Food emergency threatens Portugal
Photo: JOSÉ COELHO/LUSA

Food emergency threatens Portugal

Food banks fear “total collapse of social system” due to “expressive price increases”

 The war in Ukraine, the fuel crisis, Portugal’s drought, high rates of poverty and low salaries have all combined to ensure nothing is going to be easy in the coming months.

Expresso has blown the whistle on this spiralling crisis, admitting the situation is the worst in living memory.

Arable farmers, meat producers, dairy farmers, bakers, poultry farmers and all the industries within the food sector have never seen or experienced anything like the issues stacked up against them.

One of the major obstacles is that Russia and Ukraine are two of the world’s principal suppliers of cereals – “essential for food production”.

With these no longer really exporting (Russia due to international sanctions, Ukraine due to bombardments), prices are skyrocketing.

And with the drought here reducing land for pasture, farmers are being forced to buy dry feed for their cattle, which they can barely afford.

Worse, the feed itself is likely to run out by April.

Where will the next consignment come from? It’s a question no one seems able to answer.

Says Expresso, the cost of just basic everyday products will increase by 20% to 30% within the next few days, “making them inaccessible to thousands of low-income families”.

Food crisis like we haven’t seen in years

“Food poverty will reach a level that we haven’t seen in years,” Isabel Jonet, the long-term president of Banco Alimentar Contra a Fome (Food Bank Against Hunger), told the paper.

Eduardo Oliveira e Sousa, president of CAP – the Portuguese Agriculture Confederation – concurred: “We are in a situation of food emergency that I have never seen before.”

“With the increase in costs in energy and diesel, which have worsened since war broke out, there are farmers who will give up producing various seasonal crops, like corn, vegetables, some fruits, so as not to suffer losses,” adds Expresso.

“Even so, even with an increase in prices, there will be shortages,” warns Oliveira e Sousa. “And this will lead to speculation, and new (price) increases.”

CAP is considering “declaring rationing”, he added. “The stocks of some products, like flour for (making) pastas, are so low that in one or two months we may have to bring in rationing like what happened in the 70s” (a time almost no expats will recall, but the point where Portugal rose up out of the misery of dictatorship into revolution).

 Meat costs will increase by 30%

Corn is the major component in animal feed. As Jaime Piçarra, secretary general of the Portuguese association of animal feed industries, told Expresso: “Just in the last week, the price of a tonne of corn leapt from €300 to €420. This means, animal feed will increase 25% to 30%, which producers won’t be able to afford. The industry could collapse.”

It goes without saying, these increases will reflect on prices to the consumer.

Pork is the meat most consumed by Portuguese. It is likely to increase more than 30% in price in the next few days, says David Neves of the Portuguese swine production federation.

It was David Neves who explained the sector only has enough animal feed until April. “After that, we won’t have anything to feed the animals with, which means people would have to go without meat. If urgent measures aren’t taken, we will see the return of hunger to Portugal,” he warned.

Of course, the vegetarians and vegans reading this story will see hugely positive aspects to a meat shortage. But even their lifestyle choices will be impacted by the rising costs of raw materials, fuel and food production.

 When it comes to milk, “it’s not even possible to estimate how much prices will rise. When diesel has already just increased massively again, the electricity used to milk the cows increases. Fertiliser costs are increasing, feed is more expensive. The situation is becoming dramatic”, Carlos Neves of the association of Portuguese milk producers adds.

Again, thousands of consumers may think “this won’t affect me”: the market for oat, almond, soya milk is booming – but it too will be affected by all these increased costs, particularly when it comes to transportation.

Government acts to help the most vulnerable

The tragedy is that in Portugal – a little country with an enormous heart (as so many Ukrainians have been discovering in these recent horrible days) – 20% of the population (roughly two million people) live on less than €450 per month.

These are not people who would even think of buying oat milk (it is a great deal more expensive than cow’s milk); they survive on the cheapest of staples: bread, vegetables, meat (mainly pork/chicken), rice/potatoes.

“They simply won’t have the margins to be able to survive,” says Isabel Jonet. “They can only cut back. There will be children going to school without breakfast, and going to bed without dinner.”

Into this ‘perfect storm’ of imperfections comes a new factor: a significant influx of desperate refugees with young, growing children who need proper nutrition.

The Banco Alimentar Contra a Fome currently helps feed more than 500,000 people.

“This is a powderkeg,” said Ms Jonet. “Apart from the increase in demand we will be getting from Portuguese families, institutions will have to respond to the affluence of refugees. The social support system could collapse.”

Isabel Jonet has been working in food banks since 1994. She is not a sensationalist.

Government says: “No reason to envisage food shortages yet”

Expresso’s article saw the government quick to respond. “There is, to date, no reason to anticipate a possible shortage of food,” said a statement from the ministry of agriculture.

The statement added that the ministry, “together with other governmental areas”, is “carrying out permanent monitoring and follow-up regarding national food supply”.

To this end, “it met on February 28 with the monitoring and evaluation group for goods supply conditions in the agri-food and retail sectors due to market dynamics, and no risks of a breakdown in supply were reported.”

A new meeting with this group is scheduled for next week (March 21).

Regarding concerns over cereals for animal feed imported from Ukraine, “there are other alternative sources for these raw materials (South America and North America), with which operators are already in contact”, said the statement.

There are also “ongoing operations and contacts with new suppliers, such as South Africa”.

Cereals destined for human consumption, such as bread wheat, “are mainly imported from France, and this circuit is stable and consolidated”.

With regard to edible fats, “the supply has been assured, with emphasis being placed on the availability of national olive oil, the current season of which saw record production”.

As for remaining food products, the Ministry of Agriculture stressed “there is no pressure with regard to their availability, either through national production, or within the framework of the European single market”.

The ministry insists “groups are already in place to monitor the food supply situation, between member states and associations representing production, industry and marketing, in order to assess and resolve any constraints in supply chains”.

All of which is ‘well and good’, but environment minister João Pedro Matos Fernandes admitted earlier this week that while Portugal “doesn’t face shortages with regard to fuel”, the same “cannot be said about rising prices”. These will be “expressive”, he admitted.

Economy minister Pedro Siza Vieira announced additional help is in the pipeline for the country’s 1.4 million families already registered on social energy tariffs; the government has announced further help for businesses (in the form of a €400 million credit line) and farmers (again in the form of a credit line – which so many have said is not the answer: further debt cannot be the way forwards).

Meantime, President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa addressed the nation on Monday, after a sombre Council of State, in which he stressed the importance of citizens holding on to the “courage and union” they showed during the pandemic.

The war in Ukraine “will have enormous costs”, he said. “There is no way to pretend they will not fall in one way or another on the lives of us all”.

By NATASHA DONN

natasha.donn@algarveresident.com