned industries or others?

Should individuals, businesses and educational institutions (mainly universities) be aiming at programs for skills, training, career paths, etc. in these mentioned areas? (Agriculture, logistics, food health & safety, etc.)

I hope these are reasonable questions, and I look forward to reading more content by the World Bank.

Kind Regards,

Katia

Allos Parakletos
September 10, 2021

Great article. Thank you

Ramakrishna
September 10, 2021

i agree with the suggestions Juergen. I am for local centric food support policies along with removing all restrictions on food mobility, global and local.
at present i am working on a paper on corona impact on food insecurity using primary data on vulnerable groups in Hyderabad. The insecurity is severe and corona had a a negative impact on food security. have used multilevel logit model dividing collecting the data from 4 groups

Ann Kele
September 10, 2021

Probably we should add one more question. Could the new innovations solve all problems for the local food security or in the global food supply chain ? is there enough money available for the new technologies in the agriculture or the linked industries ?

Norman MAPELA
September 10, 2021

Please we urge for innovative World Bank Representatives, more especially in Africa. They may have been creative thinking for what would be done prior getting into World Bank but soon in occupation creative ideas runout. Grassroots level people want to work with humble representatives and not people once in World Bank circle soon forget creativity.

Dr. Akintola Lawrence Oyetayo
September 10, 2021

Is there any post COVID-19 program for small holders farmers as a result of post harvest wastages especially sub-Sahara Africa.

Santo Wol
September 10, 2021

Thanks for sharing your goals and your achievements, I am writing you on a projects that will left many people from Coronavirus and poverty

Priscilla Kare
September 10, 2021

Just want to follow this conversation you started; interesting read

John Bosco Kalisa
September 10, 2021

The measures being proposed are excellent.

Aliyu Alhaji Aliyu
September 10, 2021

We are well oriented in farming in our Country but we have about three problems in production (1) lack of farm mechanization. (2) post harvest facilities, (3) knowledgeable breeders because there is some profitable crops that were not withstand in our environment and we don't have a knowledge able breeders that will manipulate the gene of that crop to enable it withstand in our environment.

Asongwe Edwin Chi
September 10, 2021

One of the problem faced in the agricultural sector in Africa specifically Nigeria my country is how to transport crops grown by small scale farmers,from the farm to the market.Lots of food gets spoiled in the farms because of bad roads and lack of 4 weel drive vircle that can transport the produce to the market.if these farmers can be encouraged by empowering them with grant to improve technology in agriculture and a vircle to transport their produce,I am sure they will do better.Thanks.God bless you.