food security

Update on food security amidst COVID-19 pandemic

On May 1, I reviewed the challenges being faced in the United States and Canada because of the large number of meat and poultry processing plants that had large numbers of workers who had tested positive for COVID-19 with facilities closing temporarily as a result. In the United States, President Trump issued an Executive Order to require the meat processing plants to remain open, but it is unclear whether steps taken by the plants will provide adequate protection to the workers to get sufficient workers back in the plants or to restore prior production levels. Indeed, the AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka has indicated many changes in meat processing plants are needed to protect workers including increased supplies of personal protective gear, daily testing and more. See https://www.foxbusiness.com/money/coronavirus-meat-plant-workers-afl-cio-richard-trumka-1

Shortages of meat and poultry products start to appear in the United States

The concern about short-term shortages of meat and poultry products in the United States is starting to play out as news reports indicate that several hundred Wendy’s fast food facilities ran out of hamburger on May 5 and several retail operators have limited what customers can buy of meat and poultry products — Costco and Kroger, with more grocery chains and some other fast food operators noting concerns about availability as well. See May 5, 2020, New York Times, A Wendy’s With No Burgers as Meat Production Is Hit, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/05/business/coronavirus-meat-shortages.html.

As noted in the earlier post, there are adequate upstream supplies (cattle, pigs, chickens) in the United States and Canada but a short-term reduction in processing capacity, with the result of large numbers of animals being killed without being processed. There are, however, also reportedly large supplies of frozen meat products available. Id.

The European Union has a temporary surplus of beef and some other products

At the same time, the European Union has experienced shifts in demand as restaurants have been closed in many countries as governments have sought to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Similar shifts in demand have occurred in the United States and many other countries. Shifts in demand (including declines in demand for some products) in the EU have resulted in excess supplies of many agricultural products, including beef, sheep and goat meat products. The EU’s response has been in part to permit temporary waiver from EU competition law to permit certain agricultural producers to coordinate production and to stockpile some excess product. https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_788.

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To the extent that there are short-term shortages in the United States, Canada or other countries because of the COVID-19 infections at processing plants, governments could work with trading partners facing surpluses to reduce retail price volatility. This is undoubtedly complicated for some suppliers (e.g., Australia to the U.S.) because of higher costs of air cargo shipments with the huge reduction in commercial flights. The issue will also be politically sensitive because of the challenges facing U.S. ranchers and farmers already.

Efforts by some WTO Members to reduce food security concerns

There are eighteen countries or territories that have active or inactive export restraints on some food products. Twelve of these are active and affect 9.9% of the global trade in agricultural goods subject to export restraints. See, IFPRI’s Food Export Restrictions Tracker, https://public.tableau.com/profile/laborde6680#!/vizhome/ExportRestrictionsTracker/FoodExportRestrictionsTracker?publish=yes.

Because the COVID-19 pandemic is a health crisis, and there is no current significant global shortage of agricultural products in fact, many WTO members are working together to keep agricultural markets open to prevent concerns about food security.

For example, on April 22, 2020, Canada submitted a statement on its own behalf and that of 22 other WTO members (including the EU and the US) which contained the following “commitments”:

“1.6. To help ensure well-functioning global agriculture and agri-food supply chains in response to this crisis we therefore are committed:

“a. To ensure that supply chains remain open and connected so that international markets can continue to function in supporting the movement of agricultural products and agriculture inputs, which plays an instrumental role in avoiding food shortages and ensuring global food security.

“b. To exercise restraint in establishing domestic food stocks of agricultural products that are traditionally exported so as to avoid disruptions or distortions in international trade.

“c. Not to impose agriculture export restrictions and refrain from implementing unjustified trade barriers on agriculture and agri-food products and key agricultural production inputs.

“d. That emergency measures related to agriculture and agri-food products designed to tackle COVID-19 must be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains for agriculture and agri-food products. Any such measures are to be consistent with WTO rules.

“e. To inform the WTO as soon as practicable of any trade related COVID-19 measures affecting agriculture and agri-food products, including providing scientific evidence in accordance with WTO agreements if necessary, to ensure transparency and predictability. Members should be given opportunities to review new measures.

“f. To ensure that updated and accurate information on levels of food production, consumption and stocks, as well as on food prices is widely available, including through existing international mechanisms.

“g. To support the efforts of the WTO and other international organizations in analysing the impacts of COVID-19 on global agriculture and agri-food trade and production.

“h. To engage in a dialogue to improve our preparedness and responsiveness to regional or international pandemics, including multilateral coordination to limit unjustified agriculture export restrictions, in particular at the WTO.”

RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS,
STATEMENT FROM: AUSTRALIA; BRAZIL; CANADA; CHILE; COLOMBIA; COSTA RICA; EUROPEAN UNION; HONG KONG, CHINA; JAPAN; REPUBLIC OF KOREA; MALAWI; MEXICO; NEW ZEALAND; PARAGUAY; PERU; QATAR; SINGAPORE; SWITZERLAND; THE SEPARATE CUSTOMS TERRITORY OF TAIWAN, PENGHU, KINMEN AND MATSU; UKRAINE; UNITED KINGDOM; UNITED STATES; AND URUGUAY, WT/GC/208, G/AG/30 (22 April 2020)(Emphasis added).

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On May 5, 2020, Switzerland submitted a statement from 42 WTO members pledging not to impose export restraints and to refrain from unjustified trade barriers on agricultural trade.

“1.5. We also stress the necessity of maintaining agriculture supply chains and preserving Members’ food security. We, therefore, pledge to not impose export restrictions and to refrain from implementing unjustified trade barriers on agricultural and food products in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

STATEMENT ON COVID-19 AND THE MULTILATERAL TRADING SYSTEM BY MINISTERS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE WTO FROM AFGHANISTAN; AUSTRALIA; BARBADOS; BENIN; CAMBODIA; CANADA; CHILE; COLOMBIA; COSTA RICA; ECUADOR; EL SALVADOR; GUATEMALA; GUYANA; HONG KONG, CHINA; ICELAND; ISRAEL; JAMAICA; JAPAN; KENYA; REPUBLIC OF KOREA; THE STATE OF KUWAIT; LIECHTENSTEIN; MADAGASCAR; MAURITIUS; MEXICO; REPUBLIC OF MOLDOVA; MONTENEGRO; NEPAL; NEW ZEALAND; NIGERIA; NORTH MACEDONIA; NORWAY; PERU; SAINT LUCIA; KINGDOM OF SAUDI ARABIA; SINGAPORE; SOLOMON ISLANDS; SWITZERLAND; UKRAINE; UNITED ARAB EMIRATES; UNITED KINGDOM AND URUGUAY, WT/GC/212 (5 May 2020).

