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Food comfort

Global cooperation necessary to minimize the impacts of the pandemic on agriculture


The novel coronavirus outbreak has wreaked greater havoc on global economy than the 2008 global financial crisis did, with global trade and supply chains, including those of the food industry, being hard hit. In response to the pandemic, many countries have imposed restrictions on flights and shipping, which has impeded global logistics, and some have put limits on food exports. China should keep a close eye on the changing situation of the global food market, and make reasonable arrangements in food production and trade accordingly.

Overall, the global food yield is adequate and the food stock remains high, with supply larger than demand. In the year 2019-20, the global supply of grain (excluding soybean) stood at 3.47 billion metric tons, with a total demand of 2.67 billion tons. Therefore, global food supply is sufficient, and the food security situation is better than during the financial crisis. In the medium and long run, the global food supply is expected to remain larger than demand as countries across the world are attaching more importance to food production and trade due to the pandemic.

China imported 143 million tons of grain in 2020, an increase of 28 percent from 2019. Among the major grains, corn imports surged by 135.9 percent to 11.3 million tons, wheat by 140.1 percent to 8.38 million tons, soybean by 13.4 percent to over 100 million tons, barley by 36.26 percent to 8.08 million tons, and sorghum by 479.52 percent to 4.81 million tons. The data suggested China imported more grain than in previous years, which also reflected the sufficient global food supply in 2020.

Despite the plentiful food supply, the restrictions imposed on food exports could spark panic and push up food prices, putting a heavier burden on low-income people in the least-developed countries, while restrictions placed on the flow of people may cause labor shortages in the agricultural sector.

Restrictions on food exports are increasingly being used to control the food trade. From March to July 2020, 21 countries announced or placed restrictions on food exports, fueling fears of a food crisis. Restrictions on food exports have aggravated food supply instability and led to wild price fluctuations. The stocking-up on grain by importers out of fear has led to big shortfalls in food supply in the short term and resulted in a surge in food prices, even though supply is sufficient. With major grain exporters more frequently imposing export restrictions, this measure may become a routine in response to global emergencies.

Many net grain importers are low-income countries, where the impoverished groups are hit the hardest by rising food prices. According to a report jointly issued by the United Nations World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organization in 2020, a total of 25 countries in the Middle East and Latin America faced the risk of food insecurity. If global food prices continue to rise, they will pose a threat to the nutrition and health, even the political stability, of low-income countries.

The fluctuation in prices is not the only problem threatening the global food supply chain. Restrictions imposed on people flows during the pandemic have led to a shortage of agricultural workers in some countries. A report released by the International Labor Organization in January forecast a strong recovery in the second half of this year in most parts of the world due to the widespread use of COVID-19 vaccines. But uncertainties remain. In the short term, the fallout from the pandemic will linger, with labor shortages to remain as a big threat to food production.

Global cooperation is required to minimize the impacts of the pandemic on food supplies. On the one hand, a global food governance system should be built to safeguard the mechanism and achievements of globalization. On the other hand, the world should seek opportunities amid the crisis, and forge ahead against the headwinds, particularly through tapping into the potential of digital and information technology. China should play its part in enhancing the security and stability of the agricultural industrial chain.

Global health emergencies and extreme weather are problems that no country or region can handle alone. To address problems in food security, international cooperation is essential. Countries across the world should use bilateral and regional cooperation mechanisms to carry out wider international cooperation, diversify import sources, and reduce risks in trade. The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in November marked the emergence of the world's largest free trade zone, which covers the largest population and most diverse participants, and the agreement is expected to further ensure unimpeded global trade.

With the new round of technological revolution bringing profound changes to the world, a digital transformation of the food supply chain is inevitable. With breakthroughs made in cutting-edge technologies such as big data analysis, 5G-enabled agricultural technologies and agricultural robots, global food production will receive a huge boost. The World Food Programme is prioritizing the digital transformation of agriculture by using mobile technology, artificial intelligence, big data, and blockchain as well as new business models to serve the vulnerable populations in the world and eliminate hunger.

As a responsible major country that has realized food security, China has set a good example for world food governance. On the one hand, it actively participates in global food governance, promotes global multilateral cooperation and shares its experiences and expertise in ensuring food security with developing countries. On the other hand, with the aim of further improving its food security and stability, China is making more efforts to ensure food supplies, stabilize the food trade, and improve agricultural technologies, and is seeking to realize food security with domestic circulation as the mainstay.

The author is a researcher with the Institute of Agricultural Economics and Development at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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