What the Coronavirus Crisis Reveals About Agricultural Policies

By THO Contributor, Ozge Taylan

Coronavirus put a new and serious challenge for the agriculture sector, food systems and related industries that are very delicate. The full impact of the disease has not been known yet, however, the effects of pandemic on trade flows and supply chains have become acute. States, civil society and international organizations must act immediately. The roadmap can be as follows: States or actors should do everything in their power, becoming self-sufficient in agriculture is the first step. Then, following the collaboration among these actors, they should act as soon as possible to help those who are in vulnerable situations.

Step 1: Self-Sufficiency

Economic slowdown that most countries worry about has limited people’s ability to access nutritious food. Furthermore, countries take measures from export and movement restrictions to customs practices and border closures. In this case, a ground that one can say "Even though things are getting worse in agriculture, we import our needs with our money" disappears. All these measures suspend the supply of manpower and disrupted supply or food chains in the agriculture industry. Meeting domestic market needs and self sufficiency are the policy priorities of governments. Self-sufficiency in production becomes much more important as indicated in the report of Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): “Investing in local food systems provides people with a means to continue surviving even in the midst of disaster”.[1]

Many countries including the US, UK, Canada, and Australia heavily rely on the seasonal farmworkers and farmworkers from abroad. Because of the travel restrictions, farmers are unable to travel. In the United Kingdom, agricultural workers from Eastern European countries like Bulgaria and Romania have now been needed as a matter of urgency. In order to feed their nation (UK), farmers have called for the public (particularly university students) to volunteer to help pick up fruit and vegetables.[2] Another example is that after Poland closed its borders to slow down coronavirus spread, agriculture unionists are demanding that the government allow Ukrainians to remain in the country and help to keep agri-food production going.[3] In the United States, in Florida, meanwhile, thousands of acres of fruits and vegetables grown are being plowed over, set ablaze or left to rot because farmers cannot sell their produce. Farmers bury their agricultural products in the ground -at least- for fertilizer and are also dumping milk and breaking eggs as closures continue to destroy the demand for those products.[4] As for Turkey, she has an advantage in terms of agricultural workforce, but it is difficult to anticipate Covid-19’s effect on agricultural trade of Turkey since she has not been an exporter position in agriculture anymore. For instance, Russia’s (the world’s largest wheat exporter) recent announcement on limiting grain exports till July have put Turkey in dire straits (The average annual wheat imports from Russia to Turkey from 4 million tons).[5]

The way to prevent food crises is to remove dependency on companies and abroad. Local governments and central government should contribute to the construction of food sovereignty, encourage small farmers to produce on their land with their local seeds, ecological peasant farming, and support them more specifically. This requires building strong, credible and transparent institutions. Furthermore, relying heavily on importing food leads to bolster demand and push prices up. As prices increase, the result will be devastating for the poorer and vulnerable people.

Aside from collaboration, countries should follow the news and data from international institutions.  FAO has now provided information on value chains and food security to build analyses and solutions during the crises, so that countries can build their decisions and act accordingly. Examples from US and Turkey:



Step 2: Collaboration

This pandemic shows us how much nations depend on each other. On a regional level, there are some initiatives. Within the EU, for the agricultural sector, laissez-passer policy has been proposed.[6] The agriculture ministers of 25 Latin American and Caribbean countries signed an agreement to work together to guarantee food supplies in the region.[7] ASEAN countries have also gathered and declared to implement necessary measures, projects and programs to meet food needs of ASEAN populations, to further collaboration in food, agriculture and forestry development, to minimize disruptions in regional food supply, and to work closely together with the international organizations.[8]

Highlighted points of ASEAN leaders’ direct us to the importance of worldwide solidarity. As well as the local responses, in order to get effective policy solutions to the current and future challenges related to food security, agricultural production, natural resources, environmental and production factors, “we” spirit is needed. That solidarity and “we” spirit comes from the below: individual, street, city, country, region and world solidarity.

Step 3: Aid

The virus is present on almost all continents and the pandemic has made the situation of already weak countries even weaker. However, the countries in the risk group are mostly from the Middle East and Africa. According to the recent publication of the World Food Program, with the Covid-19 pandemic, new figures indicate additional 130 million lives and livelihoods will be at risk[9]. Another report prepared by the UN before the coronavirus outbreak and published on April 20 emphasizes vulnerable groups that are also in serious danger. One of them is refugees. For instance, Syrian refugees in Turkey have been reported to be food-insecure people.[10]

Many countries and international organizations have already provided assistance or aid packages to those vulnerable people. Yet, particularly, news on Chinese aid to combatting Covid-19 around the globe have become a current issue. Through debt relief, grants, interest-free loans, concessional government loans, aid, diplomatic and business ties and media channels, China’s influence has been increasing on the continent.[11] It is not possible for the countries that have been weakened by the war against the Pandemic at home to be effective on a global level. State capacity is decisive both during and after the crisis. As the pandemic unfolds it’s imperative we do all we can to protect ourselves, our families and wider society.