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COVID-19

Global food prices rise as countries stockpile amid worsening pandemic

Scott Tong Oct 16, 2020
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Empty shelves at a grocery store in Los Angeles in March. One expert said the U.S. is probably among the worst of developed countries when it comes to food security. Mario Tama/Getty Images
COVID-19

Global food prices rise as countries stockpile amid worsening pandemic

Scott Tong Oct 16, 2020
Heard on:
Empty shelves at a grocery store in Los Angeles in March. One expert said the U.S. is probably among the worst of developed countries when it comes to food security. Mario Tama/Getty Images
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A number of countries, including China, are stockpiling for an uncertain pandemic season amid concerns over whether the global supply chain for food can remain intact as COVID-19 cases rise worldwide.

World food prices have been rising for four straight months, according to a United Nations price index. Countries importing grains to boost their pandemic stockpiles include Egypt, Jordan, Taiwan and others.

“China comes to mind, as they’ve taken on a massive restocking program,” said Michael Magdovitz, food and agriculture analyst at Rabobank. “But also India. Countries may increase their buffers to avoid any supply-side issues,” such as lockdowns or border closures should the pandemic worsen.

In times of uncertainty, people are more likely to hoard, according to Stephanie Preston, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

“I think people are trying to protect their own interests, which in some ways is rational,” Preston said. “Even if it can cause what they call a ‘commons problem,’ where then there’s not enough for everybody.”

When the pandemic first hit, governments and food security authorities expressed concerns about food protectionism. That didn’t come to pass globally.

Still, bottlenecks have turned up in developing countries. In South Africa, workers were banned from traveling to a packing plant for citrus, said Thomas Reardon, agricultural economist at Michigan State University.

“Also, because wood was not classed as an essential item, the wood was not coming in to make packing crates, so the fruit could not be packed,” Reardon said.

Globally, the prices of grain and meat continue to rise, just as more and more people can’t afford them given widespread job losses. Sherman Robinson, trade scholar at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, said food insecurity is showing up everywhere.

“It’s widespread across developing countries,” Robinson said. “In the developed countries, it really depends on how good your social safety net is. So in the U.S. case, we’re probably among the worst of the developed countries.”

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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