Brazil, the EU, Malawi, Paraguay, Qatar, Taiwan and the United States were part of the April 22 statement but not the May 5 statement. The two together cover 75 WTO members (counting the 27 members of the EU).

Missing from either of these statements are important WTO Members who are also important agricultural producers — Argentina, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia, and Vietnam. Some of these Members have export restraints on some agricultural products in place now (e.g., Russia and Vietnam) and others imposed such restraints back in 2007-2008 (e.g., China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia).

There has also been a joint statement from the LDC countries urging the importance of keeping markets open both for medical supplies and food products. See SECURING LDCS EMERGENCY ACCESS TO ESSENTIAL MEDICAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS TO COMBAT THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC.
COMMUNICATION BY CHAD ON BEHALF OF THE LDC GROUP, WT/GC/211 (4 May 2011) . There are currently 36 LDCs who are members of the WTO. Seven of the 36 were part of the April 22 or May 5 statements (Malawi on the April 22 statement; Afghanistan, Benin, Cambodia, Madagascar, Nepal, and the Solomon Islands on the May 5 statement). Adding the 29 LDCs not already counted in the April 22 and May 5 statements, brings the total number of WTO Members advocating for maintaining open markets for agricultural trade to 104.

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There have also been statements provided by the ASEAN countries and by APEC on COVID-19 supplied to the WTO, although any commitments on trade in agricultural goods are limited. ASEAN DECLARATION AND STATEMENTS ON COVID-19, WT/GC/210 (1 May 2020); Statement on COVID-19 by APEC Ministers Responsible for Trade, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (05 May 2020), https://www.apec.org/Meeting-Papers/Sectoral-Ministerial-Meetings/Trade/2020_trade

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Conclusion

The world is better prepared to deal with a future wave of export restraints on agricultural products than it was in 2007-2008 with an improved understanding of production and supplies around the world and with notification systems and with groups tracking government actions. Fortunately, 2020 does not present a situation of acute food shortages of core products although lockdowns, stay at home orders and the collapse of air travel and reduction in ship traffic creates potential challenges for both production and distribution of food articles.

While there have been a number of countries who have imposed export restraints and others that are imposing some barriers (including increased tariffs), a major group of countries and territories involved in international trade in agriculture has committed either not to impose export restraints or to do so only under limited circumstances and only temporarily.

The temporary shortage of meat and poultry products occurring in the United States will receive a fair amount of press attention. With frozen meat supplies reportedly plentiful in the U.S. and with efforts to get temporarily closed processing plants back on line (dependent on ability of processors to improve protection for workers), hopefully concerns about U.S. and Canadian meat supplies will dissipate in the coming weeks.

It is also the case that other major meat producing countries may have significant surpluses which could alleviate shortage issues if they continue for a period of time, if policy makers are willing to work together to address the short-term needs.

So hopefully COVID-19 does not also become a food security crisis in 2020.

Food security – how will COVID-19 infections at meat processing plants affect?

COVID-19 is a health pandemic. However, because of the various restrictions placed on movement of people within countries and internationally, there have been concerns that there could be disruptions in food supplies and the possibility of a food crisis. With travel curtailed and many restaurants closed, there has been a sudden shift in demand patterns as demand in food service (restaurants, caterers) has largely dried up and demand in grocery stores has sharply increased. This has led to problems in processing and distribution and a sharp contraction in the demand for some food products where demand was concentrated in food service.

The concerns about a possible food crisis have been amplified by the actions of some countries or territories to impose export restrictions on certain agricultural products and the actions of some other countries to increase tariffs on certain imported agricultural products to protect domestic producers amidst falling food prices. The concerns arise during a period (2020) when there is ample food production globally, and hence a food crisis should be avoidable.

For the WTO, FAO and most governments, the actions of dozens of countries in 2007-2008 who imposed export restraints on certain food products remain fresh of mind. The vast majority of trade restrictions then were on rice and wheat, two staples for populations around the world. The introduction of export restraints by one or more countries led to similar actions by others. The result was serious shortages of products for import dependent countries and highly volatile prices which affected most countries.

In an earlier post I reviewed actions taken by the G20 agriculture ministers and a group of WTO Members to pledge to work to keep markets open for food products during the COVID-19 pandemic. Deputy Director-General Alan Wolff provided a virtual statement yesterday looking at food security and the increased reliance on international trade in food for many WTO Members. Similarly, different groups monitor countries who are imposing export restraints on food. See DDG Wolff, “Reliance on international trade for food security likely to grow,” https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/ddgaw_30apr20_e.htm; https://public.tableau.com/profile/laborde6680#!/vizhome/ExportRestrictionsTracker/FoodExportRestrictionsTracker?publish=yes.

Today’s post looks at the challenges being experienced in North America, Europe and globally from the high level of infections of COVID-19 at meat and poultry processing plants. These infections have resulted in thousands of workers testing positive, many being very ill, some dying and many plants closing for some period of time to achieve a safer working environment. In the U.S. and Canada, a large number of facilities that handle a significant part of total U.S. and Canadian production have been affected. Workers are understandably concerned about returning to work when the facilities reopen despite an Executive Order by President Trump invoking the Defense Production Act to mandate the continued functioning of the meat and poultry processing facilities. See https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/president-donald-j-trump-taking-action-ensure-safety-nations-food-supply-chain/;https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/executive-order-delegating-authority-dpa-respect-food-supply-chain-resources-national-emergency-caused-outbreak-covid-19/

But the consequences of the large number of infections in meat and poultry processing plants have been a reduction in operating capacity, reduced supply to domestic markets, possible reductions in export supplies and massive waste of cattle, pigs and chickens which are being killed and not processed because of the challenges and with downward prices to farmers and ranchers.

While it is not known if the problem will be very short term, a sudden reduction in capacity or production can lead to imbalances in the supply/demand ratio which could result in higher prices, reduced supplies and possible actions to satisfy domestic demand needs, including export restraints.

