The coronavirus pandemic could disrupt global food supply chains and send prices soaring, international agencies and experts have warned.
Export restrictions imposed by major producing countries could especially hurt economies with vulnerable supply structures, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said last week.
And the UN Committee on World Food Security warned that "disruptions at borders and in supply chains may cause an echo in the food system with potentially disastrous effects."
The warnings highlight the potential damage of the coronavirus outbreak beyond its immediate toll on the at least 700,000 people it has sickened in nearly 200 countries.
"Coupled with the current locust swarm crisis (in Africa and the Middle East) that is affecting food production, it may worsen the global food market, leading to panic buying, export restrictions and disruptions in the supply chain, sending food prices soaring," Cheng Guoqiang, a professor at the School of Economics and Management of Tongji University in Shanghai, told the state-owned Economic Daily.
"If the outbreak cannot be effectively controlled, it may cause a serious world food crisis and directly threaten food security for China and emerging nations."
China is expected to be shielded from severe supply shortages as the country has been relying on its own output of rice and wheat to feed its 1.4 billion people, but its reliance on imports for certain crops, such as soybeans, could send food price soaring and add further misery to domestic consumers.
The world's most populous country has already been hit by surging prices for imported pork after as much as 60% of the nation's hog herd died or was culled last year because of African swine fever.
"For some specific foods, such as salmon, shrimp, pangasius (shark species), for which China is highly reliant on imports, the supply is currently being impacted by disruptions to logistics in those exporting countries, such as India, Vietnam and Norway," said Pan Chenjun, senior analyst for animal protein at Rabobank.
Vietnam, the world's third-largest exporter of rice, said on Friday that it planned to stockpile the grain and suspend new export contracts until the end of the month.
Thailand banned shipments of chicken eggs for a week after a domestic supply shortage caused a spike in demand and prices to double.
In Hong Kong, where Thailand and Vietnam account for 80% of rice imports, long lines reappeared outside shops at the weekend as residents scrambled to stock up on essentials.
Disruptions at borders and in supply chains may cause an echo in the food system with potentially disastrous effectsUN Committee on World Food Security
Analysts expect further export restrictions, but say food shortages will be more prominent in countries that import staples from just one or two sources.
While images of empty supermarket shelves and huge queues outside stores have been broadcast across the world, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, or FAO, said it does not anticipate significant shortages if global supply chains are maintained.
Disruptions to food supply could occur during April and May because of the fast-spreading outbreak and containment measures, Maximo Torero Cullen, chief economist at the FAO, said in comments published on the agency's website.
Australia, which is a net food exporter, is already facing difficulty keeping food on store shelves, as panic buying in the face of the pandemic has increased demand, social research house McCrindle said.
Despite a prolonged drought in Australia and a severe bush fire season that lasted six months to February, the country should have sufficient food supplies to see it through the crisis, said Mark McCrindle, principal of the firm.
The problem was not supply, he said, but an inflexible "just in time" distribution process coupled with a sudden spike in demand.
"Australia is geared up for the drought, production is not massively impacted," McCrindle said. "The biggest problem is in demand, especially in supermarkets."
Research conducted by the firm between March 19 and 23 found that more than four in five Australians changed their behavior in response to the coronavirus and 6% said they panic bought, which was enough to put supply chains out of balance.
About 30% bought more than they usually do, motivated by those who were panic buying.
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