We are living through a period in which many jurisdictions have shut down virtually all non-essential commerce. People are working from home or have been temporarily laid off.
We have seen rushes on food and grocery items like toilet paper and hand sanitizer that have resulted in some short-term shortages in stores.
Some have questioned the resilience of our food system and whether we could run out of food. The easy answer is we are not running out of food. Our food system has proven to be robust and resilient and shortages are demand-based rather than supply-based.
Stores are restocking
Yes, we have seen some shortages on grocery store shelves. But we have seen stores restocking regularly, and the expectation is that the system will catch up.
The just-in-time process used in our food system, in fact, is not unique to food supply chains. It is based on producing and shipping products to meet expected demands. It depends on accurate forecasts and smooth delivery.
We have seen a significant surge in demand as people buy large quantities in anticipation of being at home for long periods of time. This was exacerbated by panic buying when people saw shortages in the store or heard of shortages in news reports. Products are being quickly restocked, even though they’re often snapped up quickly.
We will see a return to some semblance of normality reasonably soon — at least with respect to food stocks in stores. This is supported by policies at stores that are limiting quantities that people can purchase.
Demand for things like hand sanitizer continue to be high. Demand for other food products will probably stabilize relatively quickly, even if people continue to hold extra stock at home. Grocery stores have seen an increase in demand for food as restaurants are closed, but that simply shifts demand from food service distribution to supermarket distribution, and isn’t leading to food supply shortages.
We are also seeing larger individual shopping orders as consumers minimize the number of times they have to go to the grocery store.
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While there have been some shortages at grocery stores, we’ve also seen reports of farmers dumping milk or plowing down crops.
This is caused by the requirement for adjustments in the food system. As demand has decreased in food services, it’s increased in retail. So why is milk being dumped and why are crops being mowed down?
It’s because the raw product needs to be diverted to new processors and products, and other products need to be diverted to different processors. Some products require packaging changes. Professional bakers buy industrial-sized bags of flour, for example, but most retailers won’t normally carry that size.
These adjustments take time, and for perishable products like milk and produce, storage isn’t available. These adjustments are now underway and products are beginning to flow through supply chains more normally.
No border closures
Food supply chains have been protected from border closures this far, and that’s expected to continue. The most important border for Botswana’s food supply chain, and that of Zimbabwe too, is the Botswana-South Africa border. More than half of our food imports come from South Africa.
During the winter months, we import more. But fresh local produce is available to most Batswana in the warmer months.
Overall, our food system has bent but not broken in the face of unprecedented demand. We can remain confident that we will have food available as we work our way through the peaks of the pandemic.
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