Because to date there has been no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted from food or food packaging, there should not be any reason for food embargoes of meat and poultry imported from countries where facilities have closed temporarily due to COVID-19 worker infections. See https://www.who.int/images/default-source/health-topics/coronavirus/eng-mythbusting-ncov-(19).tmb-1920v.png; https://www.fda.gov/food/food-safety-during-emergencies/food-safety-and-coronavirus-disease-2019-covid-19; https://ec.europa.eu/food/sites/food/files/safety/docs/biosafety_crisis_covid19_qandas_en.pdf

Problems in meat processing plants in the U.S. and Canada

There have been a host of articles in the press in recent weeks in both the U.S. and Canada reviewing the huge number of plants that have had COVID-19 confirmed cases. As many as 30 plants in the U.S. and Canada are involved with more than 3,000 workers testing positive. More than 70% of beef processing in Canada has been affected and some 25% in the United States. See, e.g., https://time.com/5830178/meat-shortages-coronavirus/; https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/coronavirus/these-are-the-meat-plants-in-canada-affected-by-the-coronavirus-outbreak-1.4916957; https://globalnews.ca/news/6857867/alberta-covid-19-meat-processing-beef-production/; https://nevalleynews.org/13141/news/meat-processing-plants-close-in-u-s-and-canada-as-covid-19-spreads-through-work-force/.

Not surprisingly, the eruption of COVID-19 cases in processing plants and the resulting need to close facilities at least temporarily has led to concern about worker safety as well as the economic effects of a sudden reduction in meat supplies. The Center for Disease Control issued guidelines for meat processing plants to permit improved safety for workers. See CDC, Guidance for Meat and Poultry Workers and Employers, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/organizations/meat-poultry-processing-workers-employers.html. The guidance is embedded below.

Guidance-for-Meat-and-Poultry-Processing-Workers-and-Employers-_-CDC

It has also led to reductions in production of processed meats and poultry and the wasting of cattle, pigs and chickens unable to be processed in recent weeks. USDA reports on beef and pork in the last week show sharp contractions in production. For beef, the USDA data show collapsing production and falling prices for cattle and rising prices for beef.

4-27-2020-USDA-data-on-beef

For pork, hog slaughter which had been up significantly through March has seen sharp declines in April with prices for pork products falling til April and then increasing rapidly.

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For poultry, USDA data through April 24, show relatively steady production volumes although press reports have reviewed millions of chickens being killed because of lack of access to processing facilities.

4-24-2020-USDA-poultry-data

Challenges in Canada would be similar or greater since a larger part of their beef processing facilities has been affected.

Meat Production Outside of the U.S. and Canada

An article by IHS Markit from March 31, 2020, reviews challenges of COVID-19 in meat processing facilities around the world as well as other challenges flowing from COVID-19 (shift in mix as restaurants shut down; export challenges with transportation limitations). “Meat industry on a knife-edge as COVID-19 disruption deepens,” https://ihsmarkit.com/research-analysis/analysis-meat-industry-covid19-disruption.html. The challenges differ in terms of pressures on meat supplies and prices as transportation problems would reduce the ability to export and thus reduce prices in exporting countries while presumably increasing prices in importing countries. By contrast, plant closures and/or reduced operating levels will reduce supply and hence increase prices of meat products in the producing country and in any export markets. There are reported issues in the EU, in Australia and potentially in Brazil.

The last forecast from USDA on U.S. exports of meats and poultry continues to show generally growing U.S. exports around the world, but the report predates some of the COVID-19 outbreaks in meat processing plants in the U.S. and the resulting concerns from communities and workers. https://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/livestock_poultry.pdf

Conclusion

It is likely that over the next several months, there will be a temporary shortage of meat and poultry products in at least several important consuming and producing nations. Reduced supplies could lead to reduced exports and concerns about food security in importing countries. Reduced supplies could also lead to higher prices and internal political pressure to increase domestic availability. One such approach to increase supplies for domestic consumption for exporting countries is to restrict exports.

Fortunately, most of the major producing nations of beef and pork and at least some of the major poultry producing nations are parties to the joint statement to the WTO of April 22 2020 indicating their commitment to keeping trade flows open for agricultural products. Many are also part of the G20 and hence similarly supporting the need to keep agricultural trade open. See my prior post on the G20 agriculture ministers and the statement of Members to the WTO, https://currentthoughtsontrade.com/2020/04/23/food-security-complications-from-covid-19-recent-un-information-and-g20-and-wto-member-statements/.

In the United States, the Executive Order of President Trump can send a signal to meat and poultry processors to work to keep facilities open, but the Executive Order can’t force workers to return to working environments which workers see as unsafe. The CDC’s guidance to workers and employers should be helpful but both increase costs for employers and likely reduce productivity of facilities. The increased costs are necessary for worker safety as may be reduced productivity. Both, however, will likely result in higher prices to consumers and lower prices to farmers and ranchers.

The bigger question will be whether more countries who currently don’t have export restraints on food products introduce such restraints on non-meat and poultry products from fear of spreading food security issues.

Hopefully, the world will not find itself with dual pandemics – COVID-19 and food security. Stay tuned.

Food Security Complications from COVID-19 – Recent UN Information and G20 and WTO Member Statements

With the global health crisis flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, the world is also facing the specter of mass starvation flowing from a combination of ongoing armed conflicts, weather events, export restraints on food and potential disruptions in food supply. Export restraints and disruptions in food supply are increasing based on actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governments of the world are understandably focused on the health pandemic where known deaths since December are approaching 200,000 with confirmed cases over 2.5 million and continuing to increase. To date Europe and the United States and a few other countries account for the vast majority of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19, though nearly all countries have some cases and many other countries could see rapidly growing cases in the weeks and months ahead.

In contrast, the number of people in the world facing acute hunger and possible starvation is staggering with death projections for 2020 in key months of likely shortage as high as 300,000/day or more without concerted efforts to prevent! On April 21, David Beasley, the UN World Food Programme Executive Director made a virtual presentation to the UN Security Council. https://www.wfp.org/news/wfp-chief-warns-hunger-pandemic-covid-19-spreads-statement-un-security-council. His statement is reproduced below.

Forgive me for speaking bluntly, but I’d like to lay out for you very clearly what the world is facing at this very moment. At the same time while dealing with a COVID-19 pandemic, we are also on the brink of a hunger
pandemic.

“In my conversations with world leaders over the past many months, before the Coronavirus even became an issue, I was saying that 2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II for a number of reasons.

