Massive lockdowns imposed around the world to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus have drastically slowed down international trade and food supply chains.
This led three related international agencies last week to warn of a potential global food shortage if the coronavirus crisis is not managed properly.
“Uncertainty about food availability can spark a wave of export restrictions, creating shortages in the global market,” said the joint statement signed by the heads of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization.
Their warning went largely unnoticed here.
South Korea, which relies heavily on imports for most of its grain, should not ignore the warning. Along with Japan and Middle Eastern nations, it was recently singled out by a global market research firm as being especially vulnerable in the event of a food crisis.
In the midst of the lockdowns, countries should make efforts to ensure the food supply chain will not be disrupted so as to avoid food shortages, the joint statement said.
But the appeal seems to be falling on deaf ears as a growing number of countries are moving to restrict food exports.
Russia recently restricted exports of wheat and all other grains for a temporary period. Vietnam stopped rice exports last month, followed by Cambodia. Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries are also poised to restrict exports of grains.
Korea should prepare for a global food shortage in addition to a prolonged slump in the world economy. The government needs to check food stockpiles and procurement channels.
Over the long term, lockdowns and travel restrictions risk causing disruptions in agricultural production due to the unavailability of farm workers.
The shortage of seasonal farm laborers from neighboring states imperils the production of many crops in the US and much of Western Europe.
Many local farming households are suffering from the same problem.
The rural population in the country more than halved over the previous two decades to 2.31 million in 2018, with the proportion of people aged 60 or above jumping from 39.3 percent to 62.8 percent over the cited period, according to data from Statistics Korea.
To ease the shortage of agricultural labor, Korea has accepted an increasing number of seasonal workers from abroad. The annual number of migrant workers allowed to stay in the country for up to 90 days rose from 19 in 2015 to 1,086 in 2017 and 4,211 in 2019.
The number this year was to be 4,797, but those invitations have mostly been canceled or postponed, putting the production of some crops, including garlic and potatoes, at risk.
The possibility of a global food shortage could surface repeatedly beyond the ongoing coronavirus crisis, as a result of climate change, regional conflicts and the interests of major producer nations.
To cope with the threat in a fundamental way, Korea needs to reform its agricultural sector, which relies largely on small-scale conventional farming focused on rice.
Efforts should be stepped up to enhance agricultural productivity and make the farming sector more value-added by diversifying crops. Regulations should be lifted to attract more capital and advanced technologies into the agricultural industry.
The innovation of the agricultural sector could also help increase the country’s farm exports.
Korea saw its outbound shipments of agricultural products reach $1.74 billion in the first quarter of 2020, up 5.8 percent from a year earlier, according to data released Sunday by the Agriculture Ministry. In the January-March period, shipments of fresh farm goods rose 2.7 percent on-year to $329 million, while those of processed farm goods increased 6.6 percent to $1.42 billion.
Given that the food crisis could be caused by disruptions in transport and logistics rather than output, Korean companies should also be encouraged to play a more active role in the global distribution of grains, which is currently controlled by several major players in advanced nations.
Posco International, a local trading firm, recently began operating an overseas grain terminal. There should be more such Korean companies.