Surging food import costs threaten world’s poorest, FAO warns

By Gus Trompiz

PARIS (Reuters) -Food imports costs across the world are expected to surge to record levels this year, piling pressure on many of the poorest countries whose economies have already been ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.N. Food Agency said on Thursday.

These high costs may persist for a sustained period as nearly all agricultural commodities have become more expensive, while a rally in energy markets could raise farmers’ production costs, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.

“The problem is not the world facing higher prices,” Josef Schmidhuber, deputy director of the FAO’s trade and markets division, told Reuters.

“The issue is vulnerable countries.”

The world’s food import bill, including shipping costs, is projected to reach $1.715 trillion this year, up 12% from $1.530 trillion in 2020, the FAO said in its twice-yearly Food Outlook report on Thursday.

While growth in agricultural trade during the pandemic has shown the resilience of international markets, price rises since late 2020 are raising risks for some import-dependent states, it added.

Nations classed as Low-Income Food-Deficit Countries by the FAO are forecast to see food import costs jump 20% this year, with tourism-reliant economies in a particularly precarious position, the agency said.

International aid organizations have already warned of rising numbers of malnourished people in the world as the pandemic has compounded food insecurity linked to conflict and poverty in states like Yemen and Nigeria.

The FAO’s monthly food price index hit a 10-year high in May, reflecting sharp rises for cereals, vegetable oils and sugar.

A separate index of food import costs, including freight costs that have also soared, reached a record in March this year, surpassing levels seen during previous food price spikes in 2006-2008 and 2010-2012, the FAO said.

Inflationary pressures have led countries like Argentina and Russia to impose export curbs.

CHINESE MAIZE TRADE

The FAO does not issue forecasts for its price index, but its import cost projection for 2021 assumed prices would stay high, Schmidhuber said.

“Eventually agriculture will come back to a normal situation but it will take some time,” he said.

A strong volume increase for staple food imports last year had already driven up global import costs by 3%, to a record high.

Exceptions were beverages and fish products, which are more sensitive to economic conditions and were hit by supply-chain difficulties, the FAO said.

China’s imports have been a driver of agricultural demand and prices in the past year, partly reflecting Beijing’s efforts to rebuild its pig industry after a disease outbreak.

Chinese maize (corn) imports in the upcoming 2021/22 season are set to rise to 24 million tonnes, the FAO forecast. This would mean China, expected to quadruple its maize imports to 22 million tonnes in 2020/21, would remain the world’s top importer of the cereal.

A recovery in Chinese pork output is expected to reduce global trade, offsetting growth in beef and poultry flows to leave overall meat trade stable this year, the FAO added.

(Reporting by Gus Trompiz; Editing by Alexander Smith and Pravin Char)

Illegal drugs trade goes digital for pandemic

By Catarina Demony

LISBON (Reuters) -Like supermarkets, restaurants and purveyors of sourdough bread, the illegal drugs trade went digital to serve its customers during lockdown, and could stay that way when the COVID-19 pandemic is over, Europe’s drugs agency said on Wednesday.

“The pandemic is pushing drug criminals online, reinforcing a trend,” said the European Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson during the online launch of the 2021 drugs report put together by the Lisbon-based agency EMCDDA.

“Drug dealers are moving from the streets onto social media, taking orders via encrypted messaging services, sending drugs to customers via home delivering services.”

The pandemic has forced changes to every level of the drugs trade, from wholesale traffickers and smugglers to neighborhood dealers.

With international travel disrupted and borders shut, smugglers have been relying more on shipping containers and less on human couriers, the report said. The trade proved resilient, with data showing no decline in the amount of cocaine available, while more people were growing cannabis at home.

“The drug market continues to adjust to COVID-19 disruption, as drug traffickers adapt to travel restrictions and border closures,” it said.

“Although street-based retail drug markets were disrupted during the early lockdowns, and some localized shortages reported, drug sellers and buyers adapted by increasing their use of encrypted messaging services, social media apps, online sources and mail and home delivery services.”

Alexis Goosdeel, EMCDDA’s director, said there would be new risks from what the report called “the further digitalization of drug markets”. The shift to online transactions made it easier for drug dealers to recruit young people, and to make the push out of big cities into rural areas.

