With COVID-19 reaching all corners of the Earth, concerns are rising regarding the adequate supply of food. Some countries have stopped food exports to cover internal demand while others are worried that not enough workers will be available for harvest.
How real are these fears? Could COVID-19 cause a worldwide food shortage?
Disruption of trade and distribution networks
While lockdowns and quarantines are only supposed to stop people from traveling between countries, trade is suffering too. Businesses and producers are interconnected in the agricultural world. Factories produce tractors and spare parts, chemical suppliers provide insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Trucks move produce and animals across the world. Foodstuffs for animals also require packaging and transportation. All these networks have been disrupted.
With half of the world in lockdown, many factories and manufacturers have frozen production. Expect delays in the production of anything that is even remotely connected with agricultural production. As people cannot go to their work, production falls behind. Even when the economy returns to some semblance of normality, bottlenecks will persist.
A shortage of workers
There is an obvious lack of people manning factories and production facilities. But farmers, growers, and breeders, also face a shortage of workers to help them out with their work. In Europe, countries that have a vast agricultural sector like Italy, France, Spain, or even smaller Greece are already facing a shortage of manpower to pick nectarines, peaches, cherries, and other summer fruit that will start to produce in the next few months.
A further stressful point for farmers and growers is that the picking season is usually short and most picking occurs within the same few weeks, if not days. So, most farmers will be competing for workers at the exact same time. Again, this points to a possible shortage of laborers.
To make things worse, workers cannot move from one country to another with most countries on lockdown. These activities were usually done by migrant workers, only they are not allowed free movement any more. Until things settle down, there will be a shortage of workers.
Uncertainty about the future
Farmers and growers have to plan for the future, only they don’t know what the future holds. They need to make decisions about what to plant now for winter. Similarly, breeders need to decide whether to expand and how much meat will be required in the coming months. Should they slaughter animals or not?
All these questions depend on the level of the expected demand but also on the availability of production and distribution networks and the freedom of movement. Will there be a second wave of COVID-19 in winter? How will it affect the world? Without a clear answer to these questions, planning for the future feels like a gamble few are prepared for.
So, what is the answer? Could COVID-19 cause a worldwide food shortage? The short answer is, yes. COVID-19 is a typical black swan event that has disrupted people’s lives in more ways than one.
The production structure is experiencing novel limitations and turmoil. Farmers, growers, and breeders need to find the appropriate manpower while also making decisions about their future in a general state of uncertainty. While governments will do their best to aid farmers financially, they will still have to balance the need to protect their citizens from COVID-19 against the need to let workers work the fields and let trade pass through their borders.
Until the medical community finds a solid treatment or, even better, a vaccine, anxiety about the future will prevail.