Could coronavirus cause a global food shortage?

  • Food prices are rising, though it could just be a short-term fluctuation
  • UN says a global food shortage is possible if countries restrict exports
  • Countries are stashing away foods they usually export 

The coronavirus could eventually cause a global food shortage due to fewer people working and countries changing their normal exporting patterns

As spring approaches, many vegetables and fruits will be in season and will require skilled workers to harvest them. The problem is that some countries are in lockdown, and workers can’t leave their homes. Without anybody to pick the produce, those perishable food items would end up rotting in the fields. 

There’s also the concern from the U.S. federal government about the workers who help make, package, and distribute food potentially not having enough stock of personal protective equipment (PPE) to help keep them and the people who will eventually eat the food safe.

As Yahoo News notes, if PPE begins to run short among workers, “there would be shortages of milk within 24 hours and of fresh fruits and vegetables ‘within several days.’ The [federal] document estimates that ‘meat, poultry, seafood, and processed eggs’ would become scarce within a period of two to four weeks, while ‘dry goods and processed foods inventories’— that is, the non-perishables that are pantry staples — could become scarce ‘as soon as four weeks’ after face masks and gloves run out across the food supply chain.”

On April 12, a large pork-processing plant in South Dakota was forced to shut down indefinitely after more than 300 of its workers fell sick with the coronavirus. As the Washington Post noted, the closure has threatened the U.S.’s food supply, considering the plant pumps out 18 million pork product servings per day. South Dakota is one of only a handful of states that don’t have a state-wide shelter-in-place order.

On April 27, John H. Dyson, the chairman of Tyson Foods, wrote in a company blog that the food supply chain was “vulnerable” and that it could break down, which could then cause a meat shortage.

“As pork, beef, and chicken plants are being forced to close, even for short periods of time, millions of pounds of meat will disappear from the supply chain,” Dyson wrote. “As a result, there will be limited supply of our products available in grocery stores until we are able to reopen our facilities that are currently closed.”

On April 28, President Trump said he would invoke the Defense Production Act to classify meat plants as essential and force them to remain open.

On May 5, it was reported that the Wendy’s fast-food restaurant chain stopped selling hamburgers in hundreds of its stores after running out of beef and that multiple grocery stores are limiting the amount of meat that customers can purchase. “Some of our menu items may be temporarily limited at some restaurants in this current environment,” a Wendy’s spokesperson said. “It is widely known that beef suppliers across North America are currently facing production challenges.”

On top of this, the coronavirus has prompted changes in global trade. Some countries like Russia, the world’s largest exporter of wheat, and Vietnam, a key exporter of rice, are restricting exports to stash away products in case their countries need them in the future during the pandemic. 

The United Nations has warned that inhibiting free trade is the exact opposite of what countries should be doing right now. This could cause the prices of food staples, like rice, to raise even further than the high prices seen in April. 

Experts are still unsure whether the high prices are a sign of the beginning of a global food shortage or whether it’s a temporary fluctuation. Similar to many things about the pandemic, it’s still too soon to tell. 

Sources: Bloomberg, The Guardian, CNBC, Yahoo News

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