Asia's Food Chain Resilience during COVID-19

At this time of unprecedented crisis, disruptions in supply chains and food protectionism must be avoided at all costs.

The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to impact our food production system at a critical time. Usually, disruptions to the food supply in times of crisis can be isolated and resolved, without having significant implications for food security.

However, Covid-19 will likely continue for some time and governments will have to monitor food supplies, prices, food workers, transportation and logistics systems and supply chains to ensure that food availability and access are maintained. The most vulnerable in society need special attention, as will food utilisation practices which include nutrition & health, food safety, food loss and waste.

Governments should take food security seriously at this pressing time. Its prior actions to safeguard supplies and prepare for external shocks are being tested to the max. Whatever the preparations made; it is clear that the food supply chain is resilient compared with other periods in history. However, as the pandemic runs its course and risks change, vulnerabilities emerge that will require concerted action and mitigation. Lessons will need to be learned now to enable recovery and renewal as we emerge from the pandemic.

The challenges we have right now are to ensure we minimise disruptions to supply chains by not restricting movement of critical labour across transportation, logistics, distribution and processing, whilst making sure we define the entire food sector, agriculture and allied industries as essential. Patchwork definitions will not work.

Examples of this are in countries where animal feed was not deemed essential as part of the food system despite the fact without it, poultry would perish in a matter of days. Meanwhile, packaging was also considered non-essential in a few markets although without it transporting and distributing food would have been futile.

Governments and their civil servants without exposure to the food and agriculture supply chains, need to engage industry experts and companies to understand the unintended consequences of policy decisions. Rash decisions will immediately and negatively impact peoples’ livelihoods and could create shortages of essential foods in some places.

Meanwhile, some governments in Asia are already resorting to trade protectionist measures by temporarily banning exports with some domestic groups urging governments only to allow imports of what they deem essential. Protectionism and short-term opportunism are neither “quick fixes” or welcome in this time of great stress.

There is compelling evidence that eliminating or restricting choice or other fiscal disincentives have little or no impact on food security at the best of times. Food security needs better trade relations, particularly during a global pandemic.

Some governments may adopt protectionist approaches for political expediency, as part of on-going populism or in line with a regulatory policy that centres on rules and restrictions. If data is not available or a country is overwhelmed, it may adopt protectionism under a precautionary approach.

Sadly, protectionism will increase public concerns about perceptual risks to the food supply, even if little exists. Vulnerabilities in the globalised food supply chain are clear because of this unprecedented crisis, but closing trade won't secure food supply.

Far from blocking free trade, the more vulnerable and food-insecure countries (i.e. where there is more demand but less supply) should be supported by those countries that are more resilient and have more of the supply. That would mean reducing tariffs to facilitate that flow of needed food and commodities during Covid-19.

A final thought goes to the people of all levels in the food and agriculture sector. The workforce across the entire food industry is part of what the US Government refers to as "critical infrastructure". Policies to protect food sector employees as they are generally in place for healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors are now more vital than ever across Asia.

From the farmworkers picking the fruits and vegetables, to the people that drive the trucks, to the factory workers that process foods through to the employees that stock supermarket shelves: government and industry across Asia must do everything to make sure the labour force is safe, able to work and are considered essential services because we need them for our own wellbeing.

FIA and the ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) have launched weekly COVID-19 monitoring reports detailing the status of key countries in Asia, the impact on food and beverage supply chains, and any recommendations or further action required. Join our newsletter to receive subsequent reports straight to your inbox.