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What the Coronavirus in China Shows Us About Food System Resilience

By: Erin Biehl

BALTIMORE—Feb. 27, 2020. In only a few months, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has spread from China to 37 different countries. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the pathogen had infected  81,109 people worldwide as of February 26. The epidemic has had rippling effects on food access and availability in China. While news coverage doesn’t and can’t tell the full story, it can provide useful insight. By tracing the news coverage of the effects of COVID-19 on the food system in China, we get a sense of how important it is to consider food systems as a critical component of disaster preparedness and resilience planning.

To be resilient, a food system needs to be able to absorb, respond to, and recover from shocks and stresses. COVID-19 is a shock, because it emerged and spread rapidly, rather than a slow-burning disruption like a multi-year drought. How well China – and any country - will be able to provide safe, accessible, and available food both during and in the aftermath of COVID-19 will depend on its resilience.

How has the epidemic affected food access and affordability in China?

The Chinese National Bureau of Statistics reported earlier this month that the Consumer Price Index, which measures inflation, hit an eight-year high in January 2020, with food prices more than 20 percent higher in January 2020 than in January of the previous year. This could be due to many factors, including hoarding by households and food distribution interruptions. Especially in the immediate aftermath of the initial outbreak and impending quarantine, there were several reports of people rushing to grocery stores to stock up on emergency food. I also read that some retailers started price-gouging in response to the rush of “panic buying” shoppers, which can also make food less affordable.

The quarantine of millions of people in China, along with road closures and public transit shutdowns, also made it more difficult to physically get to stores to buy food. In one instance, I read about a household that couldn’t get to their regular (larger) grocery store, so they started walking to a local, smaller store to get food. Having alternative food outlets like that, which are accessible in diverse ways, is critical for food system resilience.

China’s retail food delivery sector has demonstrated another resilience quality, adaptability. Mobile food delivery services have seen a meteoric rise since the outbreak began. Some food delivery companies quickly adapted to the quarantine by developing new ways for food couriers to deliver without physically contacting customers. Of course, despite a rare instance of a food delivery robot, food delivery still depends on humans, who have varying willingness and ability to travel in order to prepare and deliver food. In addition, this type of service may not address food access challenges for people who can’t afford food delivery. If food delivery is “the” solution, brick and mortar restaurants and retailers whose service models may not be flexible enough to adapt may be left out. Some of these retailers in China were consequently less resilient and closed, at least temporarily. If closures are prolonged enough, permanent retail closures from lost business can affect long-term food access.

How has the epidemic affected food availability?

Shouguang, a city in eastern China’s Shandong Province, has received focused media attention lately because it is a major vegetable production and distribution hub for the country and is located hundreds of miles from Wuhan City, where the outbreak first occurred. Having a major food-production and distribution hub geographically separate from the epicenter of a disease outbreak was beneficial in this instance, as Shouguang farmers and truck drivers have been able to continue producing and sending food to Wuhan City. If the outbreak had occurred first in Shouguang, we likely would have seen even more challenges with food availability across the country. Thus, having diversity in the location of food producing areas across a country, when possible, has the potential to provide more protection against future events that hit high food-producing areas directly.

Despite efforts to increase production and distribution in places like Shouguang, the closure of many marketplaces and transportation restrictions across the country has left producers with limited places to sell their products, limited places to get important inputs like animal feed to produce more livestock, and no easy way to transport food inputs and products. All of these factors can result in reduced availability of certain food items for consumers, not to mention impacts on livelihoods for these food system workers and the health of livestock.

Transportation restrictions have also decreased labor availability across the food supply chain, and consequently, food availability for consumers. With infection and quarantine, there are fewer truck drivers available to deliver food from production areas to city centers, as well as unload imported food at shipping ports. If there is enough redundancy in a labor force, in this case meaning there are a sufficient number of trained laborers available to perform the same task, a labor shortage’s impact is more limited. As more people are quarantined and infected, and as some are obliged to stay home to care for family members and children home from school -- and the longer that travel restrictions delay transport, timely food distribution and sufficient food availability becomes more and more difficult to achieve.

How has the Chinese government responded?

A government’s response to an epidemic like this also has implications for food access and availability. In the weeks after the first reported cases of COVID-19 infection in humans, the Chinese government initiated a series of actions to protect food supply in the affected areas as well as to protect the health of its citizens. Some actions included closing live animal markets and banning wild animal trade and consumption. They also ordered food Chinese producers to increase food production and animal slaughter, ordered that no slaughterhouses be closed, and that food be sent from producing hubs like Shouguang to the most affected places. In addition, they exempted food delivery trucks from road restrictions to continue the flow of food. Finally, the government fined some businesses who were price-gouging and making food less affordable.

What can the food systems community learn from the coronavirus crisis?

Clearly, any infectious disease outbreak is not just a public health issue, but a food systems issue – and a complex one at that. Time will tell what the long-term impact of COVID-19 on China’s food system is, not to mention its global impacts, given both the international spread of illness, and the intertwined nature of global food systems. By looking at the crisis through a food systems lens, we are able to see how the components of the food system and the epidemic interact and create feedback loops. Decisions made in the days after an outbreak can have longer term impacts, which then have other impacts, and so on. The plans a government, business, community, or individual puts in place to prepare for and respond to such events should intentionally consider the potential impacts on the food system. If the outbreak hits hard in the U.S., our food distribution systems will be largely unprepared. There’s a lot that can be done, and we can expect the types of actions to be different in some ways from China’s. 

I’ve seen a rising interest among local governments in the U.S. to more intentionally include food systems in their disaster preparedness and recovery planning. I’m currently co-leading a team which is working with selected U.S. cities to focus on their food-related disaster and resilience planning. (This work builds on our previous work on the issue, including development of the Baltimore food resilience report from 2017, a joint effort between CLF and the Baltimore Office of Sustainability, and several related analyses. We’re also working on indicators and several other projects to help understand and protect food security following disasters.) This work comes not a moment too soon, and will bring even more understanding of how to make our food systems more resilient to future crises.

Read more about the Center’s food system response to COVID-19.

Image by Huangdan2060, January 2020. Xinhuang Dong Autonomous County, Hunan, China. The banner is reminding people to pay attention to the epidemic situation and care for life.

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