One of the stories I’ve been tracking this year is food and the potential of shortages. As COVID-19 spread and international travel and trade slowed, one of the things moving less was people: farm labourers. This isn’t just a potential problem for the US because of Cheetolini’s racist policies, this affects farming on many continents. Australia is currently seeing a shortage of fresh produce, and it’s likely to hit every continent. Even without China’s flooding and crop loss, this is a coming worldwide problem.
I pessimistically thought food shortages would happen in the fall. But based on what business pages and international aid agencies are saying, 2021 could see worldwide famines. Including the US.
Misery loves company. In the case of COVID-19, that company includes unemployment, economic turmoil – and famine. And they’re about to come knocking.
“2021 is literally going to be catastrophic based on what we’re seeing at this stage of the game,” said World Food Programme (WFP) chief David Beasley at the United Nations General Assembly on Friday.
Global famine is “knocking on the door”, he warns.
And if you think Australia won’t be affected by all this, think again.
The warning signs are already there.
Notice how scarce out-of-season foods have become on supermarket shelves? Many vegetables and fruits must come from overseas. International trade has been disrupted and Australia’s ability to exploit cheap international labour has also been choked. This leaves many of our crops at risk of rotting in the fields.
The situation, however, is much more dire in Africa and South America. And that could trigger a global shortages and economic shockwaves.
Beasley says 2021 would likely be “the worst humanitarian crisis year since the beginning of the United Nations … As I say, the icebergs in front of the Titanic.”
More below the fold. The items below are only a fraction of the news stories.
The director of the UN’s World Food Programme has dire warnings for everyone. And the UN is warning of global famine, despite all the farming and production.
Expert panellists addressed the General Assembly in the second day of an unprecedented special session dedicated to the COVID-19 pandemic that has so far infected 65 million people and continues to claim 70,000 lives every week, citing possibly catastrophic global famine in the coming months, while also pointing hopefully towards imminent vaccines and their deployment.
The session — the first ever to address a pandemic — featured three interactive panel discussion during which speakers shed light on the United Nations system’s response, the vaccine development process and how to ensure a resilient recovery which prepares the world for future outbreaks.
Back in August, Xi Jinping started the “empty plate” propaganda campaign, telling people to eat all the food served. Restaurants started serving smaller portions because of shortages, and to discourage waste. Reportedly China wastes millions of tons of food annually, leftovers in homes and restaurants thrown away. It’s as bad as produce thrown away in EuroNA countries, why France enacted its mandatory donation law. Beijing is going one further, enacting a new law that will punish people for leaving food on the plate.
Xi Jinping’s war on waste is set to be enshrined in law, with the submission of draft legislation to China’s highest legal committee recommending large fines for businesses that enable or promote wasting food.
Under the draft law submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Tuesday, food service operators face penalties if they induce or mislead consumers to “order excessive meals and cause obvious waste”. Offenders would be given a warning by local authorities, and face fines of up to 10,000 yuan (£1,140) if they fail to comply.
It also would allow restaurants to charge patrons for excessive amounts of leftovers.
This will require a change in attitude, since food is often used as a display of wealth and status – what you eat, and how much is served. I forget which Asian country it was, but if you’re invited to dinner and you don’t see rice on the table, they’re showing that they’re wealthy enough that they don’t have to eat rice.
You might remember China’s mass purchase of corn during the summer, and Cheetolini bragging about it, as if he were a good businessman. China is now getting so desperate for rice that they’re buying it from India, something they steadfastly refused to do. And considering the armed battles along its borders in recent years (China attempting to occupy India’s territory), this is even more shocking.
China has started importing rice from India for the first time in three decades, reported Reutersearly in December. While Beijing imports some 4 million tonne of rice annually, it has avoided purchasing from India. In 2019, India ranked ninth among the fourteen countries that supplied rice to China.
Why it matters: For two-thirds of people living in China, rice is the staple food. However, the country is running out of rice, and they are looking at India to meet this demand.
