How Will Coronavirus Affect Our Food? The Pandemic and Our food Systems, a Dispatch From Mexico

As COVID-19 spreads, it will have both an immediate and long-term impact on Mexico's food system and the world's.

Researchers suggest that preference for a particular food, pangolin meat, caused the COVID-19 pandemic to emerge. Considered a delicacy in China and Vietnam, pangolin meat costs up to US$300 per kilogram (2.2 pounds). Many people believe that pangolin scales have healing properties against various illnesses, including “excessive nervousness,” “hysterical crying in children,” “women possessed by devils,” malaria, and deafness, among others. 

This appetite for exotic meats has resulted in immediate disruptions to eating habits around the world. Supermarket shelves are empty due to panic buying and stockpiling. Restaurants across the globe are sharing emotional messages with their clients as they find themselves forced to close indefinitely—many of these businesses will never re-open.

But the impact on our food systems goes far beyond this and will be felt by millions of people both now and in the long term. Here are some of the likely repercussions:

The most vulnerable populations will face increased food insecurity. The threat of not having access to particular desired foodstuffs (which many people are experiencing for the first time in their lives) is eclipsed by the threat of not having any source of income or access to food at all. More than 820 million people around the world find themselves in this latter situation as they face the additional threat of a global pandemic.

Without a doubt, the number of people experiencing hunger is going to increase dramatically. Recommended or mandatory social isolation around the world means that millions of people that work in the restaurant, tourism, hotel, entertainment, and air travel industries, among others, will suddenly find themselves unemployed. As the economic crisis continues to expand, this sudden wave of unemployment will extend to other industries.

In countries such as Mexico, where more than 25 million people regularly don’t have sufficient access to food and more than half of workers are employed in the informal economy, this crisis means that many millions will lose their sources of income practically overnight.

The quality of the food that is available is also likely to worsen. Ultra-processed foods were already popular due to their price point and widespread availability, and it is likely that the consumption of these products will increase as low-income populations find it increasingly difficult to access healthy food.

Students’ nutrition is in danger: More than 85 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean benefit from school nutrition programs, with these programs representing one of the primary sources of reliable food for 10 million children. In Mexico, the nutrition programs at the more than 25,000 full-time school programs have benefited more than 1.3 million students.

One of the most urgent measures that must be taken by local governments in the face of this pandemic is ensuring that public programs offer uninterrupted access to food for all students while schools are closed. The U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) has recommended a wide range of measures, including distributing food directly to the most vulnerable families (through school sites or mobile distribution units), delivering emergency rations, and implementing initiatives to deliver fresh food directly to homes, among others.

We won’t have to worry about running out of food…yet: Agricultural products are still being produced and distributed to wholesale markets. However, retail markets and supermarkets don’t have enough inventory to rapidly fulfill the panic orders placed by consumers that have financial resources available. Not all consumers have the luxury of stocking up. In Mexico City alone, a large percentage of the population lacks the financial resources necessary to purchase necessary provisions for more than two days, including the more than 2.5 million people living in poverty.

Local markets and supermarkets can manage high-volume demand through adequately planning, as they do during the winter holiday seasons. Over the next few weeks, the demand for foodstuffs is likely to level off and stabilize into a new normal, and distribution channels will be able to adapt accordingly, e.g., redirecting products originally destined for restaurants to supermarkets and other shops.

In countries with mandatory social isolation measures in place, food production and distribution has been included as an essential service that is exempt from the order, along with medical services, police and security forces, firefighters, and basic public services. The reasoning for this is clear: people need to eat, and the people that produce and distribute our food don’t have the option to work from home.

In Mexico City, the Central de Abasto, the largest wholesale market in the world, is a crowded critical nexus. More than 90,000 people work at this market, which welcomes more than 500,000 visitors per day and provides 80 percent of the city’s food. Although sales have been irregular over the past few days, with increases due to panic purchases and decreases due to social isolation and reduced demand from restaurants, the market will stay open.

As in other countries, in the days to come, steps should be taken to implement mandatory health and safety measures, including limiting the size of gatherings. However, not one of the 65 wholesale distribution markets located throughout Mexico should close. Local governments will play a crucial role in terms of providing the inputs necessary to allow these markets to continue to operate (antibacterial gel, gloves, masks, etc.) and ensuring compliance with health and safety requirements. Similar measures should be implemented in local markets and supermarkets to allow them to stay open while also limiting contagion.

The long-term food supply will be more uncertain, and it will impact farmers and fishermen: Certain staple crops, such as corn, rice, and wheat, which are produced and stored in industrial quantities and have highly efficient transportation and logistics systems that minimize human contact, are unlikely to experience significant disruptions.

