Will COVID-19 Lead to A Global “Hunger Games”?

Indonesian Fisher         Photo: Wildlife Conservation Society via: WFF

Global leaders are warning that breaks in the global supply chain for food imports to the U.S. could have devastating impacts in developing countries.  In late March, U.N. leaders made a request to keep food flowing across borders because “millions of people around the world depend on international trade for their food security and livelihoods.”  But now the breaking point is closer in countries like Indonesia, where tens of thousands of families depend on the export of fish products like crab meat to the U.S. restaurant and foodservice markets, which have all but shut down.

Why This Matters:  Thanks to the President ordering meat plants to re-open, we are focused on food supply chains here at home, but there many people around the world supplying us necessary food items (like fresh fruits and vegetables and seafood that can’t be grown here now) as well.  When global food trade disintegrates overnight the ripple effects can make the world less stable by leading to starvation and food riots in the developing world. Indeed, experts argue the “global food supply chain is magnifying the COVID-19 crisis by making many countries less food self-sufficient and even more vulnerable to pandemics” that start in places like wet markets.  

Developing Countries Are Scrambling To Feed People

The blue swimming crab fishery in Indonesia is a good example.  Heather D’Agnes who leads the ocean program at the Walton Family  Foundation explained to ODP that up to 90% of blue swimming crab meat from Indonesia is exported to the U.S., and about 90% of that goes to middlemen distributors who sell it to restaurants and hotels — very little of it goes to grocery stores.  Crabmeat is largely out of season this time of year in the U.S. so restaurants generally rely on imports, but they are not importing since they are by and large closed.  Imported crab meat prices have plunged since demand is down to about 10% of its normal levels.  D’Agnes reports that as a result, the government and industry associations have begun to support hundreds of thousands of Indonesians who work in the crab fishery with basic food provisions so they can get by for the next month.

The Bigger Food Supply Picture

It is unclear when the disruptions can end because restaurants will be closed for the foreseeable future and ships and planes loaded with food supplies are some of the most effective transmitters of the disease over long distances, according to Common Dreams.  The last time there were major disruptions in the global food supply chains was during the Great Recession in 2008.  International NGOs now fear a repeat of that time when “export restrictions by key grain supplying countries like China, Argentina, Vietnam, and Indonesia forced food prices to skyrocket — adding 75 million people to the ranks of the hungry and driving an estimated 125 million people in developing countries into extreme poverty.”   Experts argue that we should have learned from that experience that these transnational supply chains being driven by western corporations are not very resilient, Common Dreams explains.  Since then, the food supply chain has stretched out farther and local and regional food systems even less robust, leaving the world that much more food insecure today.  FAO chief Qu Yongdu warned, “Don’t let the COVID-19 crisis become a hunger game.

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