Food nationalism

May 19, 2020

What happened?

The corona crisis has significantly increased the risk of a global food crisis. In the past months, trade restrictions have disrupted the logistics of the global food value chain of 8 trillion dollars and as seasonal workers were banned, parts of harvests have gone to waste. This means that a lot of food never reached the consumer. In wealthy countries, this has resulted in empty shelves and shortages at food banks, but for a large part of the global population, and especially in developing countries, it has caused extreme hikes in food prices and led to acute shortages. The food organization of the UN has warned that, as a consequence of the corona crisis, the number of people with acute hunger in the world will double this year, to over a quarter of a billion people.

What does this mean?

The global food system is an infinitely complex, international network of producers, distributors and consumers. The corona crisis has made painfully clear how fragile large parts of this network are. This has amplified the call to safeguard food at a national level. But similar to vaccine nationalism, food nationalism is not the right solution to the looming food crisis now. In fact, for many countries, it’s a pipe dream. The reality is that a lot of countries depend on each other for their supply of food. Singapore, for example, is 90% dependent on food imports and Iraq, formerly the granary of the Middle East, imports more than 80% of its food. The fact that grain-producing countries such as Russia, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Cambodia and Thailand are now pursuing food nationalist policies by restricting grain exports, is leading to alarming developments in countries that depend on their grain supply. But food nationalism isn’t just problematic for food-importing countries now. It also affects countries with revenue models based on exporting food, such as the Netherlands.

What’s next?

In the short term, it’s crucial that the international food market continues to function to prevent shortages. In the long term, however, it would certainly be worthwhile for individual countries to look into solutions in the form of shorter and less vulnerable chains and, wherever possible, more local production. Furthermore, the corona crisis could be a warning for countries not to depend on just-in-time delivery as much and to more seriously consider strategic supplies. The EU supplies are only enough for 43 days (12% of annual consumption, contrary to Russia (18%), India (23%), the U.S. (25%), and China (75%)). Europe could draw up a regional plan (instead of every European country fending for itself). Furthermore, the corona crisis could prompt countries such as the Netherlands, that depend on the supply of large volumes of resources and meat for their food exports, to think about a more sustainable revenue model, less geared towards volume and aimed more at knowledge and sustainable agricultural products.

About the author(s)

At FreedomLab, Julia Rijssenbeek focuses on our relationship to nature, sustainable and technological transitions in the food system, and the geopolitics of our global food sytems. She is currently working on her PhD in philosophy of technology at Wageningen University, investigating how synthetic biology might alter philosophical ideas about nature and the values we hold, as well as what a bio-based future may bring.

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