Besides its strain on healthcare systems, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 has brought many industries to its feet. Not sparing the agri-food industry, its implications raised red flags on the food security within the region.
by Deborah Seah
As of end June 2020, the total number of COVID-19 cases worldwide has reached a staggering 10.1 million, with over half a million deaths. No doubt the recent pandemic has increased the burden on healthcare resources. During this crisis, healthcare is not the only sector heavily affected, with many governments imposing lockdowns, movement restrictions as well as border closures, concerns on food security particularly in vulnerable groups have arisen. It was estimated by the United Nations World Food Programme that 265 million people across the world could face starvation and food insecurity by the end of 2020 due to the pandemic. Governments and global organizations have warned of this growing concern, alerting the need to rethink policies and sources of food during this trying time.
COVID-19 Pandemic and Food Security
As a way to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, many governments have implemented various forms lockdowns and border restrictions in a bid to limit movement as well as large crowds travelling across the country or across borders. This inevitably incited panic and fear of food shortages amongst many citizens which gave rise to the worldwide phenomenon of panic-buying. Many scramble to their local supermarkets to stockpile essential products such as toilet paper, instant food products, and staple foods such as rice and eggs. This behaviour was seen in many countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, USA, and most recently in Melbourne, Australia after the announcement of a sudden surge in COVID-19 cases in late June 2020. Following panic-buying in many countries, governments have urged its citizens to be mindful of the need for such stockpiling as it could disrupt food stocks of the country that was set aside for emergencies.
Restrictions in movement and border closures have also resulted in many working in farms to stay at home, this reduced the production capacity of farms and food processing factories. As a result of this many farmers have reluctantly thrown away tonnes of rotting food with farmers no working in the fields; increasing food wastage. The start of movement restrictions and border closures between countries that rely on each other for food supplies have also seen a reduction in supplies.
Disruption in food supply chains due to the COVID-19 pandemic have also been affected by the grounding of many airlines and reduced air travel of exports of produce. Some countries such as Vietnam has also taken to halting exports for a short period to ensure domestic supplies are sufficient during the pandemic period.
Through the COVID-19 pandemic, prices of food staples such as rice and wheat have been starting to rise in certain regions in the world. These higher prices as well as disruptions in the global food supply chain can result in food insecurity for vulnerable groups such as lower income countries and those that are resource-scarce and rely heavily on imports for food sources.
Transforming Food Systems to be More Resilient
On 15 April 2020, the ASEAN Ministers on Agriculture and Forestry (AMAF) released a statement addressing its concerns over the food security, food safety and nutrition amid the COVID-19 outbreak in the region. The statement highlighted the organizations concerns of the potential impact that the pandemic would have on food security in ASEAN. As part of this recognition, AMAF has mentioned that it will continue to commit in ensuring solidarity and unity in the ASEAN to address any impact the that COVID-19 outbreak may have on food, agriculture and forestry that could cause disruption in the food supply chain in the ASEAN region.
The recent pandemic coupled with its measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of transforming food systems in countries to be more resilient in times of crisis.
Particularly in countries such as Singapore, where 90 percent of food consumed are sourced from overseas markets would make it move vulnerable to be affected by drastic changes in the global food supply chain as well as fluctuations in prices.
Over the past decades, the Singapore government has been working to boost local production of food in case of any disruptions. With recent closures of borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic such efforts have proven to be evermore necessary in securing sufficient food supply for the country.
In 2019, the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) announced its goal to meet 30 percent of Singapore’s nutritional needs by 2030. It aimed to achieve this through leveraging on technology, increasing urban farming efforts, as well as promoting funding to produce more staple foods locally. Recently, the Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources (MEWR) and SFA announced on 8 April 2020 a boost of SGD30 million to the agri-food industry to promote the production of food items such as eggs, vegetables and fish. Also, accelerator programmes have as helped local Singapore agri-food start-ups push forward its R&D and manufacturing to support Singapore’s food supply. All these done in a bid to promote sustainable locally grown food sources for Singapore.
In dense Asian cities, urban farming has been explored as an option to make use of vertical space in buildings for growing food. Transformation of farming techniques and practices to suit changes in urban planning will enable increase alternatives to food production despite resource and space constraints in urban cities.
Adopting Alternative Food Sources
The COVID-19 pandemic was no doubt a stimulus to rethink the need for alternative methods to obtain food and sufficient nutrition. Innovations and R&D for food technology has in the past years supported this through new methods of growing meat from plant-based ingredients to producing milk from stem cells without a cow. Food technology will indeed play a key role for the future of the agri-food industry. Given the “new normal” that has ensued as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, difficulties in exports of food and increased food wastage due to continued border controls and movement restrictions, such technologies may provide a new hope in meeting the nutritional demands of the population.
Ensuring food security in times of crisis requires the concerted efforts of governments, private organizations as well as individuals in the society. Policies can be implemented, technologies can be leveraged to boost food production, but the proactive efforts of an individual to be mindful of food consumption and food wastage would also go a long way in the sustainability of food security in the region.