“Such as the wars in Syria and Yemen. The deepening crises in places like South Sudan and, as Jan Egeland will no doubt set out, Burkina Faso and the Central Sahel region. The desert locust swarms in Africa, as Director General Qu highlighted in his remarks. And more frequent natural disasters and changing weather patterns. The economic crisis in Lebanon affecting millions of Syrian refugees. DRC, Sudan, Ethiopia. And the list goes on. We’re already facing a perfect storm.

“So today, with COVID-19, I want to stress that we are not only facing a global health pandemic but also a global humanitarian catastrophe. Millions of civilians living in conflict-scarred nations, including many women and children, face being pushed to the brink of starvation, with the spectre of famine a very real and dangerous possibility.

“This sounds truly shocking but let me give you the numbers: 821 million people go to bed hungry every night all over the world, chronically hungry, and as the new Global Report on Food Crises published today shows, there are a further 135 million people facing crisis levels of hunger or worse. That means 135 million people on earth are marching towards the brink of starvation. But now the World Food Programme analysis shows that, due to the Coronavirus, an additional 130 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation by the end of 2020. That’s a total of 265 million people.

“On any given day now, WFP offers a lifeline to nearly 100 million people, up from about 80 million just a few years ago. This includes about 30 million people who literally depend on us to stay alive. If we can’t reach these people with the life-saving assistance they need, our analysis shows that 300,000 people could starve to death every single day over a three-month period. This does not include the increase of starvation due to COVID-19.

“In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than one million people per country who are on the verge of starvation. In many places, this human suffering is the heavy price of conflict.

“At WFP, we are proud that this Council made the historic decision to pass Resolution 2417 in May 2018. It was amazing to see the council come together. Now we have to live up to our pledge to protect the most vulnerable and act immediately to save lives.

“But this is only in my opinion only the first part of the strategy needed to protect conflict-riven countries from a hunger pandemic caused by the Coronavirus. There is also a real danger that more people could potentially die from the economic impact of COVID-19 than from the virus itself.

“This is why I am talking about a hunger pandemic. It is critical we come together as one united global community to defeat this disease, and protect the most vulnerable nations and communities from its potentially devastating effects.”

Lockdowns and economic recession are expected to lead to a major loss of income among the working poor. Overseas remittances will also drop sharply – this will hurt countries such as Haiti, Nepal, and Somalia just a name a couple. The loss of tourism receipts will damage countries such as Ethiopia, where it accounts for 47% of total exports. The collapsing oil prices in lower-income countries like South Sudan will have an impact significantly, where oil accounts for 98.8% of total exports. And, of course, when donor countries’ revenues are down, how much impact will this have on life saving foreign aid.

The economic and health impacts of COVID-19 are most worrisome for communities in countries across Africa as well as the Middle East, because the virus threatens further damage to the lives and livelihoods of people already put at risk by conflict.

“WFP and our partners are going all-out to help them we’ll do everything we possibly can. For example, we know that children are particularly vulnerable to hunger and malnutrition, so we are prioritizing assistance to them.

“Right now, as you may now 1.6 billion children and young people are currently out of school due to lockdown closures. Nearly 370 million children are missing out on nutritious school meals – you can only imagine when children don’t get the nutrition they need their immunity goes down. Where nutritious school meals have been suspended by school closures, we are working to replace them with take-home rations, wherever possible.

“As you know, WFP is the logistics backbone for the humanitarian world and even more so now for the global effort to beat this pandemic. We have delivered millions upon millions of personal protective equipment, testing kits and face masks to 78 countries on behalf of the World Health Organization. We are also running humanitarian air services to get frontline health professionals doctors, nurses, and humanitarian staff into countries that need help, especially while passenger air industry is basically about shut down.

“But we need to do so much more, and I urge this Council to lead the way. First and foremost, we need peace. As the Secretary-General recently said very clearly, a global ceasefire is essential.

Second, we need all parties involved in conflicts to give us swift and unimpeded humanitarian access to all vulnerable communities, so they can get the assistance to them that they need, regardless of who they are or where they are. We also need in a very general sense humanitarian goods and commercial trade to continue flowing across borders, because they are the lifeline of global food systems as well as the global economy. Supply chains have to keep moving if we are going to overcome this pandemic and get food from where it is produced to where it is needed. It also means resisting the temptation to introduce export bans or import subsidies, which can lead to price hikes and almost always backfire.

“WFP is working hand in glove with governments to build and strengthen national safety nets. This is critical right now to ensure fair access to assistance and help maintain peace and prevent rising tensions among communities.

Third, we need coordinated action to support life-saving humanitarian assistance. For example, WFP is implementing plans to preposition three months’ worth of food and cash to serve country operations identified as priorities. We are asking donors to accelerate the (US) $1.9 billion in funding that has already been pledged, so we can build stockpiles and create these life-saving buffers, and protect the most vulnerable from the effects of supply chain disruptions, commodity shortages, economic damage and lockdowns. You understand exactly what I’m talking about.

“We are also requesting a further USD350 million to set up a network of logistics hubs and transport systems to keep humanitarian supply chains moving around the world. They will also provide field hospitals and medical evacuations to the frontline humanitarian and health workers, as needed and strategically.

“Excellencies, two years ago the Security Council took a landmark step when it recognized, and condemned, the devastating human toll of conflict paid in poverty and hunger. Resolution 2417 also highlighted the need for early warning systems, and today I am here to raise that alarm.

“There are no famines yet. But I must warn you that if we don’t prepare and act now – to secure access, avoid funding shortfalls and disruptions to trade – we could be facing multiple famines of biblical proportions within a short few months.

“The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies. The truth is, we do not have time on our side, so let’s act wisely – and let’s act fast. I do believe that with our expertise and partnerships, we can bring together the teams and the programs necessary to make certain the COVID-19 pandemic does not become a humanitarian and food crisis catastrophe. So Mr. President, thank you, thank you very much.

Emphasis added. See also https://news.un.org/en/story/2020/04/1062272.

The 2020 Global Report on Food Crises mentioned in Mr. Beasley’s statement can be found here and is embedded below. https://docs.wfp.org/api/documents/WFP-0000114546/download/?_ga=2.200353390.1965067900.1587648297-1190105299.1587648297.

