SHIRLEY DE VILLIERS: Hunger looms thanks to Covid red tape and rigid supply lines
As a World Food Programme expert warns of ‘catastrophic’ hunger, Covid-19 is shining a light on the inefficiencies of our food supply systems – and our governments’ failings
One hundred and thirty-five million. That’s the number of people around the world who suffered from acute hunger at the end of last year – those whose lives and livelihoods were at risk because of a lack of food.
That was before Covid-19. Now, the number is set to almost double – that’s more than 260-million lives in danger this year. At least that’s what World Food Programme chief economist and director of research, assessment & monitoring Arif Husain says in this interview with The New Yorker.
Those numbers are astounding – more so when you factor in the 821-million who were suffering from chronic hunger at the end of 2019 (up from 796-million in 2016). Husain attributes the rapid rise between 2016 and 2019 to war and conflict in the world, climate shocks such as droughts, and economic instability (currency devaluations and debt, for example).
Now Covid-19 has thrown the supply chain into disarray.
It’s not that there isn’t enough food to go around. “The problem is how we get the food from where it is produced to where it is needed,” says Husain.
It has created a situation that, in some places, is terrifying in its absurdity. In the US, where nearly 39-million people have lost their jobs in nine weeks (2.4-million unemployment insurance claims were filed just last week) food banks have been overwhelmed. At the same time, farmers have been forced to plough their crops back into their fields, destroy thousands of litres of milk, and euthanise untold numbers of chickens and livestock due to a complete lack of demand.
It “tells the story of economic efficiency gone mad”, says Michael Pollan in this spectacular New York Review of Books essay.
The issue for the US, he says, is that there are two parallel, inflexible food chains. The retail food chain connects farmers and grocery stores. An institutional food chain connects farmers with large customers: restaurants, schools, corporate offices. Though the lockdown has stripped demand in the second chain, it’s risen in the first – but the rigidity of the system precludes the simple, obvious fix.
The heart of the problem is the change in the US antitrust laws that took place during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, says Pollan.
Mergers and acquisitions, it was decided, were to be vetted in terms of “efficiency” and consumer price point – but with little regard to resilience. It means each link of the supply chain is dominated by a small number of specialised players. While ruthlessly efficient, it’s also unbelievably brittle; the closure of one plant can disrupt an entire supply chain.
And plants have closed, in part because of another market “efficiency”: meat-packing plants, for example, are designed to fit the maximum number of people on the production line for maximum profit – perfect incubators for Covid-19. Of course, plants were forced to reopen when US President Donald Trump, in the wake of some inspired lobbying, invoked the Defence Production Act in the first week of May to order that meat infrastructure was an essential service (and, apparently, to protect the industry from legal liability). By May 15 the Food & Environment Reporting Network put the number of workers with Covid-19 at 15,744.
Where SA stands
Of course, SA isn’t at risk of the same sorts of inefficient “efficiencies”. Ebrahim Patel, indefatigable minister of trade, industry & competition does, after all, seem to take the “competition as fairness” side of his portfolio most seriously.
But we are more vulnerable to other concerns that Husain raises: the freeze of commodity movement (unprecedented) and the concern that countries will move to more protectionist policies (export bans and import subsidies). These artificially inflate prices, and can fuel panic buying – which creates its own supply-demand mismatch. And this in an environment where purchasing power has already been eroded and jobs are becoming as scarce as a face mask in a Joburg cycling peloton.
Already Vietnam and Cambodia, which account for 18% of global rice exports, have put protectionist policies in place and driven up global prices – despite projections of a record global crop. And Russia and Kazakhstan have only just said they will drop the export quotas they slapped on wheat, given indications of sufficient global supplies, according to agricultural economist Wandile Sihlobo.
Here SA looks on relatively solid footing: as a net importer of rice and wheat, it will benefit from ample global supplies; it’s a net maize and beef exporter; and it imports only 6% of its pork and 20% of its chicken, says Sihlobo. (His personal website, is a mine of information about the international and local agriculture sector, and well worth trawling.)
Of course, this is all cold comfort for the thousands of people lining up for food parcels in SA – like those in the snaking queue near Laudium this week. This is our shameful supply-demand disjunct: a red-tape snarl-up on top of 26 years of paralysis on fixing gross structural inequality.
Up-to-date hunger statistics are hard to come by, but a report from Stats SA last year, “Towards Measuring the Extent of Food Security in SA”, noted that 6.8-million South Africans and 1.7-million households across SA experienced hunger in 2017. And at the last official measurement in 2015, 25% of South Africans lived below that year’s food poverty line of R441. What that percentage may be now is terrifying.
And yet, in the face of this, the government seems to be an obstacle rather than an enabler, wilfully paralysed by the kind of bureaucratic nit-picking that would have given political economist Max Weber fever dreams.
There is food, and there are organisations willing and able to distribute it, but an obstructive government is tying people’s hands.
Soup kitchens have been told they can’t serve hot food because of the lockdown regulations; when they make sandwiches, they’re told they need permits – and that they have to deliver the sandwiches.
Food parcels have languished at distribution points because they don’t meet the SA Social Security Agency “quantity requirements”. (See Rebecca Davis’s report for the Daily Maverick on the red tape around food aid here.)
It’s not just government’s determination to centralise control that is so infuriating; it’s the fact that it seems unable to ensure efficient delivery in the areas where it exercises that control.
It is the institutional embodiment of Aesop’s dog in the manger – determined to prevent other animals from eating the hay it cannot eat itself.
*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM
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