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What impact could the coronavirus epidemic have on agriculture and food security?

By Vincent Martin | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-02-24 19:11
Fruit growers in Haikou, Hainan province, package cantaloupes, which will be sold on Alibaba's online platform and delivered across the country. [Photo by Niu Jing/For China Daily]

In late December 2019, a novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) was identified as the cause of a significant number of human cases of a respiratory disease in China. The current outbreak was first detected in Wuhan City, which is a major domestic and international economic and transport hub in China. In a month's time, the deadly virus has turned the world upside down, and fear has spread faster than the virus, which appears to be highly contagious but less lethal than its now well-known predecessors of the same coronavirus family, SARS and MERS-cov.

Although the 2019-nCOV epidemic is primarily a Public Health crisis, experts are already voicing their concerns that the virus could have a much broader impact on the Chinese and global economy, leading to worldwide socio- economic disruptions.

If 2003 SARS epidemic is often taken as a reference point to extrapolate on the course of evolution of this novel coronavirus epidemic, from a public health and socio-economic perspective, China's contribution to the world economy today does not compare to what it was 17 years ago.

It has also come a long way since SARS, in its capacity to handle rapidly and efficiently such emergency situations. China has now become central to the global economy during the last decades, contributing 18.67 percent to the world GDP in 2018, while it accounted for 8.74 percent of world economic output in 2003, according to the International Monetary Fund.

China is also the world's biggest trading nation deeply entrenched in global trade through a multitude of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. Although the share of agriculture, including forestry and fisheries in the country's GDP is declining, its contribution to national GDP was 7.19 percent in 2018. The country's exports and imports cover destinations and sources spanning all regions of the world and agriculture and food constitutes a significant share of China's trade portfolio. This has subsequently raised questions of the impact of the new coronavirus epidemic on the agriculture supply and demand side, in China and abroad, with possible ripple effects on food prices and markets.

However, as of today, expert's opinions on this matter remain very cautious and the only certainty is that nothing is certain at the moment. The evolution of the epidemic during the coming days and weeks will be crucial, and its impact on the economy or the agriculture sector will very much depend on the time needed to stop the spread of the deadly virus.

Assessing the impact on the agriculture sector is therefore premature and only speculative at this stage and will depend on how long the health emergency lasts and restrictive measures remain in place before businesses can resume normal operations.

Learning from the past and similar Public Health emergencies, restrictions on the movement of goods and people can have significant socio-economic repercussions on people's livelihoods, going beyond the direct impact on health, and affecting the most vulnerable groups. While these restrictions are necessary to limit the spread of a disease, they often lead to disruption of market chains and trade of agricultural products, with significant potential impacts on the populations that depend on them for their livelihoods and their food and nutrition security.

In such cases, local economies are often the hardest hit, as businesses remain shuttered and consumers hunkered down in their homes. Most affected might be medium-sized companies and small businesses as supply chains of their products are disrupted due to restrictions on transportation and people's movements. This current coronavirus epidemic is also happening in the aftermath of the African Swine Fever (ASF) epidemic that started in August 2018 and affected severely the Chinese's pig industry, leading to an increase in prices for consumers and income losses for smallholder farmers.

To counter such adverse effects in rural areas, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (MARA) is carefully monitoring the situation and has taken a series of measures to ease the pressure on small businesses, while contributing to the national effort of halting the inter-human transmission. On 27 January, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs and the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and National Health Commission issued a joint information note to farmers for prevention and control of the virus in rural areas. Recognizing the importance of ensuring the supply of food in good quantity and quality during the emergency period, MARA also issued on 30 January 2020 a notice to support and guarantee winter and spring food production during the epidemic period and beyond.

Ultimately, while today's focus is on stopping the interhuman transmission, mitigation and early recovery measures should be anticipated and put in place as soon as possible to minimize the disruptive effect on food systems and market chains, locally and globally. Understanding the impact on people's livelihood in rural areas and studying the origin and emergence of the virus at the human-animal-environment interface are of paramount importance to prevent the reoccurrence of such epidemics in the future.

Under the One Health approach, FAO is working closely with national partners, MARA and the Chinese Academy of Agriculture Sciences – CAAS, among others as well as international organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to assist in identifying the potential animal hosts of this virus and also to measure the impact on smallholder farmer's livelihood. These were some of the key messages delivered in a statement by the Rome based Food agencies (FAO, IFAD and WFP) on the 5th of February, which are willing to provide all the support needed to the Government of China and the Chinese people in their race to defeat the virus and mitigate its impact on people's health and livelihoods.

The author is FAO Representative in China and DPRK. The views don't necessarily represent those of China Daily. 

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