GRFC_2020_ONLINE_200420

Fifty-six countries or territories are listed as at various levels of concern for hunger in 2019 and potentially for 2020 and are summarized on pages 214-215 of the report. Eleven of the fifty-six countries or territories are categorized as at a phase 4 level (emergency) for the country as a whole or for particular parts. These include Afghanistan, Angola, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Twenty-one others are categorized as phase 3 (crisis). These include Burkino Faso, Cameron, Chad, Eswatini, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Honduras, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Pakistan, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Uganada, and the United Republic of Tanzania. Eight countries or territories were ranked phase 2 (stressed). These included Cabo Verde, Cote d’Ivoire, El Salvador, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya and Nicaragua. Two countries or territories were listed as phase 1 (minimal)(Burundi and Rwanda). The remaining fourteen countries or territories had not been given a specific phase, some because the problem related to the presence of large numbers of refugees and what might happen during the year; for others the descriptions of the hunger challenges would suggest serious problems. These countries or territories include Bangladesh, Colombia, Djibouti, Ecuador, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Libya, Myanmar, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Ukraine, and Venezuela.

While the bulk of the concerns raised in the report go to ongoing conflicts and weather problems, trade restrictions are potentially important contributors. As reviewed in an earlier post, a number of countries have imposed export restraints on certain agricultural goods. With the exception of Myanmar and Ukraine who are listed in the 2020 Global Report on Food Crises, the other countries reviewed in my earlier post are not included in the report. These countries include Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonsia and Cambodia. The earlier post is linked below.

G20 Agriculture Ministers Communique

Following a virtual meeting on April 21, G20 Agriculture Ministers released a Ministerial Statement that reaffirmed “the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products and inputs essential for agircultural and food production”. The Statement can be found here. https://g20.org/en/media/Documents/G20_Agriculture%20Ministers%20Meeting_Statement_EN.pdf. The statement covers a fair amount of ground but doesn’t prohibit export restraints per se in agriculture but rather repeats the limitations (reflecting existing WTO flexibilities) that trade ministers articulated for medical supplies – any restraints should be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary. The full statement is reproduced below.

“We, the G20 Agriculture Ministers, are deeply saddened by the devastating human losses and suffering caused by the spread of COVID-19. We commit to cooperating closely and taking concrete actions to safeguard global food security and nutrition.

‘We reaffirm the importance of working to ensure the continued flow of food, products, and inputs essential for agricultural and food production across borders in line with our Leaders’ Statement on COVID-19 of March 26, 2020. We acknowledge the challenges of minimizing the risk of COVID-19 while keeping food supply chains functioning. We will continue to work to ensure the health, safety, welfare, and mobility of workers in agriculture and throughout the food supply chain.

We will guard against any unjustified restrictive measures that could lead to excessive food price volatility in international markets and threaten the food security and nutrition of large proportions of the world population, especially the most vulnerable living in environments of low food security. We agree that emergency measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic must be targeted, proportionate, transparent, and temporary, and that they do not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains, and are consistent with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules. We recognise the importance of transparency and commend the Trade and Investment Ministers’ commitment to notify the WTO of any trade-related measures taken, including those related to agriculture and essential foodstuffs. We reaffirm our agreement not to impose export restrictions or extraordinary taxes on food and agricultural products purchased for non-commercial humanitarian purposes by the World Food Programme (WFP) and other humanitarian agencies.

“We emphasize the work of the G20 Agricultural Market Information System (AMIS) and take note of AMIS’ assessment that at present global food supplies are adequate and food markets remain well balanced. As members, we commit and call on other members to continue providing timely and reliable information on global food market fundamentals to help markets, countries, and consumers make informed choices. Where appropriate, we will coordinate policy responses, supported by the AMIS Global Food Market Information Group and the AMIS Rapid Response Forum. We call for continued support for AMIS, including through voluntary financial contributions.

“We will work together to help ensure that sufficient, safe, affordable, and nutritious food continues to be available and accessible to all people, including the poorest, the most vulnerable, and displaced people in a timely, safe, and organized manner, consistent with national requirements. Acknowledging the critical role of the private sector in food systems, we call for enhanced cooperation between the public and private sectors to help mobilize rapid and innovative responses to impacts of this pandemic on the agriculture and food sectors.

“Under the current challenging circumstances, we stress the importance of avoiding food losses and waste caused by disruptions throughout food supply chains, which could exacerbate food insecurity and nutrition risks and economic loss. We stress the need to strengthen the sustainability and resilience of food systems globally, including to future shocks from disease and pest outbreaks, and to the global challenges that drive these shocks. In line with the One Health approach, we call for strengthened mechanisms for monitoring, early warning, preparedness, prevention, detection, response, and control of zoonotic diseases, and developing science-based international guidelines on stricter safety and hygienic measures for zoonosis control.

“We deeply thank farmers and workers, and small, medium and large scale agri-food businesses for their continuous efforts to ensure our food supply. We will intensify our efforts, in line with WTO rules and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, to support them to sustain their activities and livelihoods during the crisis and to assist their recovery afterwards. Our efforts will support rural communities, especially small-scale farmers and family farms, to be more economically prosperous, resilient and sustainable, and to have improved food security and nutrition, giving special attention to the needs of developing and low-income countries.
We will continue our cooperation with relevant international organizations and within their mandates work to: reinforce international cooperation; identify additional actions to alleviate the impacts of COVID-19 on food security and nutrition; share best practices and lessons learned, such as addressing barriers to supply chains; promote evidence and science-based information and combat misinformation; provide capacity building and technical assistance; and promote research, responsible investments, innovations and reforms that will improve the sustainability and resilience of agriculture and food systems. This work could build on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO’s) evolving response to COVID-19, the International Fund for Agricultural Development’s (IFAD’s) evolving efforts to support a strong recovery from the effects of COVID-19, policy monitoring and analysis by the OECD, and other relevant initiatives, such as the preparation for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit.

“We will continue our close cooperation and as necessary update our response to the COVID-19 pandemic and our broader G20 agriculture and food agenda. We stand ready to reconvene as required.” (Emphasis added)

The virtual meeting of G20 Agriculture Ministers included information received from the various UN organizations with expertise. See http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/1272058/icode/

The Ministerial Statement is helpful in encouraging nations to maintain open markets, to not tax humanitarian food aid and to provide transparency in actions taken. But the Ministerial Statement does not commit the G20 members to avoid trade restrictions where such restrictions are temporary, targeted, transparent and proportionate. Based on actions taken by China and India during the 2007-2008 food crisis, it is not surprising that the G20 could not get hard commitments to avoid agriculture export restrictions from all G20 members.

