How the COVID-19 Pandemic Could Lead to Global Famine

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has predicted that there might be a global famine in the future as a result of COVID-19. In an address to public representatives and officials, she urged her nation to produce food and to keep sufficient stock of food grains in the country.

Hasina: ‘There May be a Global Famine’

“There will be a shortage of food due to coronavirus. In future, there may be a global famine,” Hasina said on April 20, adding that “if we can produce food and preserve it, then we won’t fall into that famine. Rather, we will be able to help many others. We have to take those steps from now on. Let there not be an inch of land left without farming,” she added.

But in a world of adequate global food supply, how did we come to face the threat of famine so quickly?

Food Supply Without Food Security

On January 12, 2006, the Wall Street Journal ran an article warning us of a major supply chain disaster in the event of a pandemic. A low supply of drugs and hospital necessities was said to promote cost efficiency, to the detriment of any possible pandemic outbreaks.

“An adequate supply of food does not in itself guarantee household level food security,” the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations wrote in a 2018 report.

By March 2020, following an unprecedented global pandemic, the UK was left with only a few weeks to supply its farms with harvesters  and its people with fresh food. Various travel restrictions, enforced to stem the migration of the coronavirus between European borders, prevented seasonal fruit from reaching the United Kingdom.

Britain’s Country Land and Business Association (CLA) went on to call for a “land army” of British volunteers to harvest the county’s fruits and vegetables. CLA President, Mark Bridgeman stated that the country was facing a labor shortage of up to 80,000 harvesters, while the international charity Concordia Volunteers placed that figure at 90,000 harvesters.

The year before, the UK’s fruit farming was dependent on the 98% of fruit pickers who came from abroad – most from Romania, Bulgaria and other parts of Eastern Europe. By spring 2020, seasonal harvesters were unable to make the trip into Western Europe, because border closures within Eastern Europe were preventing air and land travel out of the region.

In April 2020, Anthony Gardiner, marketing director at international farming business, G’s, would spend £40,000 to charter a flight transporting 150 Romanian fruit pickers into Britain.

“The last time we had a majority of British people picking in the fields was at the very end of the 1980s,” he explained. “You have got to have some people who are experienced and know what they are doing. They will help bring the newcomers up to pace. Our hope is that this year we will have two-thirds of our workforce from Britain,” he continued, “but you need an experienced core for the newcomers to learn from. It is not just picking. You need knowledge of food safety to do it properly.”

Earlier in April, experts had warned that the UK was would be forced to dump up to 3.8 million tons of produce if harvesters were not immediately employed.

Britain’s COVID-19 fruit dilemma was simply a symptom of a wider, deep-seated global challenge: the world’s food supply chain creates short-term efficacy, with no long-term solutions.

The Precariousness of Food Supply Chains

There is enough food to feed the global population, yet the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the wide-scale precariousness of food availability. Consumers panic buying left supermarket shelves all over the world empty for weeks in March and April. In Europe, supermarkets were forced to enforce purchase limits and restrictions, as consumers sought food for the long term in supermarkets stocked only for the short-term.

Using a “just in time” (JIT) inventory method, our food supply chain supplies food to populations just before they need it. This reduces the need to store surplus food in warehouses, factories, supermarkets, silos and more, which would cost a lot more money. The just in time inventory method increases financial gain, saving costs by cutting out the storage portion of a food supply chain. To work successfully, the JIT method needs to be synchronized perfectly, and food suppliers must be able to predict consumer needs. But pandemics  and other global disasters  are hardly predictable.

During disasters, consumers’ unconditional demand system becomes wildly unpredictable. Using an unconditional demand system to measure the interdependent relationship between food and non-food products, what food consumers need becomes dependent on the context of each historical moment. Presently, the availability of personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers, supermarket workers, food truck drivers, food factory workers and so on will determine how much essential staff avoid becoming infected with the virus. This in turn determines how much of the food supply within every just in time inventory reaches the general public.

“We do not see a supply shock in the sense of the availability,” said Abdolreza Abbassian, a senior economist at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization.

“But there could be a supply shock in terms of logistics, not being able to move it from point A to point B. This is something new and very difficult to predict. It’s that uncertainty that right now is the biggest danger.”

The unconditional demand system becomes another portion of the supply chain that must be synchronized perfectly, along with just in time inventory, if our food supply chain is to work efficiently. With just one portion of the supply chain disrupted, food shortage can become an immediate reality for millions  and even billions of people.

Food Nationalism in a Globalized Pandemic

As the UK struggles to harvest its bounty this month, Germany, Spain and the US are also struggling with food distribution. In manufacturing, food factories in South Africa, India, the United States, New Zealand, China and Canada continue to shut temporarily, as the number of coronavirus cases rises among staff.

Despite ample global supplies, it is not just individuals hoarding food. Discussions in the global public sphere over a possible rise in food nationalism are rising. Last month, Russia’s Agriculture Ministry proposed setting up an export quota of 7 million tonnes of grain for the next three months.

“This measure, if approved by the government, would cover the main grain types, including wheat, rye, barley and corn. It would help ensure the stability in the domestic food market,” said the minister in a statement released on March 20.

In Kazhakstan food exports including onion, buckwheat, and vegetables, were stopped between March 22 and April 15.

A rise in food nationalism is a prescient fear, because of the levels of food insecurity it would bring to nations worldwide.

A side effect of overzealous globalization, the sudden nationalization of a fully globalized food industry would likely lead to food shortages, malnutrition, and possibly famine, for the majority of the world’s citizens.

‘A New Era of Responsible Consumption’

Following pressure from the US farm lobby for government purchases, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has begun purchasing meat and milk to maintain the country’s food chain supply. Disruptions in the supply chain, because of the pandemic prevented ranchers and farmers from supplying their produce to consumers, leading to significant food waste.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue explained that: “we want to purchase as much of this milk, or other protein products, hams and pork products, and move them into where they can be utilised in our food banks, or possibly even into international humanitarian aid.”

Unilever Chief Executive, Alan Jope, has predicted that the COVID-19 pandemic would “herald a new era of responsible consumption” for food and other consumables.

Facing Reality and Prioritizing Food Storage

As of April 21, the coronavirus now has more than 2.5 million recorded cases and over 174,000 deaths.

Our current global food supply chain system is currently unsustainable. It is based on the financial tenet that short-term profits are more valuable that the protection and preservation of human life.

We must now implement a long-term system that prioritizes food storage  as was the case with traditional, localized farming for millennia.

This new system must recognize that inadequate healthcare, logistics and infrastructure – combined with the unpredictability of consumer demands  are the biggest threat to our food supply chain today. A sick population and complex barriers towards transporting food globally will, quite simply, lead to starvation and chaos in the long run when disaster strikes.

Our global food supply chain must be revamped and made more resilient if we are to survive.