Apr 11, 2020 - Health

How the coronavirus is disrupting the global food supply

Dave Lawler, author of World

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The journey from field to plate has been interrupted in our locked down world.

Why it matters: With some crops rotting in fields and others subject to export bans, the coronavirus crisis could cause shortages in richer countries and hunger in poorer ones.

In Europe, as in North America, the harvest depends on migration. 

  • German asparagus, French strawberries and Italian tomatoes are picked by Poles, Romanians and Bulgarians.
  • Harder borders are now limiting movement, and workers are reluctant to travel due to fears of infection or quarantine.
  • Officials across Western Europe have declared farmhands critical workers. They've also called on newly unemployed people to take to the fields — the French agriculture minister called for a “shadow army” of waiters, hairdressers and hotel staff.
  • It's not so simple. “Dutch people are used to working Monday to Friday, nine to five. But the asparagus keeps growing seven days a week,” one farmer told the Economist.

In India, the food supply depends on tens of millions of people working in farms, transporting food, and selling it in wholesale markets and at small stands.

  • When the national lockdown snapped into place, gaps appeared all along that chain.
  • “All the eateries on the highways are closed. I have nothing to eat,” a truck driver attempting to deliver tomatoes to New Delhi told the Wall Street Journal. “Everyone says we should keep delivering essential supplies. But the supply link can continue only if we survive.”

Fearing a prolonged crisis, some countries have halted exports of key foodstuffs — rice from Vietnam, wheat from Kazakhstan, fish from Cambodia.

  • That could have serious downstream effects for poor countries that import most of their food, the Washington Post notes, though other big exporters plan to keep trade flowing.

The bottom line: "There is enough food, but food and other essential commodities must keep moving," John Crisci, supply chain director at the UN World Food Program tells Axios. "We cannot let this health crisis turn into a food crisis."

Go deeper

Black workers overrepresented in essential work during coronavirus pandemic

Reproduced from Economic Policy Institute; Chart: Axios Visuals

On a percentage basis more white workers have lost their jobs since February, but that has largely been because black workers in the U.S. are much more likely to work front-line jobs considered essential during the coronavirus pandemic.

By the numbers: Black workers make up about one in nine workers overall, but about one in six front-line-industry workers, according to a study from the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

South Korea and Taiwan show stifled consumer demand after coronavirus lockdowns

People walking through a park in Seoul on May 24. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

Looking at the economies of South Korea and Taiwan leads to a discomforting takeaway: "Reopening isn’t going to be an economic cure-all," Matthew C. Klein writes for Barron's.

What it means: "Both countries contained the virus better than the U.S., yet consumers in those countries remain reluctant to spend and venture out," Klein notes.

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Photo: Ben Hasty/MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images

The latest wave of coronavirus testing concerns has arrived, this time about new at-home tests that are hitting the market, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Between the lines: Experts are worried about the accuracy of the tests and about limitations on who can access them.