Protectionist measures by national governments during the coronavirus crisis could provoke food shortages around the world, Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) the UN’s food body has warned.
Harvests have been good and the outlook for staple crops is promising, but a shortage of field workers brought on by the virus crisis and a move towards protectionism – tariffs and export bans – mean problems could quickly appear in the coming weeks, Maximo Torero, chief economist of the FAO, told the Guardian.
“The worst that can happen is that governments restrict the flow of food,” he said. “All measures against free trade will be counterproductive. Now is not the time for restrictions or putting in place trade barriers. Now is the time to protect the flow of food around the world. Trade barriers will create extreme volatility,” warned Torero. “They will make the situation worse. That’s what we observe in food crises.”
Kazakhstan, for instance, according to a report from Bloomberg, has banned exports of wheat flour, of which it is one of the world’s biggest sources, as well as restrictions on buckwheat and vegetables including onions, carrots and potatoes. Vietnam, the world’s third biggest rice exporter, has temporarily suspended rice export contracts. Russia, the world’s biggest wheat exporter, may also threaten to restrict exports, as it has done before, and the position of the US is in doubt given Donald Trump’s eagerness for a trade war in other commodities
“We need to be careful not to break the food value chain and the logistics or we will be looking at problems with fresh vegetables and fruits soon,” said Torero. “Fruit and vegetables are also very labour intensive, if the labour force is threatened because people can’t move then you have a problem.”
As governments impose lockdowns in countries across the world, recruiting seasonal workers will become impossible unless measures are taken to ensure vital workers can still move around, while preventing the virus from spreading.
“Coronavirus is affecting the labour force and the logistical problems are becoming very important,” said Torero. “We need to have policies in place so the labour force can keep doing their job. Protect people too, but we need the labour force. Major countries have yet to implement these sorts of policies to ensure that food can keep moving.”
According to Torero, “If traders start to become nervous, conditions will get difficult,” he said. “It just needs one big trader to make a decision to disrupt the supply of staple crops and that will affect everywhere. Governments must properly regulate, that is their biggest function in this situation. It’s very important to keep alive the food value chain: intervene to protect the value chain including the supply of workers but not to distort the market.”In the UK, some farming leaders have called for a “land army” of workers to replace a shortfall of workers that could reach 80,000, according to one estimate, if the 60,000 seasonal workers recruited from abroad in normal years are prevented from coming, and if some British workers fall ill.