Amid mounting fears about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food prices and availability, many have argued that the crisis has exposed the weakness inherent in our globalized food system, and that the solution is a shift toward local production. A professor of food policy opined that it’s almost like the global food system “was designed to undermine, not just ignore, resilience.” And the founding director of the Sustainable Food Trust hopes we will turn the pandemic “into an opportunity manifesting as a renaissance in the production, distribution and consumption of healthy, seasonal and local food.”
For the most part, these arguments come from longstanding advocates of localist revolutions in food production. But in shifting their justification from climate change to COVID-19, these advocates have overlooked (perhaps willfully) the ways in which the current crisis highlights the benefits of a global food system. Whether in the midst of a pandemic or an altogether different type of crisis, agricultural trade increases food security by providing a buffer against breakdowns in local production and increasing the agricultural labor pool.
Even though COVID-19 is a global problem, food shortages are more likely to arise from localized shocks, and international trade is our best defense against these local crises, whether they’re economic, public health, or environmental. Take, for example, summer 2003’s extreme heatwave that caused estimated grain harvest losses of around 20% in France, 13% in Italy, 75% in Ukraine, and 80% in Moldova. Despite devastating losses and food emergencies in 38 countries, they were spared from overall shortages since global supply was on the rise.
While international trade doesn’t reduce any one country’s risk of a labor shortage, it does diminish the likelihood that any one disease outbreak will trigger a food shortage.
International trade’s food security benefits are also apparent when we examine one of the most pressing COVID-19 food security threats: labor shortages. Travel restrictions are impeding the flow of migrant farmworkers, and in the US, where each year 2.4 million farmworkers are joined by an additional 200,000 on H-2A visas, restricted visa access could mean that crops go unpicked. Around the world, unsanitary farmworker lodging and logistical barriers to social distancing on farms, in meatpacking plants, and in fisheries could exacerbate labor shortages (and in some cases already have) by precipitating outbreaks.
Labor shortages would strain our global food system, but a system dominated by local production would be even more vulnerable. As the ‘08 recession revealed, Americans don’t want to work on farms, so the US would rely on migrant farmworkers even if it produced all its own food. And because countries rely on migrant farmworkers and face immigration challenges to varying degrees, some will be more susceptible to shortages than others. Being tapped into the global market, therefore, can reduce the impacts of these localized labor shocks.
The same is true for labor shortages caused by disease outbreaks. Countries are experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks at different times and to different degrees, so it’s implausible that all countries’ food industry employees would fall ill simultaneously. As Grist journalist Nathaneal Johnson writes, “If one giant slaughterhouse or grain-processing plant goes dark in the United States, there’s already a robust network of ships and rails to move food around the world.” So while international trade doesn’t reduce any one country’s risk of a labor shortage, it does diminish the likelihood that any one disease outbreak will trigger a food shortage.
Still, a global food system does present challenges, including a risk of transportation bottlenecks and export restrictions, and we’re seeing evidence of both as a result of the pandemic. Grounded planes have squeezed shipping capacity, resulting in more spoilage and less availability of perishable goods like fruits and vegetables. And Russia, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam have restricted grain exports.
Redundancy is key, so simultaneously intensifying domestic production and engaging in the global market will maximize security.
In spite of these risks, being integrated into a global food system increases food security by serving as a safety net in the event of any type of shock — flood, drought, pests, etc. And countries can actively improve local resilience while still being integrated in the global food system. For example, countries can maintain grain reserves, intensify domestic production, and expand food assistance programs.
Wealthy countries with more robust farm economies should also support import-dependent developing countries, which face heightened risk of food insecurity when supply chains are disrupted. For these most vulnerable countries, redundancy is key, so simultaneously intensifying domestic production and engaging in the global market will maximize their security. Developed countries like the US can help by increasing funding for food aid, ensuring the flow of capital and technology to developing countries, and investing in the “last mile” of distribution.
Every supply chain, no matter how local or global, has weaknesses, and the COVID-19 pandemic has alerted us to some of our food system’s vulnerabilities. But more than that, the current crisis should remind us of the security provided by a global system.