The reports came as the political tensions between the two neighbours have worsened in the past year due to border disputes.
Driving the news: China avoids buying rice from India, citing quality issues. It has been importing from countries like Pakistan, Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar. However, this year, due to limited supply and increased prices (as much as $30 per tonne), China started looking elsewhere.
“For the first time, China has made rice purchases. They may increase buying next year seeing the quality of Indian crops,” said BV Krishna Rao, president of the Rice Exporters Association.
North Korea’s food production declined 5% in 2020, which will doubtlessly mean more starvation and malnutrition. Back in August, the North Korean government ordered people to turn in their pets, labelling them a “luxury” that people don’t need. I highly doubt the animals were being sent abroad. North Koreans were already starving last June.
The US has its own problems. Remember the meat packing plants where the owners put profits above worker safety and there were mass spreads of COVID-19? The same is happening at processing plants for fresh produce.
As many as one in 12 cases of Covid-19 in the early stage of the pandemic in the U.S. can be tied to outbreaks at meatpacking plants and subsequent spread in surrounding communities, according to a study.
The findings highlight the risk of workplace infections not just to employees but also in seeding outbreaks that expand through the local area.
The data show “a strong positive relationship” between meatpacking plants and “local community transmission” in cases through late July, suggesting the plants act as “transmission vectors” and “accelerate the spread of the virus,” according to the study by researchers at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
When they say “transmission webs”, note that they’re blaming the employees, and not the owners for creating the unsafe working conditions.
Fortunately, Cheetolini’s racist policy towards migrant farm labout didn’t have an impact on farm output:
UC Davis: Covid-19 and Farm Labor after 6 Months
The March-April 2020 lockdowns aimed at slowing the spread of the Covid-19 virus exempted essential food system and health care workers, so that farm, food processing, transportation, and supermarket workers continued to work while many other workers were laid off or worked remotely. There were predictions of farm labor shortages due to farm workers who had limited access to social safety net programs going to work while sick and spreading covid in often crowded housing.
After six months, there appear to be three major lessons from Covid-19 and farm workers: relatively few covid-linked farm labor shortages in 2020, an expanding H-2A program, and an acceleration of farm labor changes that were underway before the pandemic.
First, despite expectations of farm labor shortages, there were few such reports in summer 2020. US shipments of fresh vegetables were up one percent in the first nine months of 2020 compared with the same period of 2019, while fresh fruit shipments were down six percent. Since workers pick pounds and tons of fruits and vegetables, the amount of work to be done in 2020 was similar to the amount done in 2019.
But his attempts to legalize underpaying farm labourers is still on the table because they “take jobs away from murricans” – jobs that no one in the US is willing to do, so I don’t see how they’re “taken away”. Working as farm labour doesn’t require a four year degree. Being “pro-business”, I doubt Biden will do anything to prevent this. What happens when people refuse to take jobs and crops don’t get picked?
By law, workers like [Celso] Gonzalez aren’t supposed to take jobs away from U.S. workers, or undercut their wages. So the government carries out a survey of farm employers to see what they are paying similar U.S. workers and then calculates an hourly wage for H-2A workers that will avoid any “adverse effect” on U.S. workers. In North Carolina, that rate is $12.67 an hour. It’s about $1 less in Florida and $2 more in California.
That rate has been going up faster than inflation in recent years because there’s a shortage of farmworkers, and some employers have been complaining about those wage increases.
In recent weeks, the Trump administration stepped in with some changes to the program.
First, it abruptly canceled the survey of farm wages that has been used to calculate those minimum wages. Justin Flores, vice president of a union group called the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, which represents some H-2A workers, had an idea of what was coming. “My first thought was, the Trump administration is coming after our members’ wages and financial well-being,” he says.
