The heads of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have warned that uncertainty about food availability due to Covid-19 could spark a wave of export restrictions, creating global shortages.  

The agency heads called on governments to co-ordinate efforts to minimise the effects of Covid-19 related border restrictions to ensure food security.

Most countries have closed their borders in a bid to contain and slow down the rapidly spreading pandemic.

SA starting a three-week nationwide lockdown last Friday, which is set to disrupt trade. Under lockdown rules, SA’s the borders will be closed to people but open in some parts for essential goods.  

Authorities say SA is likely to escape food shortages that have bedevilled other countries hit hard by the virus such as Italy and Iran. This is because SA is generally a net exporter of agricultural and food products.

In a joint statement, WTO head Roberto Azevêdo, FAO director-general QU Dongyu and WHO head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said now was the time for nations to show solidarity, act responsibly and adhere to the common goal of enhancing food security, food safety and nutrition.

The agency heads said food trade restrictions could also be linked to unjustified concerns about food safety. Were such a scenario to materialise, it would disrupt the food supply chain, with particularly pronounced consequences for the most vulnerable and food-insecure populations.

Uncertainty about food availability could spark a wave of export restrictions, creating a shortage on the global market. Such reactions could alter the balance between food supply and demand, resulting in price spikes and increased price volatility, the agency heads said.

“We learnt from previous crises that such measures are particularly damaging for low-income, food-deficit countries and to the efforts of humanitarian organisations to procure food for those in desperate need,” they said.

“We must prevent the repeat of such damaging measures. It is at times like this that more, not less, international co-operation becomes vital. 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.

“Similarly, it is also critical that food producers and food workers at processing and retail level are protected to minimise the spread of the disease within this sector and maintain food supply chains. Consumers, in particular the most vulnerable, must continue to be able to access food within their communities under strict safety requirements,” they said.

Independent research organisation Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP) said many South Africans were already struggling to afford a basic healthy food basket. The situation was likely to worsen due to Covid-19.

“Poorer households dedicate a significant proportion of total spending to buying food, which has wide-ranging implications if in the current fight against Covid-19, household income drops suddenly, or food prices increase unexpectedly. It is also exactly these households that are most vulnerable to health-related shocks, which could place extra demands on their already low incomes unless relief is provided,” the organisation said in a paper published last week.

The Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) said the implications of Covid-19 on food price inflation remain unclear in the near term.

“Suffice to say, SA has ample food supplies for 2020, and therefore, there is no need for panic buying ... Where negative pressures of the virus are likely to hit are on farmers and agribusinesses through the potential slowdown of export demand, and a likely subsequent decline in agricultural commodity prices,” said Wandile Sihlobo, head of agribusiness research at Agbiz.