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Food Security Initiative: Sustaining Food Flows


Each week Maastricht School of Management (MSM) is collecting information through their educational partners and collaborators located in Africa, Asia and South America on issues caused by COVID-19 affecting sustainable local development. This week the focus is on sustaining food flows.

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Sustaining food flows and preventing a global food crisis is of high importance during the Covid-19 pandemic or any global crisis. In these difficult times where an economic crisis is luring in the back, food security is a key concern for governments worldwide.

The importance of freely flowing food flows
Global food security is a function of increased productivity and also increased trade. It is now increasingly recognized that food security is not necessarily about being self-sufficient in food production but rather a combination of production and food trade. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimated that global agricultural trade has more than tripled in value from 2000 to 2016. This means that Colombian coffee, Ethiopian grown flowers, wine from South Africa, Indonesia cocoa, diary from the Netherlands and fruit and vegetables from Jordan can be enjoyed worldwide.

There is indeed a case to be made for increased global food trade. When food flows are established the following happens; (i) the impact of local crop shortfalls on local food availability is moderated, (ii) farmers have more market access, can improve their incomes and are motivated to produce more, (iii) scare natural resources are used more sparingly for agricultural production. As a result, consumers can buy food for less (Cargill, 2020).  Food trade can thus benefit producers as well as consumers.

Today, food trade is especially crucial to many developing countries, many of which following the advice of the international financial institutions to liberalize, reduced their subsidies for smallholder farmers and focused on promoting exports in order to earn foreign exchange and import food.  So though there have been efforts at enhanced agricultural production, much of the recent emphasis has been on the production of high value export crops. And while the revenue earned from such exports may have improved country’s balance of payments position and thus fiscal space to import cheaper grains, there are also significant risks.

Food trade is perhaps one of more fragile aspects of global trade. For a start given the crucial role of food, food is a highly politicized issue so even trade rules themselves are highly contentious. But the fragility comes to the fore once a crisis hits. Food security is probably one of the key concerns of politicians and any panic at global level can induce a food security crisis mainly due to actions that seek to protect local food supplies.  For example, the 2008 food crisis worsened when governments of exporting countries acted to restrict exports of food.  Any global crisis can quickly impact food trade and morph into a food crisis. The current Covid-19 pandemic is no different.

Already, Covid-19 had caused major disruptions to the trade in food and agricultural products as well as trade in general. Through our project partners and collaborators of the food security initiative we’ve seen that production has slowed down, distribution channels are obstructed and borders/roads have been shut. Food trade is being restricted by both border controls and logistical challenges. Our partners have observed some of these:

In Jordan transportation and logistics is a new issue that the agricultural sector is facing. Many farmers harvested their produce and refrigerated the product in the hope to get a better price. However, the cost of refrigeration has increased and the transport of fresh products faces difficulties as there are limited refrigerated trucks who due to quarantine and health checks at borders take much longer to get from a to b. The high demand and limited supply in refrigerated trucks has made the cost of transport via truck skyrocket. In Kenya freight capacity for export has reduced to almost one third (1,500 Tonnes) of the demand  (3,500 Tonnes) while freight cost have more than doubled  (from $1.84  to $4.0 per Kg) which has seen fresh produce export fall and famers have had to destroy food, as some foods e.g. French beans mainly grown for export markets have no local markets (FT, 2020).

Many countries are also currently facing export and import bottlenecks as Covid-19 has put many hurdles in the import -export chain. The spread of the virus has been linked to cross border epidemiology. Any imported item has to go through quarantine checks which has exponentially increased time for clearing goods and at the same time raised the handling costs and thus the retail price or cut down from profit margins. In East Africa drivers crossing borders are being tested for Covid-19 and the results can take up to 5 days to be given and drivers to be cleared. Currently, only 50 trucks per day are being cleared to enter Kenya from Tanzania compared to 250 per day before.

Misinformation is also slowing food flows. In Jordan, local producers are facing challenges exporting as local producers in destination countries are exploiting the consumers health concerns by spreading rumors about safety of the products from Jordan.

Lack of commonly agreed standards and protocols: Conflicting protocols at border are also exacerbating the challenges. For example, at border between Kenya and Tanzania a diplomatic row is developing over Covid-19 testing. Kenya tested 19 truck drivers positive for Covid-19 and Tanzania claimed the same drivers tested negative. This has created chaos at the border and tensions arising has seen closure of the border, cutting the flow of food.

Some lessons arising from the Covid-19 crisis are:

Rethinking policies
Export-oriented agriculture can induce investment in the production of higher-priced crops for export, rather than often lower-priced food crops needed to meet the needs of the domestic population (FT, 2020).  But leave countries vulnerable. Re-balancing and incentivizing farmers to target local and export markets will not only protect farmers from vagaries of crisis prone global food trade but also increase local food security.

Also much can be done to develop local markets for export foods to ensure to provide alternative markets for exporters. This can serve to enhance food security while not impacting on the export sector which provides many needed jobs and is also a conduit for technology transfer.

Rethinking Post-Harvest Loss prevention infrastructure
Food security depends very much on storage infrastructure. However, this is not given enough attention and Covid-19 has brought to the fore the stark reality of food wastage that has been happening. This is indeed the low hanging fruit in solving the food security challenge. Food has already been produced and need not been. Lots of more effective cold storage systems can mean delays at borders, however this does not mean lost products.  Also lack of freight should not mean food destroyed as food can be dried. 

Harmonizing protocols and building trust
Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to food flows has been non-tariff barriers mainly around standards and health concerns. More streamlined and coordinated processes are needed. Countries can agree on shared testing facilities which can cut costs and also created cooperation that is key to smoothing trade

Messaging to reduce rumors
Media can also do a better job of informing people on the real risks and refuting rumors.

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Food Security Initiative
Maastricht School of Management’s food security initiative is born out of the extensive partnerships between MSM and its project partners in Colombia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Indonesia, Jordan Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda. MSM brings insights on COVID-19’s impact on food security from the countries (and rural areas) where we operate. The updates will inform on the effects on small- scale and commercial farmers, traders, processors, input suppliers, financial institutions, and will provide useful insights for policy makers, donors, NGO’s and scientists. In doing so, MSM can indicate potential changes in food flows in regions around the world and support decision making on how to counterbalance negative impacts of COVID-19 measures. Supported by data flows and local partners, MSM will facilitate multi-actor and cross-sector collaboration through platforms for action.

A special thank you to our project partners and collaborators ESAP, ARN, Holland House, and PBA in Colombia, Latia in Kenya, Al Shoubak University College, Jordan Valley College and Al Huson University College in Jordan and Elsenburg Agricultural College, Vhembe TVET College, Boland TVET College, NCRTVET College and Nkangala TVET College in South Africa, Wolaita Soddo Agricultural TVET, Alage ATVET College, Arba Minch University, Bureau of Agriculture and Natural Resource, Bishoftu Polytechnic college, Amhara TVET Bureau, Bako ATVET College, Addis Ababa City, Federal TVET Institute, Oromia TVET Bureau, Jimma University, Merawi TVET, Woreta TVET College and Kombolcha TVET College in Ethiopia, Kwadaso Agri College, Asuansi Farm Institute, Wenchi Farm Institute, Adidome Farm Institute in Ghana and College of Vocational Studies in Indonesia for providing us with their view and experience on the current situation.

Cargill. (n.d.). Food Must Move to Feed a Hungry World. Retrieved June 5, 2020, from

FT (2020). Kenya Farmers Hurt as Lockdown hurts exports. Financial Times. 5 June, 2020

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