Keeping the food supply chain on lock

Azlan Othman

Food security has been a hot topic since the COVID-19 outbreak across the globe. With the growing fear that this pandemic may persist for months, people have been clearing shelves at major supermarkets in preparation for impending lockdowns. Governments have repeatedly discouraged panic buying as such a behaviour causes food shortage due to the spike in demand in too short a period for the industry to replenish stock effectively.

The ASEAN Food and Beverage Alliance (AFBA) and the Food Industry Asia (FIA), the two leading bodies of the food and beverage industry, discussed the issue of food supply in the region amid these uncertain times.

Local Haji Halim bin Saim, who was appointed to head the AFBA early this year, noted that rapidly developing countries in Asia, especially in the ASEAN region, are already facing food security challenges due to their rapid urbanisation and growth of the consuming class. ASEAN’s food value chain is not only crucial for ensuring food security, but it is also a major driver of gross domestic products (GDP) and employment in the region.

In terms of GDP, the food value chain contributes some USD500 billion of economic output, which is around 17 per cent of ASEAN’s total GDP, and the share of jobs at 34 per cent of the total labour force.

“Any restriction of movement, including the workforce, will affect the stability of food production,” he said. “The situation has now been exacerbated by the global increase in demand for food. Even the slightest measure affecting the free movement of people and goods will strain the global food chain further.”

Currently, he said, “Asia cannot feed itself. Net imports of food have tripled since the turn of the century to reach 220 million tonnes a year.

“The current measures in containing the spread of COVID-19 will only place further stress on food value chains.”

He sees these food supply chain disruptions and trade protectionist measures as a reaction to the pandemic will potentially cause major food shortages across Asia.

“If governments across the region put in place policies that hinder production across the supply chains as well as trade barriers, this could lead to regional food shortages, especially when looking across the world and seeing the continued by unnecessary panic buying behaviour,” he said.

In light of the increasing number of nationwide lockdowns and border restrictions, AFBA and FIA, which represents Asia’s food and beverage industry, are jointly calling on governments to ensure the unhindered production and supply of food and beverages while countries are battling to contain the coronavirus outbreak.

The two agencies are also requesting for governments in the region to recognise the continued production and supply of food as an essential product and service.

The AFBA President said, “As more countries in the region tighten border access and restrict the movement of non-essential goods, the categorisation of all food and beverages must remain as essential to ensure a continuous food supply. The availability of workers to support production is critical with the necessity of the industry to reinforce efforts to keep employees safe and healthy.”

He sees this measure to be especially critical as the food supply chain is a complex web that involves, among others, producers, agricultural inputs, transportation and availability of workers and “constraints in any one area will have significant knock-on effects throughout the country’s as well as regional supply chains”.

While the bodies recognise the need for governments to take extraordinary and unprecedented measures to protect their populations from the pandemic, “the issue at hand is the delay and disruption of manufactured food and beverage products, ingredients, raw materials, and packaging for both domestic consumption and exports”.

FIA Executive Director Matt Kovac added, “If severe restrictions are imposed by countries in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, they will cause a ripple effect on the regional food supply chain.”

He believed that making a decision involving food supply in the absence of public and private consultations will be catastrophic. It is therefore critical that “governments work with the food industry, to categorise food and beverages as essential, understand the implications of disruptions and delays, and to try and ensure that production and supply chains are unhindered as much as possible”.

FIA is currently calling for governments to keep their food production at full capacity where possible and for borders to remain open for food supply.

The key role for governments in stabilising the food supply, he believed, is ensuring that the manufacturing of food and beverage products, ingredients and other raw materials, as well as distribution by the retail sector, remain uninterrupted while keeping travel restrictions from disrupting the food supply chains.

“In this difficult time, it is highly important that governments assure consumers that they will have access to essential food,” he said.

Haji Halim said, “We are starting to see disruptions in the food supply chain, in the form of bottlenecks, when transporting food. Each country needs to review its existing food security policy” before it is too late.

AFBA, a non-profit body, is a group of national associations in Southeast Asia involved in the manufacturing distribution and sale of food and beverage products.

Haji Halim said the mandate of AFBA has always been to represent the food and beverage industry in the engagement with regulators, especially in ASEAN, and being able to be a part of the collective efforts of an agency such as AFBA is a gain for a nation.

“A country-level engagement is important in addressing country-specific issues,” he said. “All in all, it’s a two-pronged approach that AFBA adopts and incorporates into the work that we do.” On being the President of AFBA, the local businessman said, “I feel honoured that my experience in the food and beverage industry, such as the Royal Brunei Catering and McDonald’s, has enabled me to carry out my duty and gain knowledge from well-established and experienced members of the AFBA Executive Board.”