As international organizations are serving as transparency fora and are encouraging joint action, it is not surprising that the Ministerial Statement was warmly received by the WTO as the statement supports transparency and WTO consistency of any actions taken.. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/dgra_21apr20_e.htm.

Communique from Various WTO Members

On July 22, twenty-three WTO Members (including the EU) submitted a joint statement to the WTO entitled RESPONDING TO THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC WITH OPEN AND PREDICTABLE TRADE IN AGRICULTURAL AND FOOD PRODUCTS, WT/GC/208, G/AG/30. The statement is embedded below.

WTGC208

The statement cautions countries to avoid actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic that would adversely affect trade in agricultural goods. Absent from the joint statement are important Members who have in the past used or who at present are using export restraints on certain agricultural products including China and India (past export restraints) and Russia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia (current export restraints).

The joint statement has strong language on keeping markets open (including the negative effects of export restrictions on agriculture and agri-food products), avoiding waste, maintaining effective transport and logistical services, the importance of transparency in actions taken as well as food production and stocks. Nonetheless, because of existing WTO flexibilities provided to Members, the commitments made by the 23 Members include one which maintains the right to emergency measures that are “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary, and not create unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global supply chains”.

The joint statement is certainly a positive step with eight specific commitments taken by WTO Members who account for 63% of global agricultural exports and 55% of global agricultural imports. Time will tell if the list of supporters of the commitments expands to other major Members.

Conclusion

Based on current and projected food supplies, there should be no crisis in food supplies to the world if there is collective efforts to keep markets open, provide food aid for populations experiencing severe shortages due to conflict, adverse weather events and any adverse effects from the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of what the UN and its World Food Programme seek (cease fires; access to people regardless of conflicts or sanctions) is not likely to happen based on actions by certain major countries. But keeping world markets open and food aid funded hopefully will occur. The consequences of failure in this regard would greatly exacerbate the health and economic costs already experienced from COVID-19.

WTO and the challenge of scarcity — are there lessons from COVID-19?

The global trading system has built in flexibilities for nations and customs territories to address scarcity or threatened scarcity at home in the trade rules. Specifically, while GATT 1994 Article XI:2 provides for the general elimination of quantitative restrictions on imports or exports, there are exceptions provided in XI:2. The first permits “Export prohibitions or restrictions temporarily applied to prevent or relieve critical shortages of foodstuffs or other products essential to the exporting contracting party.” GATT 1994 Art. XI:2(a). There are also general exceptions to WTO obligations contained in GATT 1994 Article XX including measures “necessary to protect human, animal or plant life or health” (Art. XX(b)) although such general exceptions have certain conditions to prevent discrimination in application.

These WTO rules go back to original GATT provisions from 1947/48 and reflect the understandable desire of governments to maintain the ability to look out for their own people in times of crisis particularly to avoid threats from food scarcity or to human health.

Over the last seventy plus years, global trade flows have dramatically expanded in both agricultural and non-agricultural products. Indeed, many countries and customs territories are import dependent on food products. Moreover, with the development of global supply chains for medicines, medical equipment, medical supplies and personal protective gear, few, if any, countries are self-sufficient for medical goods.

The question arises whether in a much more interdependent world, global trade rules need review and modification to deal with actual or perceived shortages of agricultural, medical or other goods.

The 2007-2008 food shortages on critical agricultural products led to dozens of countries imposing export restraints on core products like rice and wheat resulting in expanded shortages, price volatility and social unrest in many countries.

The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in nearly 70 countries imposing export restraints on certain medical goods and in a number of countries imposing export restraints on agricultural goods in anticipation of potential shortages. The breadth and depth of the pandemic has resulted in a global severe shortage of a wide range of medical products, equipment and protective gear with countries (and within some countries, provinces, states, regions and even individual hospitals and medical facilities) competing against each other for limited supplies, bidding up prices, resulting in price gouging and hording of goods. It has also resulted in efforts by individual countries and companies (whether local or multinational) to ramp up production to meet the surge in demand. Press reports indicate that many smaller countries find themselves shut out of the market for supplies as large countries or groupings (US and EU) lock up available supplies for months going forward.

The two types of shortages are different in type. Food shortages, if real, flow (1) from some form of crop failure and inadequate inventories, (2) from the failure to keep markets open so goods go to markets where there are needs, or (3) from conflicts. That is, the shortage flows from a temporary supply problem. The shortage is not from a sudden upward change in global demand.

Medical pandemics create severe shortages because of the extraordinary growth in demand for medicines, supplies, equipment and personal protective equipment in a very limited time frame. While arguably countries could build up inventories of potentially needed supplies to address any magnitude of surge in demand, few countries effectively do so and long term demand for the products/supplies of interest don’t support massive capacity outside of a pandemic. Supply can be disrupted as it has been in the COVID-19 pandemic through border measures aimed primarily at limiting movement of people potentially infected but affecting the movement of goods as well, through export restraints imposed to ensure some supplies in country, through disruptions of supply chains, and through aggressive purchasing by large and/or rich countries reducing supplies available for other countries. Supply can also be increased through expanded investment (whether permanent or temporary), through diversion of existing manufacturing from other goods to needed goods, or through reducing inventories. Countries, to offset some of the upward pricing pressures, can reduce the cost of supplies by reducing customs duties, by reducing value added taxes or sales taxes on domestic and imported product, by streamlining and greenlaning import entry, by having the central government coordinate purchasing and distribution during the pandemic, by encouraging expanded production and by keeping markets open.

The COVID-19 pandemic has the added dimension that efforts to address the health crisis have resulted in massive unemployment, collapsing GDPs around the world, sharp contraction in global trade and the need to pump huge sums into economies to prevent greater collapse. Such actions by governments to permit economies to rebound in the future both involve much greater state involvement in economies at least temporarily and issues of how WTO rules on subsidies can or should be applied. The WTO, as the US and others have pointed out frequently, is designed for market economies and wasn’t designed to address the consequences of a pandemic of the magnitude of COVID-19. The extraordinary consequences of the current pandemic will challenge WTO members to determine if current rules remain applicable or need modifications.

Possible solutions for food security and for the availability of medical goods

Food security should, in my view, have different solutions in the trade arena than what may be needed for medical pandemics.

