Reduced consumer incomes around the world and supply chain difficulties during the pandemic have taken a toll on ag and food exporters in developing countries, but overall trade has remained “remarkably resilient” and some suppliers have prospered, according to a new publication from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

"The global food import bill for the whole of 2020 may even exceed that of 2019," says Josef Schmidhuber, one of the authors of the new FAO analysis. "There is, however, a noticeable shift away from high value food items to staples." 

Two success stories are bananas and avocados. Trade has flourished despite the difficulties brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Industry sources indicate that many large-scale producers of bananas and avocados managed to keep a sufficient number of workers in plantations to avoid output disruptions, thereby limiting labor shortages,” the FAO report concluded. “On the demand side, consumers seem to have generally maintained their demand for these fruits, possibly reflecting assumed or real health benefits. The various lockdowns implemented across the world may also have allowed more time to prepare dishes with fresh fruits at home.”

Global banana exports actually increased by about 3% in the first half of the year, reaching 12.2 million metric tons, says the FAO report. Ecuador’s banana exports rose by 8.5% and shipments out of Costa Rica jumped by 25%.

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Mexican avocado exports this year have dipped, but shipments out of Peru, Colombia and Kenya have been on the rise, filling an unexpected spike in demand from Europe. U.S. demand dropped in the first seven months of 2020 — likely since that most are consumed in restaurants and many have been shuttered at least partially – but the increase in European demand far outweighed the U.S. decline.

But exports of many tropical fruits and some seafood have not fared well this year. Papaya farmers were hit particularly hard in the first half of 2020, suffering a reduction in exports after a 12% increase last year.

“Papayas are particularly vulnerable to disruptions in transport routes and supply chains, given their high degree of perishability,” said FAO. “Accordingly, global imports of papayas reportedly dropped by 7.3 percent between January and June 2020, to approximately 160 000 tons. The two largest importers, the United States of America and the European Union, respectively imported 7.7 and 4.8% less papaya in the January–June 2020 period relative to the same period of the previous year.”

While the impact of COVID-19 on some farmers and exporters has been less harmful than expected, many farms and the people who work on them still need help, the authors of the FAO report said.

"It will be critical to develop policies aimed at providing financial support to producers so that they can remain operational, while protecting the health and safety of workers and minimizing disruptions to national and international transport routes," said Sabine Altendorf, an FAO economist.

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