Guest essay by Eric Worrall
UN Environment claims Covid-19 is disrupting food production which has already been battered by climate adversity. But just last November, the UN Agriculture body said “reserves held by the five major exporting countries could rise to a five-year high, primarily on the back of another foreseen build-up in India.”
COVID-19 is disrupting a food industry already thrown into turmoil by climate change
Today’s COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced the critical role of rice in ensuring global food security while combating climate change.
The world eats a lot of rice. Over 3.5 billion people rely on it as a staple part of their diet. The little grain is fundamental to global food security. Of the 820 million people who today go hungry, almost 60 per cent of them live in areas where rice consumption accounts for over 40 per cent of their annual cereal diet. Paradoxically, it is often those who grow food who are among the world’s most food-insecure. For over 100 million rice smallholders, rice is all that stands between them and hunger.
Before COVID-19, the expansive industry that provides this life-giving food to half of the global population was already struggling to cope with the impacts of climate change. Now, the pandemic is ravaging the rice sector, further threatening lives and livelihoods.
Rice production, prices and international trade are all impacted by the pandemic as well as widespread droughts. Panic buying prompted rice-exporting countries to impose limits or bans on exports, while domestic price caps imposed by some importing countries have led to reduced import volumes. Coupled with logistical stoppages resulting from nationwide lockdowns, over half of global rice supply – originating in five key countries – is now at risk. Currently, price surges disproportionately harm poorer households for whom rice is a staple, and where rice can account for almost half of monthly spending.
Meanwhile, lockdowns also make it harder for farmers to obtain vital inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and field labor. Crops already planted are at risk due to a lack of labor as quarantines have forced migrant workers to return home. Missed windows for planting and harvest will devastate yields.
“Because of the coronavirus outbreak we are not allowed to gather around, unable to call for any meetings with cooperative members to prepare for the next crop or enter into new agreements with buyers of the rice we will produce”, said Nguyen Phu Cuong, the Director of Vong Dong Cooperatives in An Giang Province, Viet Nam.
Additionally, with the elderly more susceptible to COVID-19, productivity is also under threat, considering the increasing average age of rice farmers today.
COVID-19 comes at a time when underlying climate change impacts are already compromising food and water security. Southeast Asia, which supplies 50 per cent of the world’s rice exports, is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years.
“The adversities in the rice trade triggered by COVID-19 are an acute preview of what climate change has in store,” said Wyn Ellis, Executive Director of the Sustainable Rice Platform. “But instead of a temporary threat to farmers and food value chains, climate change impacts will be lasting, likely for generations. This pandemic shows us how devastating the consequences of inaction could be and how climate change can intensify existing crises.”
Climate change will exacerbate the vulnerabilities of food systems and human health. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is working closely with partners, particularly through the Sustainable Rice Platform, to strengthen smallholder capacity and resilience to current and future shocks.
The Sustainable Rice Platform, initiated by UNEP and the International Rice Research Institute in 2011, is a multi-stakeholder alliance comprising over 100 institutional members, whose Secretariat is hosted by UNEP’s Regional Office for Asia and Pacific in Bangkok. SRP is working to transform the global rice sector by promoting resource efficiency and climate-smart best practice among rice farmers and throughout value chains. SRP is developing sustainable production standards, indicators, incentives and outreach to boost wide-scale adoption of sustainable best practices in rice production, as well as to reduce GHG emissions from rice farms.
SRP members are also actively helping with the COVID-19 response. Some SRP members are reversing their supply chains to deliver personal protective equipment and hand soap to farmers. The crisis response is also providing valuable lessons in how to deal with climate change impacts on rice. For example, farmers, particularly women, have been leading initiatives against COVID-19 by championing hygienic practices, which is leading the Platform to adapt from knowledge sharing to knowledge co-creation.
As we aim to build back better, farmers will need improved capacity to reduce and prevent far-reaching environmental, social and economic blows of global crises. 3.5 billion people depend on it.
For more information, please contact Niklas Hagelberg: Niklas.Hagelberg@un.org
Nature is in crisis, threatened by biodiversity and habitat loss, global heating and toxic pollution. Failure to act is failing humanity. Addressing the current coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and protecting ourselves against future global threats requires sound management of hazardous medical and chemical waste; strong and global stewardship of nature and biodiversity; and a clear commitment to “building back better”, creating green jobs and facilitating the transition to carbon neutral economies. Humanity depends on action now for a resilient and sustainable futureSource: UN Environment
This Nature in Crisis narrative is largely contradicted by the UN’s own agriculture publication.
… An erratic unfolding of the northern hemisphere spring and summer rains has deteriorated the outlook for global rice production since May, providing modest support to international rice prices in an otherwise quiet trading environment.
Based on the latest forecasts, global rice production
in 2019 is set to fall 0.8 percent below the 2018 all-time high. Much of this decline is expected to occur outside Asia, particularly in Australia, Brazil, Nigeria and the United States, often as a result of adverse weather, compounding diminished producer margins. On the other hand, Asia appears headed towards another abundant harvest,
with anticipation that a shortfall in China and a slight reduction in India would be largely compensated by output expansions elsewhere in the region.
Prospects of a strong trade recovery in 2020 have been tempered by expectations that ample local availabilities
will keep import demand in Asian countries subdued for another year. Nonetheless, global rice flows in 2020 are
still forecast to exceed their 2019 level, as imports are anticipated to expand in all other regions. This is the case of Africa in particular, where countries such as Guinea, Senegal and Nigeria would need to purchase more to compensate for reduced production levels. With the exception of Australia, Brazil and Thailand, all traditional rice suppliers are expected to boost exports in 2020, although the
largest increases are predicted for India and China. Indeed, continued growth in Chinese rice exports in 2020 could essentially eliminate the trade imbalance that China has had since emerging as a net importer of rice in 2011.
Growth in the food use of rice is predicted to slightly outpace population growth in 2019/20, lifting global utilization to a level that exceeds expected production. As a result, world rice inventories at the close of 2019/20 marketing seasons could decline, albeit to a level that would still stand out as the second highest on record. Rice importers are envisaged to account for all the stock drawdown, led by reductions in China and, to a lesser extent, Bangladesh and Indonesia. By contrast, reserves held by the five major exporting countries could rise to a five-year high, primarily on the back of another foreseen build-up in India. …Source: Page 4, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, November 2019
I accept that Covid-19 and the lockdowns have significantly disrupted industry and food production, and that may have even more serious knock on consequences.
But in my opinion for the UN to claim that the industry was already in turmoil due to climate change simply isn’t credible, given just last November the UN was forecasting a five year surplus in major agricultural export countries.