There is some good news. Global rice inventories are close to a record high and protein supplies are adequate for now. Moreover, governments and companies have been working hard to guarantee continued access to food. In the United States, the corporate sector has demonstrated a solid commitment to maintaining the flow of food. More help, however, will be needed as the sting of rising unemployment has yet to become manifest in what are likely to be Depression era-like numbers. Food distribution centers are already finding high levels of demand. If nothing else, the large numbers seeking help have caught public attention and are likely to be a factor in further efforts in Washington and other capitals to meet food security challenges head-on.
There is another possible scenario that could come to play. What would happen if the number of deaths projected by models being used by the United States and other governments overestimates the number of deaths and there is a return to some type of normality? That scenario would also have to include a return to work by large numbers of people as well as advances on a preventive vaccine and better treatment protocols. If such a scenario were to unfold, then the food security issue would diminish considerably. This, of course, is something that politicians everywhere are watching closely, including the United States which is in the middle of an election. Empty shelves in grocery stores and food riots are not going to help the Trump administration’s narrative that it did everything right.
The issue that sits down the road—and concerns many governments including the United States—is for how long does this state of events has to be endured. Food exists now; if the coronavirus shutdown stretches out through the summer, then will there be shortages of fresh fruit and vegetables? What about protein? And that says nothing about the economic carnage facing the restaurant industry. Americans have remained relatively calm for now as have Europeans. There are not any reports thus far of large-scale food riots, including in Emerging Markets. But there is a time factor at work here. A prolonged period of uncertainty over food and pandemic does not make a good combination, either for public health or the economy. There is a need for better international cooperation in both matters (yes, a return to some degree of multilateral approach), while many countries will have to make a critical reassessment of their food supply security. Most of us do not have the option of looking at the world through the perceptual lens of the U.S. baseball player, Yogi Berra, who is attributed with saying: “You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.” At this stage, most people would be happy just to know that they will have access to one slice of pizza.
Scott B. MacDonald is chief economist for Smith’s Research and Gradings.