By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Many years go, during the ‘80s, I had an academic fellowship in Geneva, Switzerland. There I spent a wonderful year, researching trade policy, improving my French, skiing most winter weekends, and learning a little bit about food security – even though that wasn’t the subject of my research.
At that time, Swiss food policy ensured the country was self sufficient. This condition was considered necessary to maintaining Swiss political neutrality – a central principle of the country’s foreign policy, as it hasn’t participated in a foreign war since the 1815 Treaty of Paris.
More than 60 per cent of Switzerland is covered by the Alps, so it’s not the best place to grow food cheaply – although they do make excellent cheese. Alas, for someone trying to live on a fellowship – albeit one with a generous stipend – the price of Swiss meat was a bit of a stretch. It was easily more than 3 times what I paid for meat in the UK. I more or less became a vegetarian that year, forgoing meat for cheese, vegetables, pain aux raisins, mont blanc, and of course, heavenly chocolate.
Since that time, Switzerland has relaxed its food policy, and is now a little more than 50 per cent self-sufficient. And the Swiss electorate endorsed this policy when they rejected two ballot proposals in 2018, the Food Security Initiative and the Fair Food Initiative, aimed at promoting local farming and ethical production, respectively, according to Ethical food proposals brushed off the table.
Now, the coronavirus crisis may prompt many countries, including the Swiss, to reconsider their dependence on other nation states for a basic human need: our daily bread.
As Bloomberg reports in Countries Starting to Hoard Food, Threatening Global Trade:
It’s not just grocery shoppers who are hoarding pantry staples. Some governments are moving to secure domestic food supplies during the conoravirus pandemic.
Kazakhstan, one of the world’s biggest shippers of wheat flour, banned exports of that product along with others, including carrots, sugar and potatoes. Vietnam temporarily suspended new rice export contracts. Serbia has stopped the flow of its sunflower oil and other goods, while Russia is leaving the door open to shipment bans and said it’s assessing the situation weekly.
To be perfectly clear, there have been just a handful of moves and no sure signs that much more is on the horizon. Still, what’s been happening has raised a question: Is this the start of a wave of food nationalism that will further disrupt supply chains and trade flows?
Yesterday, the United Nations warned that coronavirus measures could lead to food shortages, as The Guardian reports in Coronavirus measures could cause global food shortage, UN warns:
Protectionist measures by national governments during the coronavirus crisis could provoke food shortages around the world, 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 UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, 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.”
At present, the UN’s warning is ominous, but not dire. Yet the food shortage threat will only increase, as the coronavirus crisis continues, and the northern hemisphere moves into the heart of its growing season. Encore for The Guardian:
While the supply of food is functioning well in most countries at present, problems could start to be seen within weeks and intensify over the following two months as key fruit and vegetables come into season. These types of produce often have short ripening times and are highly perishable, and need skilled pickers to work quickly at the right time.
“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.”
Countries such as the UK, with a sinking currency and high level of imports, are also likely to see food price rises unless the government takes action or retailers absorb some of the costs, he said.
The most important role governments can play is to keep the food supply chain operating, intervene to ensure there are enough workers, and keep the global food markets from panicking, 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.”
The United Kingdom
I lived in the United Kingdom for three years prior to my stint in Geneva, and for one one year after. At that time, UK food prices were much lower than Swiss ones. Now, as those who monitored Brexit discussions no doubt already know, the UK is dependent on imports for roughly half of its food, 53 per cent, to be exact.
As Tim Lang writes in The Conversation, Coronavirus: rationing based on health, equity and decency now needed – food system expert:
Food security is no laughing matter at the best of times, but I gasped when I first read the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) annual food civil contingencies infrastructure report in 2018. It is barely a page long (in public at least) and assures us everything is OK and that the food system is resilient and able to withstand shocks. As the coronvirus racks the nation and panic buying continues, this complacency is about to be tested.
Few analysts of the UK food system are anything other than sober about its fragility. There is little storage. All operates on a just-in-time basis in which food travels down the supply chain – literally, just in time for when the next link or process needs it. Food businesses have been realigned to cut delays and storage. Consumers have come to expect constant flows of food, without hiccups or gaps. New industries have emerged, notably logistics and satellites which track this all from farm to shop. We are trucker-dependent now.
Only 53% of food consumed in the UK is produced in the country. Others feed the Brits. Some scientists calculate that UK external dependency is even greater, with hidden use of external land to provide animal feed.
While this distortedly efficient food revolution has been rolled out, the UK food trade gap – the difference between exports and imports by value – has widened. In 2018, food worth £46.8 billion was imported, with exports worth only £22.5 billion, leaving a food trade gap of £24.3 billion. Much of the imports are vital for health, the £10bn imports of fruit and veg in particular. UK fruit and veg growing has sunk. The UK’s main “oral” export these days is whisky. Even meat – supposedly Britain’s forte – is in the red. If borders close or supply chains snap, what then?