For food security, banning export restraints should be theoretically possible if coupled with (1) national, regional or global inventory reserves of key products to address the periodic droughts and other challenges to supply, (2) market access liberalization of the key agricultural products, and (3) rapid resolution if WTO Members violate their commitments. Even though theoretically possible, the global history of famines and the critical role of food security to governments around the world suggests that meaningful change to trade rules to reduce the flexibilities that presently exist to address food shortages is highly unlikely as part of WTO reform.

On medical pandemics, there are theoretically possible steps that countries could take to reduce the personal and economic toll of future pandemics and the damage to global trade flows. Countries historically have done a poor job of investing in research to address future diseases or viruses until a crisis has occurred. Countries could expand R&D efforts before pandemics. Similarly, national, regional, state/province, local inventories of many critical medical goods could be maintained to address pandemic-level needs. But the reality has been that governments, hospitals and medical businesses have generally not invested in the inventory needed for the historically infrequent pandemic level demand. Supply chains can be modified to provide more sources for all inputs versus reliance on suppliers from one or just a few countries. Governments could develop with companies a game plan for where additional capacity could be generated and how quickly if a pandemic arose and update those game plans periodically. Tariffs could be eliminated on all medical goods, supplies, equipment, and personal protective goods. Governments could ensure priority access of imports of such goods that meet international standards. Governments could provide information to the WHO and WTO on capacities of key medical goods on an annual basis to improve the transparency for countries on supplies. Governments could agree to ban export restraints during a pandemic. Governments could authorize international institutions to build regional inventories for access by countries without the financial resources to build inventories on their own.

While only some of the above actions would come within the WTO’s area of competence, it is hard to imagine WTO Members agreeing to the elimination of discretion they currently enjoy for medical emergencies. It is similarly difficult to imagine countries taking actions longer term to address a problem that could be dismissed as a once-in-a-century crisis.

The broader issues flowing from the need for massive government infusions of funds to prevent the global economy from collapsing are certainly important. If not addressed in a way that allows Members to do what they individually believe they need to do in this crisis, the broader issues will further impede forward movement on broad WTO reform.

Challenging times reveal important structural issues for consideration by WTO Members. Let’s hope there is sufficient recognition of the need for addressing the issues to lead to meaningful progress in reforming the WTO. But don’t hold your breath.

COVID-19 – WTO report on medical goods; FAO report on food security

The World Trade Organization has a page on its website that is dedicated to COVID-19 including references to statements from various governments, international organizations, business groups, information from the WTO itself including a compilation of notifications by Members of actions (whether trade limiting or trade expanding) taken in response to COVID-19, and links to a range of websites providing important information on the pandemic. Joint statements are also included. See today’s joint statement between the WTO and the World Customs Organization, https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/igo_06apr20_e.htm.

Last Friday, April 3rd, the WTO released a sixteen page note entitled “Trade in Medical Goods in the Context of Tackling COVID-19”. https://www.wto.org/english/news_e/news20_e/rese_03apr20_e.pdf. The note is very useful in terms of providing some definition to a range of products relevant to handling the COVID-19 crisis, identifying major importers and exporters of various product types and providing information on tariffs on the product categories for all WTO Members. The note identifies the following “key points”:

“• Germany, the United States (US), and Switzerland supply 35% of medical products;

“• China, Germany and the US export 40% of personal protective products;

“• Imports and exports of medical products totalled about $2 trillion, including intra-EU trade, which represented approximately 5% of total world merchandise trade in 2019;

“• Trade of products described as critical and in severe shortage in COVID-19 crisis totalled about $597 billion, or 1.7% of total world trade in 2019;

“• Tariffs on some products remain very high. For example, the average applied tariff for hand soap is 17% and some WTO Members apply tariffs as high as 65%;

“• Protective supplies used in the fight against COVID-19 attract an average tariff of 11.5% and goes as high as 27% in some countries;

“• The WTO has contributed to the liberalization of trade medical products in three main ways:

“➢ The results of tariff negotiations scheduled at the inception of the WTO in 1995;

“➢ Conclusion of the plurilateral sectoral Agreement on Pharmaceutical Products (“Pharma Agreement”) in the Uruguay Round and its four subsequent reviews;

“➢ The Expansion of the Information Technology Agreement in 2015.”

As is true with any analysis of data, the reader needs to understand what is covered and what is not and how good a fit the data provided have with the topic being discussed.

For example, the note reviews four categories of products relevant to the world addressing the COVID-19 pandemic (page 1):

  • “medicines (pharmaceuticals) – including both dosified and bulk medicines;
  • “medical supplies – refers to consumables for hospital and laboratory use (e.g., alcohol, syringes, gauze, reagents, etc.);
  • “medical equipment and technology; and
  • “personal protective products -hand soap and sanitizer, face masks, protective spectacles.”

While the four categories are, of course, relevant to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the products covered by the tariff schedule categories are both over- and underinclusive if one is trying to understand the size of global trade in medical products directly relevant to the global efforts to address COVID-19.

The report’s data are overinclusive because the Harmonized System of Tariffs used by most nations is only harmonized to the six-digit level of specificity. The categories included in the WTO note cover both COVID-19 related products and many others. Stated differently, nearly all of the product categories identified in Annex 1 to the note include at least some items that are not germane to the current pandemic. This is a limitation on the usefulness of the data flowing from the lack of more specific classifications that all countries adhere to. As the six-digit data are all that are available with a consistent definition around the world, it is not surprising that the WTO relied on the data. Arguably better, but not uniform data could have been derived by reviewing the 8-, 9- or 10-digit statistical data for imports and exports of at least major Members, but that was not done.

Similarly, the product coverage is underinclusive as recognized in the WTO note (page 2). “It should be noted that this note focuses solely on the final form of these products and does not extent to the different intermediate products that are used by global value chains in their production. The protective garments for surgical/medical use are not included in the analysis, because it is impossible to distinguish them from general clothing product in the HS classification.”

As governments and companies have articulated over the last several months, many of the key final products (e.g., ventilators) require a large number of inputs which are often sourced from a variety of suppliers around the globe. For example, one ventilator company which assembles the ventilators in the United States is reliant on circuit boards from its facility in China to maintain or increase production. Other companies bring various inputs in from Canada or Mexico or other countries as well as shipping U.S. components to other countries for final assembly. The same reality is obviously true for producers of medical goods in other countries as well. Thus, an inability to cover inputs significantly understates global trade volumes of products relevant to addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, there are shortages in many countries of the protective garments for which no data are included. These are important products traded that are directly relevant to the world’s ability to respond to COVID-19. The lack of coverage of those products understates the importance of personal protective products to the total and understates global trade.

