Commentary: Now’s the time to make long overdue changes to food supply chain
The writer, Yvonne Maffei, is founder of popular blog My Halal Kitchen.
There’s nothing like a global pandemic to expose even the tiniest of holes in a massive global supply chain that feeds the world. That’s exactly what COVID-19 has done, much to the dismay of multinational food companies and other Big Food producers.
At the onset of this pandemic, the focus has understandably been on its containment and the health of those affected by it. Economies the world over have been shaken rather quickly, however, exposing some real issues around food production, distribution, health and safety of food industry workers, and the topic of imports and exports. These are what nearly every country in the world has had to reckon with fast.
Saudi Arabia, for example, pledged 2 billion riyals ($533.3 million) to fund imports and secure food via indirect and direct loan programs. In Turkey, a major world exporter of fruits and vegetables, prices for these commodities have dropped 6.6% in March, and in the United States, the world’s largest food exporter, unemployment puts millions of families at risk of going hungry due to the inability to purchase food the way they did just over a month ago.
The entire globe is at-risk of a looming food crisis, says the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, and the picture being painted is that most countries don’t have much of a plan to concentrate on local food production as a solution since the usual fallback, for industrialized nations at least, has always been a push for importing more goods than what is produced nationally.
The majority of the world’s low-income countries contain the most hunger-stricken populations, where the negative impacts of a disrupted supply chain, albeit local or global, are most severely felt. Also, nearly half of all employment in those countries is rooted in the agriculture industry and 80% of consumers in those countries rely on local markets for food supplies. With border closures and restrictions on imports even one country away, their food security will continue to be heavily shaken unless hyper local solutions are made to fill the gaps for the health and nutrition of their local communities.
In the United States, low-income farm laborers primarily hail from a minority population of undocumented workers who are at an enormously high risk of contracting COVID-19 due to lack of health care, proper sanitation on the job, and a high percentage of chronic diseases such as obesity and diabetes among them, not to mention close living quarters during harvest season that could potentially spell disaster should an outbreak among them occur.
OPPORTUNITY AMID CRISIS
Among food movement advocates, however, all is not lost nor is it a reason to call out doomsday. For example, as GCC countries such as the UAE rely heavily on imports, there has been a recent emphasis on local production of fresh products such as cucumbers and tomatoes.
There is an air of positivity among activists who have long before the pandemic been vocalizing concerns over workers’ rights, food waste and even tied these topics into the promotion of local food production and the support of farmers worldwide to curb issues such as climate change, global recessions, and the unforeseeable pandemic.
As such, COVID-19 is seen by many in the food industry as an opportunity for editing the food system in a way that is much more sustainable economically, environmentally and a true vision for the future they’ve been fighting for a very long time.
Being in the food industry myself for over ten years, I’ve long heard these calls for reform and couldn’t agree more that now is the time to act on the disruption that has just so abruptly occurred and make significant changes that are long overdue.
Consumers are already showing the world what they want, too, and it resonates with much of what food advocates have been saying. In the U.S. more people are cooking at home than ever before due to lockdowns and fears of going out even when lockdown restrictions ease.
Sharp shifts in consumer habits are being seen in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, as well. 41% of respondents in a recent survey said they are switching to online shopping as a result of the stay at home orders by their local governments. Bahrain, for example, launched a virtual mall to meet the demands of consumers, providing access to over 100 stores online.
TIME IS RIPE FOR LOCAL FARMERS
Fortunately for local farmers, this has been a huge opportunity to shine, as many have used their ingenuity to develop new ways of doing business, such as drop-offs and drive-by pick up of their harvest.
Consumer trust for community-supported agriculture (CSA) is being built up, as more and more people want to know and speak with the people directly responsible for growing and handling the food they buy.
Jennifer Hashley of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy said so succinctly: “People need food and they need farmers.”
As most parts of the world enters the summer growing season, we will be able to see a little more clearly how these new ways of doing business are working, as well as how effective social distancing measures are implemented and followed in this new ‘normal’ way of food procurement.
It will also be interesting to see how technology will play a part in all of this. If local food sources are monitored by blockchain technology to eliminate flaws and efficiencies in the supply chain to ensure smooth distribution of healthy, nutritious foods to global populations, it could be the perfect marriage for securing food in both local and global ways.
There is no greater impetus to develop cost-effective food safety measures in the supply chain than the collective experience of a world with COVID-19.
We don’t know how it will all pan out, but what we do know for sure is that things are forever changed.
By enlisting more of what is “essential” in our lives as a priority: essential workers, essential products, essential travel, we will without a doubt make changes that need to be made, and much of those close to home, wherever we are in the world.
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