Are Long Supply Chains Exacerbating Food Insecurity?

With countries around the world beginning to ease restrictions, only to return cities into lockdown, social distancing and closed borders are once again putting a strain on food sources and supply chains. The increased stockpiling of essential supplies, such as flour and pasta, has radically influenced the way we process, supply and consume our food. These consumer habits raise a fundamental question: are our long supply chains exacerbating food insecurity?

In April, executive director for the UN World Food Program, David Beasley, warned of the potential of a hunger pandemic spreading as infection rates continue to rise. Having restrictions remain at their current stage can exacerbate difficulties accessing food, pushing individuals towards the brink of starvation. Economic rescissions significantly affect the working poor, many of whom rely on work which involves face-to-face contact with others. Here, the phrase Beasley used to describe what was to come is worth noting: “multiple famines of biblical proportions.”

As individuals spend more time indoors and less time dining out, foods typically consumed in outdoor venues, such as large meat cuts, are now less popular. Bottlenecks have begun to spring up as demand for certain cuts of meat decrease, causing issues when the food goes to waste. Demand for dairy products has also rapidly decreased, causing farmers to throw out semi-full tankers of milk. Evolving consumer buying habits have already begun influencing our consumption of milk and cheese. Given the short shelf-life of many foods, this poses significant challenges to farmers.

Greater self-sufficiency is essential. We have been too dependent on long food-supply chains, and this has seen the emptying of supermarket shelves that run out of basic food supplies. US supermarket chains, Sysco and US Foods, control approximately 75% of the US food market, making resources limited when the chain experiences disruptions.

Supermarkets should encourage shorter supply chains, supporting local businesses and food producers while strengthening their capacity to incentivise local economies. Identifying key regions which have dense populations can also assist in diverting resources to ensure adequate supply and access to food. Increasing self-sufficiency in East Asian nations such as China has allowed them to maintain stable food supplies and prices, even during the pandemic. China uses a two-prong approach: encouraging local farms to grow their own vegetables while also protecting farmland from government intervention and urban sprawl.

Protecting our cities’ food bowls is crucial to fostering resilience. Safeguarding farmland from urban development allows produce to remain healthy and clean. Collaboration must continue between governments, local producers and key actors to introduce food zones that ensure security and increase producer confidence in the market.

It must be stressed: this does not mean that nations should be closed off, rejecting the benefits of globalisation and the increased access to different types of food. There must, however, be questions asked about how we can strengthen our food systems, especially given the risk of disruptions in massive supply chains. Should major corporations control the majority of our food supplies? Will supply chains be less vulnerable when they are shorter and more numerous?

Access to safe and clean food relates directly to individual security. Building resilience in regional communities plays a vital role in providing local producers with autonomy and confidence. This independence, in turn, is vital in supplying essential products for societies. The importance of food security and insecurity cannot be understated or downplayed. Safeguards are crucial to the continued maintenance of sustainable food production.