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March 6, 2021
Crops News

Coronavirus has stress-tested our food systems, and many could fail

The coronavirus has brought enormous setbacks, suffering, and forecasts of a global depression following the closure of so many economies for so long.

But, if there has been one area where it has exposed our global fragility, it is food. Certainly, the curfews, lockdowns, and workplace closures delivered an uptick in power cuts, but there’s no great clamour about our energy infrastructure now being under threat of failure.

Likewise, with water, it remains far from accessible to all but has not been savaged by this year’s pandemic. Shelter could take a hit on joblessness and unpaid rent.

However, the elephant in the room is definitely food. That hasn’t gone unremarked. At the level of international geopolitics, the World Food Programme (WFP) has warned that we are moving into a famine of what it has called ‘biblical’ proportions, by which, it’s fair to say, the WFP meant ‘humanity threatening’. That made some headlines. But not too much concern at the street level.

Likewise, economists and academics keep muttering darkly in jargon about food supply chain issues and food security.

What they mean is that we are going to be short of food: Very short of food, indeed. In fact, we are going to be more short of food later this year than we have ever been on Planet Earth in any of our lifetimes.

So, with the translations provided on the biblical famine and food supply chain issues, how has this happened, and what can we do to prevent starvation?

Well, trouble began by locking most of the world into their homes during the planting season, stopping a lot of logistics that were transporting seeds, fertilizers and pest control products, keeping most seasonal workers away from the fields, and additionally messing up the ways food is bought (much of it through restaurants, for instance), resulting in agricultural throwaway.

This left farmers short of payments to fund replanting, while other stocks were impaired, as different food stocks were, conversely, run down. The food chain took a row of hits, with far more food thrown away than normal, and far less planted.

In Kenya, our own horticulture, which was feeding Europeans with vegetables, couldn’t get air cargo space and is still being limited by tripled transport charges.

We also had excessive rain that reduced our last harvests and the then-largest locust invasion this century. There is, nonetheless, some time-lag in the impact of all those problems.

Take our bread, for instance. Wheat accounts for 28 percent of the cereals we consume, where maize accounts for 56 percent.

Yet we import nearly all of our wheat to make the bread that is a significant part of our diet.

Some 30 percent of that imported wheat comes from Russia, which isn’t going to suffer a bread shortage of its own by sending its wheat to us to keep our bread going.

Threatened with running short, it banned its wheat exports on 26th April until later this year. Some of its wheat was already on ships in transit to us.

However, by the third week of May, our commodity importers reported that wheat deliveries due from Russia had not arrived. Some ordered extra from Argentina.

This is because Argentina and Russia – being southern and northern hemisphere – have different planting cycles and seasons.

But as the disruption feeds through to those who were freshly harvested as well as to those who were due to harvest from now, the number of alternative sources will become fewer.

And without imported wheat, Kenyans simply won’t have any bread. Nor any rice to speak of, either. From the first glimpse of the hunger ahead, we at the Agrochemical Association of Kenya began.

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