Lang believes that the UK may soon be facing a food crisis, and calls for the government ito think about imposing a system of rationing, rather than allowing a free for all to ensue.
A crunch point for UK food policy and planning is surely approaching. The coronavirus crisis is already spawning worrying actions. Whereas under Brexit no-deal threats, stoicism ruled and “preppers” – people stocking up – were generally few. Today shelves are being stripped and queues form for supermarkets to open. It’s why colleagues and I have called on the UK prime minister to set up a rational system of rationing – based on health, equity and decency – to see the country through this crisis.
The alternative is for food retailers to engage in de facto rationing, according to whatever principles they care to apply, rather than those that would prevail in a transparent public rationing system. Lang again:
Meanwhile, it is the food retailers who are beginning to ration supply. This is unacceptable in a democracy. If to happen, it ought to be in the open – and guided by health and sustainability. Surely the “public good” lies in feeding all well, according to need not income. Those values are what got the UK through the second world war, as our Churchill-inspired prime minister ought to know.
Calcutta: The Overhang of the Bengal Famine
One reason many Indians have so little time for Churchill hagiography is his behavior during the 1943 Bengal famine, when more than 3 million people died. If you don’t know this stragic tory, please look at this piece by Indian author and Congress politician Shashi Tharoor, In Winston Churchill, Hollywood rewards a mass murderer (just one of many Tharoor has written about this subject).
After completing a doctorate at a very young age and spending decades as a bureaucrat at United Nations headquarters in New York, Tharoor was a front runner to be UN General Secretary, until the United States blocked his candidacy. He returned to India, and is now a member of India’s parliament, the Lok Sabha, representing the state of Kerala (see this 2006 account in India Today, UN top job: Why India’s candidate Shashi Tharoor had to drop out of the race; see this more recent and complete account from Tharoor himself, in Open, The inside Story of How I Lost the Race for the UN Secretary-General’s Job in 2006: Shashi Tharoor.)
For those readers who wish to delve further into the history of the Bengal famine and Churchill’s complicity, please see this Guardian account, which summarizes recent scholarship on the issue, Churchill’s policy, Churchill’s policies contributed to 1943 Bengal famine – study.
Now, the days seem past when some crisis or other could lead to widespread famine in India. Nonetheless, even in ‘normal’ conditions, 19 crore (e.g. 10 million) Indians – roughly 190 million people – go to bed hungry every night, as India Today reported in 2017, World Food Day: Why 19 crore Indians go to bed hungry every night.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Tuesday announcement to lock down the movements of more than a billion Indians for 21 days to limit coronavirus spread has led to food price spikes. Supplies remain ample, even though Modi’s speech triggered a wave of immediate panic buying as he failed to explain in his speech what arrangements had been made to ensure people could buy food. He quickly tweeted to correct this oversight (see No need for panic buying; essential commodities, medicines will remain available: PM). Yet even short term price surges harm India’s poor.
Formidable organizational challenges must be addressed to ensure food remains available and affordable. As just one example, the city of Calcutta gets many of its vegetables from wetlands outside the city, and food is shipped in by commuter rail service – now shut. Alternative means must now be arranged to move vegetables to Calcutta consumers. This will no doubt include ferrying provisions in via vehicles – private, public, and perhaps military.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced yesterday that local police would drop off food supplies at people’s doorsteps, according to The Hindustan Times Covid-19 lockdown: ‘Police stations will take responsibility to deliver food at doorsteps,’ says Mamata. There’s no sign of this pledge yet being met, but markets, shops, and supermarkets are open, with supermarkets sending customers SMS messages about their business hours. Today, sound trunks trundled across the city, blaring the message that Banerjee’s party, the Trinamool Congress, would make basic foodstuffs available at sub-market rates. Potatoes and tomatoes, for example, would sell for 20 rupees (about a United States quarter) per kilo – significantly less than today’s market price of 30 rupees (an uptick from the pre-lockdown price).
Other problems loom. Indian states have closed their borders, stymieing for the moment food shipments across state lines. And since the bulk of some foodstuffs – the fish beloved of Bengalis – comes from outside the state, people may need to do without some favorites during the crisis. Just how the harvest will be managed – of wheat, for example – is unclear, with grain markets shut, according to Outlook, Oppn parties welcome Centre”s relief package, but say ”too little”, ”inadequate” But Indians are stoic at present, and there is no immediate threat of food shortages – at least in Calcutta.
The UN’s warning is worrisome. Governments must now focus on ensuring stable, regular, food supplies, at affordable prices, while discouraging price gouging, hoarding – and accompanying wastage of food.
Yet in the longer term, governments may reconsider whether the Swiss once had it right: Food security is a basic component of sound public policy. And extended supply chains, while they seem sensible during ordinary conditions, break down during crisis.
Most people merely mutter the words of the Lord’s Prayer without thinking the plea may ever apply to them. Let’s all hope national and global policies are better at ensuring food security than public health measures were at preventing the pandemic’s spread.