Least Developed Countries

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.