ANALYSIS: Covid-19 responses test limits of globalism and food security

20 Mar 2020 | Tom Houghton, Rei Geyssens

With governments around the world ratcheting up measures intended to control the spread of Covid-19, hastily implemented policies have started to show up the fragility of globalist policies that the agriculture trade has come to rely on.

Farming lobbies around the world have petitioned governments this week to ease emergency travel restrictions, warning that shortages of the cheap migrant labour the industry has come to rely on threatening food supply chains.

At the same time, some governments have hinted that they may be looking to step up barriers, limiting trade should export volumes be deemed a threat to domestic food security.

As the system starts to show signs of fraying around the edges, Agricensus looks at some of the debates that have emerged in recent weeks and look set to persist over the coming months.

Seasonal labour

Midweek, the US and Canada took the unprecedented step of closing their borders to all non-essential travel in a bid to curb the spread of Covid-19.

“We will be, by mutual consent, temporarily closing our Northern Border with Canada to non-essential traffic,” US President Trump tweeted, adding that trade flows across the border will not be impacted.

Aghast, the Canadian agricultural sector called on its government in response to the new regulation to keep the border open for temporary foreign workers on which its industry heavily relies, needing an estimated 60,000 workers annually.

“Most of the temporary foreign workers hired for grain farming bring expertise and experience which has been in short supply in rural areas,” the Western Canadian Wheat Growers (WCWG) said in a statement.

“The challenge is that many remote grain farms cannot operate without Temporary Foreign Workers as a part of their crew. The importance of our food value chain cannot be under-estimated for both our domestic or international markets,” said Kenton Possberg, WCWG’s Saskatchewan Director.

With the grain seeding season just about to start a limit in seasonal workers could delay the sowing of Canada’s 2020/21 cereal crops.

The association said that the self-isolation measures should continue to be in place for seasonal workers but that they should be able to work across borders.

Around the world

Similar statements have been issued around the world.

In Europe, a consortium of German farmers’ unions warned Wednesday that without short-term liberalisation of recent emergency restrictions, fresh produce growers will face

“Fruit and vegetable growers who rely on foreign seasonal workers are currently particularly affected,” the statement said.

And with queues up to 50 kilometres long forming at checkpoints along the continent’s internal borders, questions are also being asked about the viability of the EU’s commitment to the free movement of goods.

Pan-European food and farming lobby Copa-Cogeca warned Thursday that its “ability to provide food for all will depend on the preservation of the EU Single Market”.

That trend has not been universal, however.

Malaysia’s government succumbed to industry pressure on Wednesday, reversing a previous ban on palm oil plantation work as the sector was deemed an essential part of the country’s economy.

Port of call

An Agricensus report from earlier in the week demonstrated the piecemeal attitude in place around the world with regards to port control, with shipping agencies left scrambling to keep track of policies – often devolved to municipal or even company level – that can change by the hour.

Perhaps the starkest example this week has been that of Argentina – with ports left to their own devices flip-flopping on what would and would not be allowed to enter their terminals.

With the local market already thrown into disarray, port workers threatened to take measures into their own hands – announcing strikes over unsafe working conditions – before the government eventually stepped in late Thursday to close the borders.

Taps off

A further risk to global supply chains comes in the shape of some leaders seeking to reassure their domestic audiences that food shortages will not happen.

Earlier this week, both Ukraine and Russia’s leaders made comments that they would consider closing borders to exports trade if they saw a threat to domestic supply.

Ukraine will look to limit food exports if necessary, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an emergency address to the nation on Monday.

“Senior officials” subsequently told local media that the as-yet-unpublished list would not affect grain exports, with little more on the subject said over the week as the comments were lost in a deluge of public health announcements.

And a similar comment came from neighbouring Russia on Tuesday, where the government sought to assuage fears of food shortages exacerbated by its hefty export programme.

“We are ready to introduce restrictions on the export of essential foodstuffs if stocks are not enough and such a need arises to meet the needs of the domestic market,” Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov told an emergency government meeting on Tuesday.