Opinion: How will the outbreak affect global food and farming?

March 25, 2020

The covid-19 pandemic and the associated lockdowns, grounding industries around the world, are perhaps the biggest challenge in a generation for the food and agri industries. It is vital that adequate measures are in place to ensure continuity.

Food shortage in the UK would be a serious crisis under a coronavirus lockdown and it is imperative that plans are in place to ensure the supply chain remains open, functional and optimised. Firstly, I would like to assure everyone that the empty shelves in supermarkets shouldn’t be much of a concern. It is not a supply problem; it is a logistics problem. There is enough supply for all, as long as everyone stays calm and stops hoarding. We tend to waste more food if we hoard more than required. Hoarding can also artificially increase food prices because of pressure on supply chains.


Mitigating labour shortage is vital


The impact of a nationwide lockdown on agricultural output is already being felt in China. Farmers are facing a daunting planting season as they deal with shortages of labour, seeds and fertilisers. A survey of village officials in 1,636 counties by the Qufu Normal University in China found that 60 per cent of the respondents were pessimistic or very pessimistic about the planting season. The Chinese agriculture and farming industry has clearly collapsed under the lockdown, freezing labour workforce and supplies.


The UK’s agriculture industry, in contrast to China, is highly mechanised, producing 50 per cent of the food it needs with only two per cent of the workforce. That being said, the UK farming sector is deeply integrated with the global supply chain, and any macro changes in global markets, such as through higher prices for arable farmers, price volatility or impact in reliability, can have immediate effect.


Global agricultural output and supply chains play a vital role in feeding the UK – the country imports 30 per cent of its food from the EU, including fresh fruit and veg, meat, cereals and diary. Any supply chain disruptions in key farming markets arising out of labour shortages and lockdowns in EU countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, Romania and Poland will have a direct impact on the UK. UK farms also depend on seasonal European migrants for farm picking and packaging –  disruptions to the supply of labour under this crisis will see farms facing a massive crisis.


It is therefore critical that governments around the world, including that of the UK, officially recognise agriculture and farming as critical sectors, along with healthcare, energy and emergency services. It is imperative that farms and the food sector receive short-term exemptions from lockdown regulations, and workers are provided with safe work and protective equipment to enable them do the urgent and necessary work required to keep the food supply chain robust. In the UK, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs will need to step in to effectively manage the situation and communicate the course of action to all farms, food industries and stakeholders.


Ensure trade lines are open


Maintaining trade and export activity at a time of crisis is also vital. Farmers depend on exports, as much as the UK depends on food imports. China is a big market for UK produce and in turn the UK is dependent on China for a lot of supply chain equipment, from fertilisers to packaging materials. The EU is a core contributor to British plates from Danish bacon and ham, French wine and cheese, Dutch and Belgian potatoes, and Spanish and Dutch tomatoes. Britain also exports 98 per cent of lamb meat to the EU. 


Now is also the time to understand and recognise the strengths and weaknesses within these systems to better gain control of our food and agricultural systems. The UK currently has a competitive advantage over the EU becasue its farms are larger than typical. However, the UK is less strong in the supply of technologies and equipment, whether in farm irrigation (French and Italian companies are ahead on this) or in the food manufacturing sector (where Germany is the leader).


Considering that the UK is still in the EU, farmers depend on EU subsidies, therefore the relationship between the pound and euro has a critical bearing on UK farming. Subsidies received by UK farmers are set in euros, and then converted to sterling in September each year. The economic impact of the Eurozone in the near future, along with Britain’s relationship with the bloc, will have a strong bearing on the UK. There are some serious challenges ahead that governments need to recognise and act on as a priority.


In immediate terms, the sector is inter-dependent on strong finance for borrowing, energy companies, water supply, packaging materials, transport and human health. All of these components are key to keeping the cogs running. Any disruptions, however partial will be disruptive. Measures must be taken to ensure farmers receive all the support necessary to keep their industry running, no matter the costs. A shortfall in food would directly contribute to inflation and further economic strain.


Open Data is vital


Finally, to be in better control of our systems, from farm to fork we need to understand where the gaps are and how to close them. Open data would be indispensable, as it provides for both transparency and for enlightened, efficient, data-driven decision making processes. It would also help us understand the best practices so as to learn and drive optimisation across the board. Data from climate and crop yield, to market demand and export supply would help us visualise the flow of the industry and enable us to make better prepared decisions. We could also be in a better position to implement AI and computing to induce efficiency in the process and further automation of the industry so as to avoid any future disruptions.


Andre Laperrière is the executive director of Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN)


First published in Geographical

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