How did the pandemic affect the food supply chain?

How did the pandemic affect the food supply chain?
How did the pandemic affect the food supply chain?

How did the pandemic affect the food supply chain?

Apr 14, 2022

They are some of the most enduring memories from the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic: long, socially distanced lines to buy food; empty shelves in supermarkets; shortages on everything from non-perishable foods to fresh fruit.

In essence, these mental images highlighted how heavily the world relies upon its food supply chain. According to Bayer, the global food system accounts for 10% of the world’s GDP and employs as many as 1.5 billion people. And about 23% of global food production is traded internationally, with countries importing food at a value of approximately $1.5 trillion annually. 

But in early 2020, as coronavirus spread around the world, steps taken to control the virus placed unprecedented strain on every single stage of the global food supply chain.

Farm production

Farm production is the foundation of the food supply chain, and it’s become increasingly globalized in the 21st century. For example, the European Union (EU) produces approximately 80 million tons of fresh fruit and vegetables annually. Of that production, more than 30 million tons are traded between member states of the EU, and another 5 million tons are exported outside the EU. Meanwhile, those same EU countries import almost 93 million tons, and export another 91 million tons, of agri-food products, which are essentially foods that have been processed for cooking and consumption.

But sowing and harvesting crops relies on inputs – seed, pesticides, fertilizers, and energy – access to which has been disrupted to one degree or another during the pandemic. And the most important resource of all – people – was in short supply in the first half of 2020. Travel restrictions meant that the agricultural sector couldn’t hire the seasonal migrant workers it typically depends upon in its fields, and many labor-intensive harvests were subsequently left to rot.

Food processing

Even where food harvests and raw materials were available, growing outbreaks of Covid-19 and various forms of lockdown measures had a significant impact on the food processing industry. Covid-19 – and its many variants – forced huge numbers of people into self-isolation as they recovered from the illness, or to stay indoors to prevent the spread of the virus.

All of this meant staff shortages at a number of food processing plants and food manufacturers. And even where work continued, social distancing requirements reduced the number of staff permitted in confined spaces at processors, and had a direct impact on production efficiency and outputs. For example, cattle and pig slaughter in the United States’ meat processing industry fell by approximately 40% in April 2020, when compared to April 2019.

There is also evidence that food processing facilities were responsible for a number of localized Covid-19 outbreaks. Possible influences include:

  • the close proximity of workers.
  • the necessity to speak loudly so that workers can communicate over the noise of machinery and tools.
  • communal housing arrangements outside of processing factories.

Transport and logistics

As borders began to shut down against the spread of the virus, bans on travel were implemented, and border inspections came with lengthy delays, food transport quickly became an issue. This was felt at all levels of food and food product transport, including: 

  • bulk, via barges and ships over water.
  • containers, via boat over water or rail and truck over land.
  • air freight.

Air freight in particular was significantly disrupted, which had a huge impact on the transport of perishable foods like fruits, vegetables, meat, and other food products with a shorter shelf life. This is particularly significant when the world’s dependence on the international trade of fresh food is taken into account. The United States annually imports:

  • 32% of its fresh vegetables.
  • 55% of its fresh fruit.
  • 94% of its seafood.

Food retail

Even before Covid-19’s impact on the food supply chain began to reach retailers, panic about the pandemic hit consumers. Panic-buying left many supermarket shelves empty – and then food production, processing, and transport issues kept them bare for longer periods of time than people were used to seeing. Many retailers had to ration stock to ensure there were enough essential items for everyone.

And on top of all of that, consumer demand changed. Instead of visiting restaurants or other food service outlets, people were staying indoors, and buying more food to cook and eat at home. Some people began to bake their own breads and tin fresh fruits and vegetables. Others stocked up on frozen and non-perishable foods. This in turn had a huge impact on the food industry supply chain – suppliers had to shift alongside consumers to meet demand.

Meanwhile, the closure of the food service and catering sectors could have helped meet the rising demand on food retailers – as well as food donation and charity sectors – but there was a noted lack of agility in retribution supplies. A report – Effects of Covid-19 on the food supply system – delivered to Parliament in the United Kingdom indicated that this was due to “challenges in packaging availability, logistics and labeling requirements” that led to an increase in food waste.

The food supply chain: what happens next?

Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s clear that the global food supply chain needs to become more agile by necessity, and develop greater resilience to help weather storms like the one faced during the past few years. As the dust settles, and governments and other leaders begin to look more closely at where to make changes, there are a some key areas to consider:

  • Food sustainability. Climate change and its impact on the planet becomes a more pressing problem every day. What initiatives and interventions can be implemented to help make food production more sustainable?
  • Food safety. How can enhanced health and safety measures be implemented in the production and processing of agricultural products – particularly in a world more conscious than ever about hygiene and public health in the food sector?
  • Food security. How can cooperation between food producers and food processors be improved to create food security around the world? The UN’s World Food Programme states that one in nine people globally is going to bed hungry – a staggering number in a world where there is enough food produced to feed everyone on the planet.
  • Food prices. The cost of food items continues to rise around the world, for a number of reasons, including the rising price of oil. How can distributors reduce costs so that these can be passed on to consumers?

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