Even canned food is affected The combination of Cheetolini’s tariffs and reduction of international trade has meant there’s not enough metal to meet the demand for canned food. For those without reliable refrigeration, living in isolated areas or are less mobile (and can’t shop as often), nonperishable foods are essential. Panic and spree buying meant a shortage of available metal for canning.
In the modern world of low-inventory manufacturing, an unexpected spike in demand has brought critical shortages in COVID-19 test kits, ventilators and now cans for food. Wholesale manufacturers and distributors are running out of empty cans to pack nonperishable foods that so many Americans are buying in bulk.
“Especially in ready-to-eat meals, like chili, soups and prepared meats,” said James Kwon, CEO of technology and logistics firm ePallet. “The cans are in short supply.”
Specifically, raw materials like steel and tin from China are scarce, as are made-in-China labels that go on food cans. Kwon said one food manufacturer had labels sent over by plane instead of ship to get them quickly. Still, canned items that normally may be unavailable for just a week or two are now delayed for months, presenting challenges to at-risk populations that depend on canned food.
“Senior citizens, schoolkids who are requiring these emergency food packs and the newly unemployed,” Kwon said. “Waiting a month to three months is just unrealistic.”
The UK was in serious trouble thanks to the idiocy of a “no deal brexit”, though a last minute poorly written deal was announced today. And now with a new strain of COVID-19 reported in the UK and the borders temporarily closed, the UK runs the risk of food shortages in January. Knowing what the tories are like, they’ll gladly allow stores to inflate prices and allow only the wealthy to eat.
A few days ago, I carried out a small experiment. I sent almost identical requests to two government departments.
I asked the business department whether the UK holds strategic oil reserves. Yes: the UK keeps stocks equivalent to 90 days of net imports. I asked the environment department whether the UK holds strategic food reserves. No: they aren’t necessary, because “the UK has a highly resilient food supply chain”. The government treats oil as a strategic asset but food as a matter for the market.
So what happens if our “highly resilient food supply chain” breaks after Brexit transition, on 1 January? It won’t, the government promised. “Our risk assessments show there will not be an overall shortage of food in the UK,” whether or not there’s a deal. But when I pressed it to show me these risk assessments, the plural turned out to be misleading. There’s just one assessment: a “reasonable worst-case scenario” for the UK’s borders.
This is grim enough. It suggests that the flow of freight through the ports could be reduced by between 20% and 40%, while trucks travelling in either direction could be delayed by up to two days: a big problem for fresh food. This month, the National Audit Office reviewed the government’s border arrangements, and found them to be late, untested, “inherently complex”, “high-risk” and “very challenging”. The government’s brinkmanship, intended to wrongfoot the EU, has instead wrongfooted our own hauliers and traders, who have been unable to prepare with confidence.
And in the southern part of Africa, countries not normally known for having famines are going through their worst droughts in decades, even before COVID-19 appeared. Reduced trade and lower incomes put them even more at risk.
In Mali, it’s the security crisis that’s contributing to the population’s hunger. In Kenya, a combination of floods and the ongoing fight against desert locusts are driving food insecurity, while Zimbabwe continues to struggle with high food prices in an uncertain economy.
All told there are 34 African nations that face crop shortages and economic challenges, and require food assistance, according to a quarterly report from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly in terms of income losses, is an important driver of the levels of global food insecurity, exacerbating and intensifying already fragile conditions,” said the United Nations food agency. “Conflicts, weather events and pests remain critical factors underpinning the high levels of severe food insecurity.”
The continent’s overall production of cereal crops will still rise for 2020 and holds at 4 percent higher than the five-year average, but that glimmer of good news is driven almost entirely by favorable conditions in southern Africa. Malawi, Lesotho, Madagascar and Mozambique all saw better growing conditions in the latter half of the year but that hasn’t erased the need, particularly in conflict zones like Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.
That said, the most significant COVID-related economic decline is forecast in Zimbabwe, with concern over downturns expected in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.
2020 was only the slow run up to the first big peak of a rollercoaster. And we don’t even know if it’s safe to ride on it.