Academic warns of food shortage if distribution issue not resolved

Customers browse for supplies at the Chow Kit market in Kuala Lumpur as the government’s movement control order enters its third week.

PETALING JAYA: An academic has warned of periods of food shortage if the government fails to address disruptions in distribution due to the movement control order (MCO).

Fatimah Mohamed Arshad, a researcher at Universiti Putra Malaysia’s Institute of Agricultural and Food Policy Studies, said logistical disruptions would cause delays in the restocking of food items.

“Timing is important in any supply chain,” she said. “It should be smooth to ensure just-in-time delivery.

“Panic buying has caused a short-term deficit in the food inventory since supply could not match the outburst in demand. Supply will respond, but it will take time.”

She foresees more panic buying if the Covid-19 pandemic does not subside and the MCO is extended.

“The supply of food can be chaotic and may cause prices to increase and it may cause social disruption, as has happened in Sicily,” she warned.

The enforcement of restricted movement has affected market operating hours.

“This, too, has distorted not only the timing of delivery but other logistical arrangements from the point of harvesting by the farmers to the shelving of items by the retailers,” Fatimah said. “Abrupt adjustments are very costly to suppliers.”

She said both farmers and wholesalers were heavily burdened by the restrictions.

Delivery trucks are now subjected to rigorous checks by the authorities. Fatimah said this was causing not only late delivery but also deterioration in the quality of fresh produce and thereby a reduction in farmers’ income.

Fatimah Mohamed Arshad

She said the profit margins of wholesalers were also reduced because they were not able to do business at night markets and Pasars Tani, which are banned under the MCO.

She suggested a revision of the restrictions on food flow and the identification of major points of food production and consumption.

As a short-term solution, she said, major food producers and suppliers must be allowed to transport their products to the markets more smoothly, with fewer restrictions on timing but stricter control on the health of the traders and workers at every point in the network.

“For this, we need a faster Covid-19 testing kit to be used on the industry players and support from the government machineries.

“If need be, rationing should be imposed to ensure adequate supply for everyone. There should also be a plea to consumers to be compassionate to others by buying only what they need.”

For a long-term plan, she said, the authorities would have to embark on the massive job of collecting data on various aspects of distribution, such as the number of people involved and the status of their health and facts to use in drawing clear descriptions of the networks.

The consumer affairs and domestic trade ministry has repeatedly assured the public that there would be no shortage of food.

The agriculture and agro-based industry ministry says on its website that existing agricultural activities will continue to ensure adequate supply of fresh produce such as meat and vegetables. It says imported food such as certain milk and meat products and certain vegetables and fruits are currently still available.

However, social media users have been reporting that supermarkets are short of some food items, including bread.

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