Risk of ‘food nationalism’ as coronavirus pandemic sweeps world

The world’s grain reserves are large, with a bumper crop on the horizon, but the coronavirus pandemic has already inspired agricultural protectionism, such as export restrictions, in a small number of countries, said analysts in a think tank paper this week. Separately, former Agriculture Undersecretary Catherine Woteki said protectionist policies could spark “food nationalism” at a time when trade could minimize food shortages.

“We hope [spikes in food prices and hoarding] can be avoided, but all of that is yet to be seen,” said Woteki during a webinar sponsored by Harvard’s school of public health. “Out of all this, I think what’s coming is some recognition in the United States, as well as globally, that we need to be building a much more resilient food system.”

Outbreaks of the coronavirus have slowed or shut down meat processing plants in the United States, Canada, Brazil, and Europe. Travel restrictions have limited the flow of migrant workers to farms that rely on hired labor during the growing and harvest seasons.

Seventeen nations put constraints on agricultural exports in the early weeks of the pandemic, according to the World Bank and other monitors. They included Vietnam, a major rice exporter, and Russia, the world’s No. 1 wheat exporter. Typically, export controls were introduced as a precaution, then later removed, wrote economists Ian Sheldon of Ohio State University and Jason Grant of Virginia Tech. If export limits were imposed widely on staples such as rice and wheat, they said, the results could be similar to the surge in world prices during the food scare of 2007-08.

“If countries avoid intervening in markets, trade should minimize the risk of shortages during the pandemic,” said Sheldon and Grant in a collection of essays on food and Covid-19 compiled by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology.

Like Woteki, they said the outcome was not assured. The Sino-U.S. trade war and the sidelining of the World Trade Organization as a trade referee could inspire other nations to press their advantages to the extreme. “There is the risk that U.S.-China relations break down altogether and, at the same time, other countries enter a tug-of-war of polarizing policy response.”

For decades, food and agricultural trade rules have allowed nations to specialize in the efficient production of some foods for domestic use and export while importing foods that could not be grown locally. “Our food processing industry also is highly reliant on the importation of key ingredients,” said Woteki. “We’re also reliant for the health of our livestock on animal drugs that we import” from China and other nations. Imports provide half of the fresh fruits, a third of the vegetables, and 90 percent of the seafood consumed by Americans, said Woteki, who guided the USDA’s research agencies during the Obama era.

To watch a video of the Harvard webinar, click here.