Should We Worry About Food Security Amid the Covid-19 Crisis?

Alarming developments of the novel coronavirus have triggered a wave of panic buying across the globe. People have thronged to the supermarkets, clearing out shelves of food and fighting over basic hygiene necessities such as hand sanitisers and toilet paper, in anticipation that cities would shut down in an effort to contain the pandemic. Amid the chaos, supermarkets have struggled to keep up with the surge in demand – in some cases forcing them to impose a limit on the number of staple items that can be sold per customer. The adoption of online grocery shopping has also skyrocketed, with delivery services having to turn down clients due to the sheer number of orders coming in. Even giants like Amazon are stretched to the limit.[1]

The pressure on the food supply chain is felt across the industry. While global reserves of staple foods such as rice and grains are enough to sustain the sudden spike in demand, [2] serious concerns loom over food security in the longer run.[3] Several factors are at play here. First, consumer hoarding behaviour must subside in order to alleviate the demand strain on the food system. Secondly, certain areas of the food system may be more vulnerable, such as fresh fruits and vegetables that are highly perishable. The issue here is not a lack of crops, but logistical disruption due to the movement restrictions. Farmers are unable to obtain their supply of feed, fertilisers and other necessities. On top of that, the travel ban will effectively cause a shortage of labour required to reap the harvests. Finally, the third and most pressing concern is the move by certain food-producing countries towards protectionist measures in the global food trade. Kazakhstan, which one of the world’s largest producers of wheat, has banned the export of wheat flour, while Vietnam, the world’s third largest exporter of rice, has temporarily suspended rice export contracts. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that this trend could potentially cause food shortages worldwide, and has beseeched governments to continue the global flow of food and to resist calls for restrictions to protect their own supply. These risks will likely remain in the coming months – even as countries and pharmaceutical companies around the world are racing to develop vaccines for Covid-19, clinical trials are expected to continue at least till the end of the year before it becomes publicly available.[4] Until then, the food industry will have to find ways to mitigate its impact on their operations as well as shifts in consumer demand.

In a protracted scenario, it is imperative for governments and industry players to work together in managing food security for their respective countries. The UK, for example, has already drawn up a contingency plan to “feed the nation”. Under this plan, British supermarkets would work with suppliers to scale back the variety of food, in order to focus on maintaining an uninterrupted supply of staple products.[5] The UK government has temporarily relaxed its competition laws to support this.[6]

The issue of food security may be more complex for communities with strict dietary requirements, such as Muslims and other religious groups. For Muslims, the food must meet certain standards in order to be halal, or lawful for consumption. As such, these communities would require another level of consideration to ensure their food security. The halal industry serves close to 2 billion Muslims across the globe and is one of the fastest growing industries in the world. In spite of that, there are very few agencies that are dedicated to the development of this industry. Now more than ever, these agencies have a critical role to play – the pressures on small businesses are particularly acute, and they would need sound advice and strategic guidance to help them emerge from the depths of the Covid-19 outbreak. PEMANDU Associates had recently undertaken and concluded an engagement with a halal agency in Malaysia to develop a sustainable business plan that would enable them to foster a better ecosystem for the halal industry.

On the demand side, the onset of the novel coronavirus had also raised concerns on food safety. Given the highly contagious nature of the virus, questions abound on whether it can be transmitted through the consumption or handling of food. Thus far, there is no evidence to support that.[7] The virus is mainly spread by person-to-person contact through respiratory droplets.[8] Although it is possible for a person to contract the virus from touching a surface and then touching their face or mouth, the risk of transmission from this is very low.[9] There is also no evidence to associate the spread of Covid-19 with any imported goods.[10] Swallowing food contaminated with the virus would also not likely lead to an infection.[11]

Nevertheless, it is always better to exercise precautionary measures. Here are some recommended practises:

  1. Avoid crowds and social gatherings
  2. Always maintain a minimum of 1 metre distance between yourself and others
  3. Strengthen your immune system by maintaining a balanced and healthy lifestyle. This means eating a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables and nutrition, and getting enough quality sleep to help safeguard your system against infection and disease.
  4. Wash your hands:[12]
  • after coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose
  • before handling raw or cooked food
  • after handling or preparing raw food
  • after handling waste
  • after cleaning duties
  • after using the toilet
  • after eating, drinking or smoking
  • after handling money
  • generally, on a regular basis

The panic buying in recent weeks had clearly violated many of the precautions above, thereby putting its participants at risk. The stockpiling of food with longer shelf life would also be a poor dietary choice, as these tend to be filled with preservatives and contain little nutritional value. In this instance, the concept of thoyyib in the halal industry becomes particularly useful, as it puts an even higher standard of “good” or “wholesomeness”, over the basic requirement of lawfulness (halal). The adoption of such a concept would transform the way businesses prioritise the quality of their products and offerings.

As governments across the world continue to battle the novel coronavirus with a straining health system, the appeal to the public is simply to cooperate with the restriction orders, exercise diligence and caution on hygiene care, and to keep a cool head in the coming days to avoid further shocks to the supply chain. Covid-19 has certainly been a stress test on our social systems, eliciting profound questions on our assumptions and revealing gaps in the way societies operate. But with it, comes the opportunity for radical transformation and improvement.

 


[1] Forbes, 2020

[2] IFPRI, 2020

[3] The Guardian, 2020

[4] Channel News Asia, 2020

[5] The Guardian, 2020

[6] GOV.UK, 2020

[7] CSIS, 2020

[8] Ibid.

[9] CNN, 2020

[10] CSIS, 2020

[11] Ibid.

[12] FSAI