Supply Chains can Collapse Under the Weight of a Pandemic

When they work, we don’t notice them. But when supply chains break down in a time of crisis, no one is immune from the impacts.

May 05, 2020

The productivity and sustainability of our agriculture and food systems are constantly threatened by pandemic outbreaks of disease and pests. The Harvest 2050 blog is providing a weekly-updated list of resources and articles that explore the threats to agricultural productivity, food security, livelihoods, and environmental sustainability from diseases and pests that sicken and kill people, livestock, and crops.

The 2020 GAP Report will also explore these themes, as well as describing technologies, practices, and policies that foster productivity growth, while also mitigating the risks of pandemic disease and threats. 

We will keep this list current, so follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn, where we’ll share as we update this blog. Past resource lists are available here, and linked at the bottom of each blog.


Broken supply chains create noisy disruptions

No one region produces all of the food you find in your average grocery store.1

At any one time, a grocery store could be carrying blueberries from North America, apricots from Central Asia, coffee from East Africa, macadamia nuts from Australia, potatoes from the Andes, and lettuce from Northeast Europe, depending on the season and the self-sufficiency of the country the store is based in.

In short, people around the globe enjoy diversity of food thanks to supply chains. But as the world has shut down to lessen the spread of COVID-19, these supply chains have been entirely disrupted.

Consumers have complained of shortages in produce and products they might typically have access to, while stories abound of farmers and producers dumping milk, leaving crops to rot in the fields, and euthanizing livestock.

The contrast has prompted outrage as the public wonders why perfectly good food is going to waste while millions go hungry.

It all comes back to supply chains. The issue is not that we don’t have enough food, but that we can’t quickly get the food to the right place, in the right packaging.

As an article from Purdue University explains below, in the U.S., the supply chain was prepared for 54 percent of food spending to happen in restaurants and cafeterias. Instead, measures put in place in response to COVID-19 collapsed that demand and spiked demand in grocery stores.

Meeting this demand isn’t as simple as distributing the food that would have gone to restaurants and cafeterias instead to grocery stores. Consumers preparing food at home may not be equipped to buy goods packaged in the same large quantities that restaurants do, and packaging or processing centers may not be prepared to pivot to consumer-friendly packaging. Plus, every point in the supply chain is entirely dependent on an available, healthy workforce — something COVID-19 has completely disrupted.

COVID-19 infections and social distancing measure have created choke points throughout the supply chain. The more complex the food is to produce (e.g. pasta made from wheat, which may need to be processed in a different country than it was grown in), the more potential for things to slow down or get stuck.

There are also long-term consequences to our supply chain disruptions.  When a supply chain isn’t working predictably, farmers and producers have less incentive to invest time and resources to increase their productivity. Why find ways to sustainably grow more crops when it’s not guaranteed those crops will ever even make it to a market?

If we don’t increase agricultural productivity, we won’t meet the demand of feeding 10 billion by 2050. For both short and long term impacts, it’s crucial to build effective supply chains that can survive market shocks such as those resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the supply chains work, they operate quietly and with little notice. But as the pandemic has shown, when the supply chains don’t work, the effects are resounding, far-reaching, and front of mind.

A photo of an uncompleted bridge.

Covid-19 and food prices: what do we know so far? (Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition; May 4, 2020)

  • Food prices reflect shifts in the supply chain. Current data suggests no long-term changes to food prices globally, but that some countries may experience upward pressure on food prices.

‘We Had to Do Something’: Trying to Prevent Massive Food Waste (The New York Times; May 2, 2020)

  • This report describes some tactics volunteers, producers, and companies are using to create new, temporary supply chains that help reduce food waste amid the pandemic.

The Road from Farm to Table (Purdue University; April 28, 2020)

  • In this Q&A format article, two experts explain the nuances of the food supply chain and tackle prominent questions regarding animal welfare.

A Shock Like No Other: Coronavirus Rattles Commodity Markets (The World Bank; April 23, 2020)

  • Commodity prices nosedived as shutdowns that aimed to reduce the spread of COVID-19 completely disrupted supply chains. The full impact remains to be seen, but it’s likely the pandemic will “lead to permanent changes in the demand and supply of commodities,” according to the article.



[1]: “Origin of Crops,” CGIAR


Past Resource Lists

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