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Food supply chain in the time of COVID-19

Rifaath Hassan

This article is published in and is part of our Vol 1. Issue 4 Journal with a special focus on Food Security - Editors

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has led to logistic bottlenecks in the global food supply chain from production to processing to transportation to retail as countries imposed lockdowns around the world. The impact of COVID-19 is seen both in health and socioeconomic terms. Governments dealing with COVID-19 are faced with many challenges amidst the lockdowns, where they have to deal with disruptions in food availability, accessibility and affordability, which is going to strongly impact food security and nutrition. They are posed with finding options to keep the populations fed.

The experts and authorities in Maldives stated in early March that the country is not likely to face any food shortages with regard to staples (wheat flour, rice). Even so, the whole world including the Maldives are worried over the fear of a food crisis, led by food shortages, which may eventually lead to increased food insecurity. We are unsure whether the perishable goods which we depend on will arrive in a timely manner and this is where the food shortages will persist as per global experts. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, milk, eggs, processed foods, etc. Most of the importing countries for Maldives (Figure 1) are in one or another form of restrictions or lockdown. From Fig 1, we can see how diverse the supply chain is on a global scale. Our import dependency will be one of the major challenges of food security and we are not sure how much it will impact the current food security issues, added with the economic shocks, that are being driven due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 crisis has put additional stress on the supply chain which is a system of a just in time approach which in a normal situation enables food to move from farms/fields to our dinner tables in a systematic manner. We get access to a bountiful supply of seasonal fruit, vegetables, milk, meat, various types of grains and cereals and processed foods and beverages. This is all thanks to the global food supply chain where we are a net importer of the products. We do not know when the effects of food shortages will be seen in our country where at global scale, it is believed that food shortages will be a likely scenario.

Figure 1: Food imports by Maldives (Jan - Feb 2020)

Source: Maldives Customs Service, 2020

Table 1 highlights some of the food groups that we are highly dependent on, and it shows the imports for the year 2020 (Jan-Feb). The total quantity (Figure 2a) and CIF value in MVR (Figure 2b) are shown for the major foods that we are import dependent on. The categories are groups mainly with locally available produce that are imported. Only some imported food items are included for the chart as this chart is to show how much we are importing the stated items and at which price.

What is the food system?

What we eat as food reaches us through a food system (Figure 3) which moves the food in a methodical manner from producers to be delivered to consumers along a supply chain. It is a business model involving producers and agriculture products buyers and the interactions within the supply chain actors from, input supply and production of crops/livestock/fish, and other agricultural commodities to transportation, processing, marketing, retailing, and preparation of foods to consumption and waste management (International Food Policy Research Institute, 2020). What we pay as consumers for the food is the work of many key people who are involved at various stages of the supply chain. Each and every part of the supply chain requires various human resources. The Agri business partnerships depend on each other. It acts like a domino where if one part is affected then the whole food supply chain is affected. This eventually means we may have to pay a higher price for that change to have taken effect, like crop losses, trade barriers, export restrictions etc.

Figure 3 represents a schematic diagram of a basic cyclical food system. These kind of food systems are short and form the basis of local food systems. The global food system is one big network encompassing all these steps and includes the drivers of the food system forming interconnecting linkages with one another.

Figure 3 Schematic representation of the food supply chain/food system

The main factors that drive the food system include the enabling policy environments, including social, economic, environmental and political. Food systems are shaped by “governance, trade, and investment at the global level and play a major role in powering local and national economies” (IFPRI, 2020). Significant factors such as population growth, socio-economic factors, climate change, urbanisation, consumption patterns and globalisation has been attributed to be driving the food system in the last few decades. Some other key drivers for food insecurity identified in 2019 are also changing the food systems. These are “conflict/insecurity, weather extremes, desert locusts, economic shocks and COVID-19” (Global Network Against Food Crisis, 2020). For the year 2020, COVID-19 is one significant factor which many fear may lead to major food shortages and food insecurity globally, and is likely to be bringing major changes to the way the food systems operate both at local and global level.

COVID-19 impact and food security

The longer the food supply chain and the more complex it is, then the harder the communities will get affected if COVID-19 impact persist in the food economies. With the COVID-19 pandemic, food insecurity will be on the rise as per predictions, due to the economic impact associated with it.

A joint statement on 30th March 2020 by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO), World Trade Organization (WTO), stated that “uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restriction, creating a shortage on the global market” (FAO, 2020). Some countries have already started with the restrictions and they are by major grain exporters. Kazakhstan, India, Ukraine, Russia, have imposed certain degrees of restrictions on exports of grains (Glauber Joseph et al, 2020). Experts are predicting if we will have another food crisis as seen in 2007-2008, where prices for global wheat doubled and tripled for rice. However, according to FAO stocks for the grains are intact and positive from the 2019 and early 2020 forecasts (FAO, 2020), even though they say supply chains may face issues due to logistic bottlenecks.

The problem right now is for the fresh food supply, the high value commodity products. The seasons have changed in the global North. This is the time when most agricultural workers go back to fields and sow the seeds, manage and harvest what is on the ground. With the pandemic, most food producing companies have to work in restricted conditions, getting workers from across borders and putting the workers' health at risk if working during the crisis. For the agri-food sector, logistics play a very significant role. Disruptions in the food chain will have a domino effect on the supply and will impact on the quality of food, shelf life, safety and can prevent from reaching the markets in time and we will be seeing price increase in foods in such cases (FAO, 2020). With economies slowing down, the affordability of food, access to food and availability of food at local markets may be something to worry about, as it is believed that unemployment and income reductions will be negatively effected. This has been stated by FAO, IFAD, the World Bank and World Food Programme and released a statement during the G20 Summit.