The above is simply to say, the sections of the WTO note that look at trade patterns (imports, exports, leading players) are helpful in identifying possible breaks between products and possible major players but the data may be significantly off from the actual split among products or role of major players if complete data limited to products relevant for addressing COVID-19 were available. It may also understate the importance of keeping markets open even if there are relatively few imports of finished products.

To explore how overstated data may be, if one looks at the HS categories shown in Annex 1 for personal protective products and looks at the United States U.S. imports for consumption for 2019 at the 10-digit HTS level of detail, the top seven 10-digit categories by customs value accounted for more than 72% of the $17 billion in imports. Yet each of the categories would contain many products not actually relevant to efforts to address COVID-19. In fact five of the seven categories are basket categories.

3926.90.9990OTHER ARTICLES OF PLASTIC, NESOI
6307.90.9889OTHER MADE-UP ARTICLES NESOI
3824.99.9297CHEMICAL PRODUCTS AND PREPARATIONS AND RESIDUAL PRODUCTS OF THE CHEMICAL OR ALLIED INDUSTRIES, NESOI
9004.90.0000SPECTACLES, GOGGLES AND THE LIKE, CORRECTIVE, PROTECTIVE, NESOI
3926.90.7500PNEUMATIC MATTRESSES & OTHR INFLATABLE ARTICLES,NESOI
3824.99.3900MIXTURES OF TWO OR MORE INORGANIC COMPOUNDS
3926.90.4590OTHER GASKETS AND WASHERS & OTHER SEALS

Similarly, the analysis of applied tariff rates is useful in showing rates for product groupings and the rates for individual countries for those product groupings but may be less useful in identifying the assistance tariff reductions would have in the present time of the pandemic. Obviously, tariff reductions by any Member that imposes them on imported products relevant to the pandemic would reduce the cost for the importing country of the needed materials. But the extent of assistance varies significantly depending on the Member as the data in Annex 2 show.

As the EU/EEA/United Kingdom and the United States account for 73.9% of the confirmed cases in the world as of April 6, 2020, a review of the applied rates for those countries would identify likely benefit from tariff reductions by the countries with the major outbreaks at the moment. The EU has an average applied rate of 1.5%, the U.S. an average applied rate of 0.9%, Norway 0.6% and Switzerland 0.7%. These rates don’t include any special duties, such as US duties on China flowing from the Section 301 investigation (with some products being subject to potential waiver of additional duties). Thus, for the vast majority of current cases, the importing countries’ applied rates are very low and hence not a significant barrier to trade.

https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/geographical-distribution-2kistan019-ncov-cases; https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/cases-2019-ncov-eueea

Other countries where the reach of the pandemic may intensify typically have much higher applied tariffs. As case loads intensify in other countries or in anticipation of such potential eventualities, countries with higher tariffs should be exploring autonomous duty reductions to make imported products more affordable. India has an average applied tariff of 11.6%; Pakistan an average rate of 10.0% and Malaysia a rate of 11.7% to flag just three Members with rates at or above 10%.

The WTO note is embedded below.

rese_03apr20_e

Food security and the FAO analysis of current agricultural product availability

In a prior post, I reviewed the compounding problems during the COVID-19 pandemic of some countries starting to impost export restraints on selected products (e.g., rice, wheat) to protect food supplies. Countries reported to be imposing export restraints on food had been Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Vietnam. A series of articles in Asian and European press have noted that Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia have also introduced various restraints as well. Major agricultural groups in Asia are warning that disrupting movement of food (including movement of workers to help harvest, etc.) could lead to food shortages in Asia and have reviewed that Asian countries import some 220 million tons of agricultural products which underlines the need to keep markets open. See, e.g., https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3078376/coronavirus-food-security-asias-next-battle-post-covid-world; https://www.dairyreporter.com/Article/2020/03/30/Major-food-shortages-possible-in-Asia-says-FIA#.

While fear can lead to panic and various border measures, the actual situation globally as laid out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (“FAO”) in a recent paper is that there are more than sufficient supplies of food. The key is minimizing disruptions to production and distribution. This is not a period where major disruptions from drought or floods have caused shortages of products. Specifically, the FAO’s Chief Economist prepared a document entitled “COVID-19 and the risk to food supply chains: How to respond?” which was released on March 29. http://www.fao.org/3/ca8388en/CA8388EN.pdf. The paper starts with a section entitled “What we know”:

“Countries have shut down the economy to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Supermarket shelves remain stocked for now. But a protracted pandemic crisis could quickly put a strain on the food supply chains, a complex web of interactions involving farmers, agricultural inputs, processing plants, shipping, retailers and more. The shipping industry is already reporting slowdowns because of port closures, and logistics hurdles could disrupt the supply chains in coming weeks.

“In order to avoid food shortages, it is imperative that countries keep the food supply chains going. Unlike the 2007-2008 global food crisis, scarcity is not an issue this time. The supply of staple commodities is functioning well, and the crops need to be transported to where they are needed most. Restricting trade is not only unnecessary, it would hurt producers and consumers and even create panic in the markets. For high-value commodities that require workers (instead of machines) for production, countries must strike a balance between the need to keep production going and the need to protect the workers.

“As countries combat the coronavirus pandemic, they must also make every effort to keep the gears of their food supply chains moving.”

The paper then goes on to identify five actions needed to minimize the likelihood of food shortages arising during the pandemic. These actions are:

“Expand and improve emergency food assistance and social protection programs

“Give smallholder farmers support to both enhance their productivity and market the food they produce, also through e-commerce channels

“Keep the food value chain alive by focusing on key logistics bottlenecks

“Address trade and tax policies to keep the global trade open

“Manage the macroeconomic ramifications”.

With the number of countries already taking actions that are inconsistent with keeping global markets open for the movement of food supplies, the world is at risk of having a major complication added to the extrordinary economic shocks already being felt to address the health needs of the COVID-19 pandemic. Such a major complication would, as it did in 2007-2008, directly harm developing and least developed countries, countries least able to absorb additional shocks.

The report and a powerpoint from FAO are embedded below.

COVID-19-and-the-risk-to-food-supply-chains_-How-to-respond_

ca8308en