However, many international production and commercialization channels are likely to be interrupted. These interruptions might be the result of a scarcity of workers. Freight transport is already experiencing significant volatility. The flow of migrant workers is also at risk. For example, the 250,000 Mexican agricultural workers that travel to the United States every year on temporary work visas during the harvest season are likely to face issues this year as a result of the partial closure of consular services and the restrictions at the border.

The concentration of workers required to produce certain products will also impact the likelihood of contagion, impacting future production. For example, meat processing requires workers to labor in close quarters, which puts the industry at risk of disruption if cases are detected at a processing facility. Rural agricultural activities require a smaller concentration of people, so they are likely to be less affected.

Coronavirus is also more likely to impact older individuals. Rural Mexico has seen decades of steady migration of young workers from rural to urban settings, and as a result, four out of every ten rural agricultural producers are over the age of 60. This might impact the ongoing availability of agricultural products.

There are also likely to be significant demand-side disruptions. Producers of non-perishable products are going to see spikes in demand, as has already been seen in the demand for beans around the world. The initial fears regarding fresh fruits and vegetables will be alleviated as more evidence emerges indicating that they are safe to eat. Fishermen and agro-industries that export goods to other markets might experience disruptions due to decreased consumption, a result of restaurant closures and quarantine measures.

Food products will experience price volatility for various reasons, including the depreciation of currencies (the Mexican peso has fallen by 20 percent this month), which makes it more difficult to purchase imported goods, or scarcity due to isolation measures, coronavirus outbreaks in agricultural areas, or disruptions to the logistics and/or transportation systems.

Increased public spending and proactive policies that prioritize health, food, and production: The immediate priority for public spending must be making the necessary investments so that the health system can manage this pandemic, including purchasing respirators, updating intensive care units, offering widespread testing, etc. It is critical to implement emergency support measures to guarantee food access for the most vulnerable populations, whether through direct cash transfer programs, food stamps programs, support for community kitchens, direct deliveries of food, and/or increasing the funds for unemployment insurance.

It will also be necessary to significantly increase the support provided to small-scale producers and fishermen. These support programs could potentially include direct cash transfer programs, immediate access to credit, and/or directly purchasing products to be used as part of support programs for food-insecure populations.

This means an adjustment to public spending priorities, including postponing or canceling projects that aren’t urgently necessary, such as the Mayan Train and other infrastructure and transportation projects.

Beyond public spending initiatives, proactive action is needed to guarantee the accessibility and availability of food, including decreasing tariffs for certain strategic imported products, as well as focusing support for the most vulnerable populations to receive direct food assistance (school children and the elderly). The government should also implement a system of community kitchens, coordinate with the private sector to protect the supply chains that deliver fresh food, and convene food councils that bring together agricultural producers, fishermen, markets, and others to urgently identify solutions that will ensure the ongoing availability of healthy food. The government must draw on the lessons learned as the country hardest hit by the H1N1 outbreak.

Restaurants, street food stands, and taquerias are among the most impacted: Waitstaff, cooks, and other restaurant workers that serve a high number of potentially infected customers at restaurants and food stands or through delivery services are highly exposed to contagion.

In Mexico City, a metropolis whose gastronomy attracts foodies from all over the world, restaurants started to close more than a week ago. Some of these restaurants have already shifted to delivery and pick-up only, as have many other restaurants around the world.

In other cities, celebrity chefs like Marcus Samuelsson in New York City and José Andrés in Washington, D.C., are promoting community kitchen models to help feed the most vulnerable populations, including the elderly, as well as offer employment opportunities to laid-off workers from the foodservice industry. Alice Waters has converted Chez Panisse, her acclaimed flagship restaurant in Berkeley, California, into a point of sale for boxes of fresh produce from local producers.

Could something positive emerge from the coronavirus? We can only hope that people that are stockpiling food out of panic soon transition to responsible consumption from local producers. That we recognize the increased importance of local restaurants and alternative markets that sell organic, seasonal produce. That there is a renewed interest in cooking and cultivating food, even if it’s just a few potted herbs, and supporting urban agriculture. That we develop a greater awareness of food waste as we are confronted with food shortages.

Many will soon realize that food is the best medicine. Coronavirus represents a significant risk for people with diabetes and those that are overweight or obese. Now, more than ever, it is urgently important to implement measures such as clear labeling to reduce the consumption of ultra-processed foods, which cause many illnesses related to poor nutrition.

This time, the novel coronavirus emerged from an exotic animal market in Wuhan. However, previous flu epidemics, including the avian and swine flus, emerged a bit closer to home: industrial livestock and poultry farming. Hopefully, we will rethink the industrial meat industry, whose heavy use of antibiotics and chemicals and increased risk of virus spread have put our health at risk for decades.

We can only hope this slap in the face from nature serves as an opportunity to recognize that we must create systems that are able to feed us without making us sick or destroying our planet.

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