A Call to Action for World leaders petitioned by farmer groups, NGO’s, academia for world’s food companies, states that COVID-19 response measures should address three major things in order to minimise the risks to global and regional food security. That is 1) by maintaining open trade, 2) to invest in resilient food systems, and 3) to ensure access to food to all (Food and Land Use Coalition, 2020).

What does it mean for Maldives when the global food supply chain gets disrupted?

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, the economy of Maldives is not at its best, and our food system is also dependent on a fragile economy which is again heavily dependent on the tourism sector. Food is not only about being produced in the field. It is also about how we get it from the farm or fields to the tables from wherever it has been produced whether it is local or global. It is also about importing the produce and distributing to the island communities. It is a system of agri-food businesses and its local partnerships.

We as an island nation will have more worries as we will be most impacted with the ongoing crisis. There has been a huge disconnect on the way we produce food, and also the way we distribute the food, mainly due to the dependency on the global supply chain.

In the coming weeks and months, the global food system will be strained due to the disruptions that are already in place due to major lockdowns and border control. Workers are needed to run the supply chain locally and globally. The health of workers, both local and global is of importance for the agri-food sector to run. We cannot afford to risk the health of workers who are the only medium of running the supply chain. Low restaurant traffic will be a challenge due to closure of the food service industry, restaurants, cafés, etc., and people will be more dependent on groceries for their meal plans. The biggest disruption to the FSC will be the rapid shift of consumer depending on supermarkets for their food needs and the supply chain has a huge role to play in catering to the shift in demand. This would further stress the supermarkets and small shops in islands. What is already available in the supply chain will be used including backup supplies. When it comes to national logistics, it is already disrupted with the lockdown of the Greater Malé region and travel ban on marine and air travel. Distribution of foods will be slow even though the shipments will go to the islands but at slower space. This will be entirely dependent on the global supply availability. In this regard even the local produce taken to Malé will also find its way back to the islands as per normal.

The time for replenishing the supply would be tough when restrictions and lockdowns will most likely start to impact the way we move food specially to remote islands, where access in a normal situation is also challenging. Even if lockdowns and restrictions are lifted, then supply will be a major challenge as many food exporters would have a huge task of feeding the global population including their own. If the pandemic impact persists then this may even be slower to address. If one product is in high demand in retail then clearly in the current crisis, we will face shortage in that. This would be the case for many commodities during the after effects of the pandemic COVID-19.

Figure 4: Some local produce from Malé Local Market.

Source: MFMRA

How do we mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 to the local food system?

This is the time for most of us to think for the future, how we can improve our own vulnerable food system. Individuals and farmers alike are trying to change the way we eat and the way we access our food. Since the pandemic, some of the Maldivian farmers have adapted to growing crops out of their normal crop calendar to feed the communities despite the ongoing crisis, such as maize being grown by some of the largest producers, in AA. Thoddoo (Avas, 2020). Creating new economies of food could be the next food agenda for Maldives.

For the food system to be of significant economic activity the government of Maldives should have policies and regulations that can provide (1) basic input supply, (2) infrastructures, (3) create market incentives, (4) assist in promoting agribusiness venture models and (5) adopt innovative technologies for efficient and sustainable farming systems. The government’s Strategic Action Plan 2019-2023 highlights some key areas which are of importance to the food system.

We are rich in agricultural biodiversity. We may have scarce land and we may be import dependent on resources such as inputs, infrastructures, machineries and tools. However, the country has an abundance of tropical food crops, roots and tubers, and exotic fruit crops. The chart in figure 4 highlights some significant crops which were in higher demand for the last five years. Our production is higher for some fresh food items.

The data in Fig 4 does not however take into account the production of the whole country, which should also be a major food policy outcome; improving agri-food data. Timely market analysis with local production and imported produce for the population should be studied for improving the agri-food sector.

The food imports are something we will be dependent on, but how to mitigate the dependency and make the local food system resilient is something that we should all work together for. We should be able to balance our dependency in import to that of local food production.

The supply side of the chain is a major issue in the Maldives. With food accessibility, and also with food distribution to islands being a major setback the islands are most at risk of food insecurity. If food production, food quality, food safety, food accessibility and food affordability issues are addressed through proper distribution channels, the local food system has a means of striving in a geographically displaced island nation. For a food system to be resilient it should be able to ensure proper use of available resources and should be able to adopt sustainable policies, create jobs, enhance food security at island and national level.

Linking smallholder farmers to markets should be important for supply and demand to balance out. During the early onset of the COVID-19 cases in the country, the STO and MFMRA stated that local producers will be supported through an agri-centre where their produce will be bought and marketed. Likewise, MFMRA is urging farmers to continue food production and is also allocating land from those islands with available land. This is a great initiative as there would be a huge demand for locally grown produce, and with the reduction in imported fruits and vegetables more producers will be willing to contribute to a share in the market. We will be seeing more agri-food partnerships coming up in the future. We would be seeing many areas of the agri-food sector playing a significant economic activity even if small.

About the author

Rifaath Hassan is a researcher at the Maldives National University. She has a Masters degree in Agriculture Science and is specialised in soil sciences. Since her post grad she has been working in the field of food and agriculture. She has been involved in community supported agriculture and organic farming projects and has been advocating for local urban food movement through an entrepreneurial program of ClimateLaunchpad. She is also doing a study funded by an MNU research grant on the significance of taro and its impact in the southern atolls of Maldives.

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