A Call to Rethink Agri-Food amid CoVID-19 and the looming food crisis.
Dr Mohammed Faiz Bin Shaul Hamid
Although Singapore is ranked first in the Global Food Security Index in 2019 developed by Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU), it might be perplexing that how a country with minimal arable land and depending on water imports from Malaysia tops the global list? It might be even confusing if we put the ongoing CoVID-19 situation with unprecedented disruptions in the global food supply chains against how food security or access to food is defined. Much of Singapore’s top rank comes from long term contracts and diversified sourcing of food imports from about 180 countries as well as increased efforts for local production.
The disruption in food supply chains that is causing some price increase for certain staples or what is called as logistical hurdles due to the lockdowns globally is sometimes taken for granted as if the entire industry will be back producing at the levels before without much damage to the complex global food value chains. A country like Singapore is a reference point for food security globally, yet they are extremely vulnerable to external shocks caused by the CoVID-19 pandemic that impact the global food supply. We are only feeling the crust of the looming food crisis, as what we are still consuming are stockpiles that were produced in the past for main staples such as rice, wheat and corn. Similarly, imported poultry and meat may face increase in price due to the supply disruptions, while a more challenging situation may await the local poultry and meat value chains for import dependent countries.
Developing countries have shown an increasing level of imports and one would argue that imports of food is necessary for the growing population and the nutritional changes in food intake from one generation to another. However, many developing countries have also recorded higher levels of post-consumer food losses. The consumer habits have forced the entire agri-food value chain to push for lower prices and households in developing countries have been spending higher proportions of their income for the increasing price of real estate (housing) and transport (cars). In many developing country households, the first savings one would take on in a situation of financial distress is to cut and be cheap on food.
In a globally connected market we live in today, the value of food lies in price for most developing countries, thus incentivizing cheaper imports of food. This partly weakens local producers and may in the longer term have a society ill-fed that might in turn bring greater economic costs in the future. The CoVID-19 situation could be an avenue for countries to rethink some of the food security policies as well as explore resilient ways to feed the nation.
Under the current global disruptions in food supply chains, producers and processors of food in different regions are facing unprecedented challenges. Some producers are burning their produce while others are waiting for their produce to be transported or stored. The ongoing CoVID-19 situation has completely pressured the agri-food value chain. The output losses to farmers from a logistical perspective is daunting and there is a risk that cycles of farming are disrupted due to unavailability of seeds. Given the current conditions, prices of staples may increase significantly if the disruption in animal feed value chains prolong, while pressuring other imports as well.
What can developing countries do about this?
First, there is a huge opportunity for countries in the short term to create massive awareness campaigns to change their eating habits and place value in quality of food intake. If every household could reduce post-consumer food waste and reduce the consumption for possibly effected staples, the change in consumption habits in the short term may absorb some food crisis shock. The move away from placing value at price to quality may also need some policy rethinking, on how the distorted economic structure that forces households to spend on cars and houses, at the expense of food can be mended with effective policy changes.
The unemployment numbers that is bound to increase in the current global pandemic crisis may be an opportunity for countries to promote youth to venture into farming. The urbanization and rapid growth in income from office jobs compared to difficult and challenging agriculture jobs have moved people to the cities and perceive farming as poor, uneducated and less hip compared to typically being a taxi driver in the city, dwelling with uncertainties on job security which is packaged with ridesharing apps that are now called the “gig-economy”. The society we live in today globally perceives a rideshare driver cooler than a farmer who works, manages and plans out an entire plantation, cycles, seed procurement while managing the purchase and sales of several related materials. Farming, especially industrial farming is highly mechanized and although some farms may require manual labour, the appeal of venturing into farming is more like a hobby rather than an actual job for some millennials who explored farming.
In order to make farming profitable and attract millennials to farm, farming should be first profitable at a larger scale and provide sustainable income to farmers. A change in the perception of value in food, by buying local and fresh to support the local farmers for a sustainable supply of healthier options must be a target that requires not only government campaigns but also a perception change in every citizen. This effort should be coupled with efforts to modernize and digitalize farming. The government can incentivize technical solutions and innovation in farming. Some start-ups and farmers are already developing their own handy tools like the use of rechargeable drills as a cheaper source of power to run electric tillers, smaller harvesters and other devices. Such solutions make innovations affordable unlike investing in large expensive solutions.
The CoVID-19 pandemic and the global disruption of food supply chain will also accelerate the trend of rebuilding resilient food value chain by improving efficiency and resilience through digitalization. Digitalization which includes the use of big data and blockchain technologies may become a game changer for small farmers as these new technologies not only increase efficiency, but could also make farming hip and cool among millennials compared to their mundane office jobs. Tools like crop planning and management help new farmers choosing the right input factors, using fertilizers and pesticides accurately and access to online advisory services. More advanced tools that support traceability may allow farmers to connect directly to their customers and enable better planning of quantities and qualities of production. The level of accuracy in production will also minimize losses in the entire value chain. Significant losses in agriculture occurs at all stages of the agri-food value chain, from on-farm post harvest losses, storage and transportation to processing, packaging, wholesale and retail. Accurate understanding of loss patterns can help policymakers to target developing impactful infrastructure such as cooling, storage and transportation which cause most food losses.
As a result, rethinking Agri-Food needs effort not only from the governments, but also a mindset change in the society, to put value in quality and not price that lead to abundance. This must be complemented by making small farmers profitable by reducing losses in the entire value chain and increase productivity with innovative solutions. At the same time, farming should be made appealing for the millennials to venture into instead of the jobs perceived as cool and sustainable in the past, that may shrink altogether given the current CoVID-19 pandemic and is not expected to quickly create jobs in the short term. It is inevitable that a global food crisis will severely impact the world. We have a window of opportunity now to make small changes with big impact, if we can rethink how we feed the countries and build a resilient food value chain.