Thiago Lima, Atos Dias, Igor Palma, Igor Palma & Lucas Amorim
As in historical times, the catastrophe that unfolds with the outbreak of a pandemic such as the COVID-19 has a great propensity of triggering isolationism, protectionism and unilateralism while at the same time threatening the stability of the International System. It is with this in mind that Director-Generals of the largest United Nations (UN) agencies namely the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), World Health Organization (WHO) – and the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a joint statement, raising concerns about the international food security situation.
In remarks contained in a joint statement issued on the March 31st, entitled “Mitigating Impacts of COVID-19 on Food Trade and Markets” they caution that the pandemic may exacerbate already existing challenges in the global food supply chain if governments globally begin putting in place export barriers on food crops as an attempt to preserve food supplies and to avert looming domestic food shortages. Resultantly, this would in their view cause distortions in food prices making food access almost impossible for the majority of the people in countries which are generally food importers. Potentially, such protectionist measures will also negatively impact the formation of national food stocks for emergency situations making the purchase of food for humanitarian aid by the World Food Program (WFP) difficult.
Urgency for international cooperation
From an International Relations perspective, we are reunited with an old acquaintance: uncertainty at an anarchic international system. According to the Directors the “uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market” and “it is at times like this that more, not less, international cooperation becomes vital.” Issues like minimizing uncertainties and ensuring that governments keep their economies’ role in the global agri-food value chain operational are quite critical from the Director’s point of view.
As observed during the 2007/2008 food crisis, several states restricted food exports as a strategy to avert national shortages. In practice, this contributed to shortages in other countries, especially the poorest. Unlike that crisis, however, there is currently no production shortage in sight. The greatest risk relates to breaking the logistics chain for the most basic foods and animal feeds including grains such as wheat, corn, soybeans and rice. This will occur, mainly, because of the restrictions placed by different countries on the movement of people and the flow of commercial activities, as well as by the drop in demand resulting from the brutal slowdown in economic activities.
Thus, abroad international cooperation effort is critical by different countries to identify stages of production and logistics chains in the agri-food sector’s to be classified as essential services. This would eventually exempt these from movement restrictions that aim to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. As the leaders of the UN agencies state: “In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, every effort must be made to ensure that trade flows as freely as possible, specially to avoid food shortage (…) Now is the time to show solidarity (…)”.Likewise, governments and banks should guarantee resources so that demand does not collapse and logistical bottlenecks can be widened at this critical moment.
The international community’s inaction in the face of the crisis
The appeal for greater cooperation by the leaders of the International Organizations comes up in the face a huge barrier: the United States’ anti-multilateral policy of the Trump administration. Some international cooperation theories argue that liberal arrangements tend to emerge and be kept when the most powerful actors assume disproportionate costs in maintaining the system. Yet, this is a role Washington does not intend to play today.
In the most recent crises such as the Ebola outbreak of 2014 and the financial crisis in 2008, the USA assumed a leading role, a position that it is not playing under the current crisis. What has been witnessed in the past few days has been an expression to withdraw from key institutions such as the World Health Organization. Neither has Beijing been able, or willing, to defend the liberal international order at this time. The European Union has also not called this burden on itself. Previously, the EU countries, at most, have normally sent aid to ex-colonies – and such aid has not been received without criticism, or distrust by some analysts. According to Yuval Noah Harari , the international community seems to be collectively inept in the face of the current threat, and, using his own words, “there seem to be no adults in the room”. One of the symptoms of this reality is the absence of emergency meetings among global leaders to build an action plan capable of combating the pandemic efficiently.
In this context, an element cannot be lost sight of. The great powers are, almost all of them, relatively food self-sufficient at the current moment. In addition, they also have financial and logistical resources (merchant marine, for example) to purchase food in open markets or to take it by force using primitive accumulation. Therefore, they have much lower food vulnerability when compared to developing countries, especially the poorest ones, if the international agri-food interdependence is severely shaken.
The vulnerability of developing countries
What about developing countries? Since the 1990s, dependence on food imports has been growing in these countries. This has been fuelled by the neoliberal agenda which has been encouraging these governments to produce for exports thereby discouraging food production for domestic consumption. According to the advice from the World Bank and the IMF food grains should be imported from international markets, at a cheaper price. In addition, there was an incentive for countries to dismantle their national food stockpile systems, both to monetize the sale of products and to save on the cost of maintaining equipment and food. Thus, they would pay part of their debts and avoid future indebtedness. One effect of this was that, in the 2007/2008 crisis, this worsened world hunger. Since then, it seems that there has been no significant change in this model.
In Brazil, for example, the Bolsonaro administration has started dismantling CONAB, the National Food Supply Company, a state-owned entity that manages national food stocks. Furthermore, Brazil became a net importer of beans and returned to the FAO Hunger Map.
Therefore, if International Organizations continue to press for the maintenance of the functioning of the international agri-food chains as a strategy of guaranteeing the global food security in a context of a very serious economic crisis – which seems correct in this immediate conjuncture – it would even be more important for these bodies to come together and defend, in the short and medium term, agrarian reforms, reducing dependence on food imports, creating food stocks to cope with eventual shortages, as well as socioeconomic programs that strengthen the resilience of rural populations. It is worth remembering that, as a rule, the hungriest people in the world are those who live in rural areas. Therefore, if more local people consume food from their vicinal rural areas, the more they will contribute to mitigating hunger in their countries.
It is still too early to talk about the collapse of the international agri-food system. In several parts of the world, however, evidence is beginning to emerge from agricultural producers who throw their production away, or feed animals with fruits, because there are no markets. The question now is whether economic globalization can still represent a card up the sleeve for the heads of state. On the other hand, it would be very useful for a deglobalization project to be mapped and executed with broad international cooperation, aiming to create food sovereignty wherever possible.
About the Authors
Thiago Lima is a professor in the Department of International Relations and faculty member of the Postgraduate Program in Public Management and International Cooperation at the Federal University of Paraíba, João Pessoa, Brazil.
Atos Dias is a PhD student of Political Science at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife, Brazil. He graduated with an MA in Public Management and International Cooperation and a BA in International Relations from the Federal University of Paraíba.
Igor Palma is an MA student of Political Science and International Relations at the Federal University of Paraíba and graduated with a BA in International Relations from the same institution.
Lucas Amorim is an MA student of Political Science and International Relations at the Federal University of Paraíba. He graduated with a BA in International Relations from the Federal University of Uberlândia, Minas Gerais, Brazil.
All authors are members of FomeRI – Research Group on Hunger and International Relations at UFPB