Mental health problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic could push more people to misuse drugs, and the financial impact of the crisis could push them to use “more toxic, more dangerous and potentially more lethal substances,” Goosdeel said.

“We are just in front of a perfect storm,” Goosdeel said. “The drug market is more resilient than ever and is digitally-enabled.”

(Reporting by Catarina DemonyEditing by Victoria Waldersee and Peter Graff)

U.S. announces more than $266 million in new Afghanistan aid

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With the U.S. troop withdrawal well under way, the United States on Friday announced more than $266 million in new humanitarian aid for Afghanistan as part of what it called an enduring U.S. commitment to the war-torn country.

The announcement comes amid unrelenting violence and a stalled peace process that are fueling fears that the departure of U.S.-led international forces is putting Afghanistan on a path to all-out civil war that could restore Taliban rule two decades after the Islamists were driven from power.

Officials of the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, who ordered an end to the 20-year U.S. troop presence by Sept. 11, have vowed to continue U.S. military and civilian aid to Kabul. But they warned it could be suspended if there is backtracking on progress made in human rights, especially those of women and girls.

“As the United States withdraws military forces from Afghanistan, our enduring commitment is clear. We remain engaged through our full diplomatic, economic, and assistance toolkit to support the peaceful, stable future the Afghan people want and deserve,” the State Department said in a statement.

The $266 million in new assistance brings to nearly $3.9 billion the total amount of such aid provided by the United States since 2002, the statement said.

The funds will help support some of the estimated 18 million Afghans in need, including more than 4.8 million who are internally displaced, 115,000 of whom have been driven from their homes by fighting this year alone, it said.

The funds, it continued, will go to providing shelter, job opportunities, basic healthcare, emergency food, water, sanitation, and hygienic services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It also will support protection programs for “the most vulnerable Afghans,” including women and girls “facing particular risks, including gender-based violence,” it said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. manufacturing sector picks up in May; work backlogs rising

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. manufacturing activity picked up in May as pent-up demand amid a reopening economy boosted orders, but unfinished work piled up because of shortages of raw materials and labor.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said on Tuesday its index of national factory activity increased to a reading of 61.2 last month from 60.7 in April.

A reading above 50 indicates expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for 11.9% of the U.S. economy. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast the index rising to 60.9 in May.

A shift in demand to goods from services as the COVID-19 pandemic kept Americans at home, strained supply chains, with the virus also disrupting labor at manufacturers and their suppliers, leading to raw material shortages across industries.

More than half of adults in the United States are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, allowing authorities to lift pandemic-related restrictions on businesses. That is whipping up demand across the economy, as is massive fiscal stimulus. There is no sign the supply bottlenecks are easing, even as demand is reverting back to services.

The survey’s forward-looking new orders sub-index jumped to 67.0 from a reading of 64.3 in April. Inventories at factories are barely growing and business warehouses are almost bare.

But production is being constrained by worker shortages. A measure of factory employment dropped to a six-month low in May. Labor is scarce despite nearly 10 million Americans being officially unemployed.

Generous unemployment benefits funded by the government, problems with child care and fears of contracting the virus, even with vaccines widely accessible, as well as pandemic-related retirements have been blamed for keeping workers home.

Lack of workers and shortages of raw materials such as semiconductors used in the production of motor vehicles and electronic goods led to a further increase in backlogs of uncompleted work.

The shortages are also keeping input prices elevated. The ISM survey’s measure of prices paid by manufacturers hovered near levels last seen in July 2008, when the economy was in the throes of the Great Recession.

The higher prices are fanning inflation pressures. The government reported on Friday that a measure of underlying inflation tracked by the Federal Reserve for its 2% target accelerated 3.1% on a year-on-year basis in April, the biggest increase since July 1992.

Most economists and Fed Chair Jerome Powell maintain that higher inflation will be transitory.

The slowdown in hiring at factories last month could temper expectations for an acceleration in job growth in May after nonfarm payrolls increased by only 266,000 in April.

According to an early Reuters survey of economists, payrolls likely increased by 700,000 jobs in May. The government is due to publish May’s employment report on Friday.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

U.S. land border restrictions extended with Canada, Mexico

By David Shepardson and Steve Scherer

WASHINGTON/OTTAWA (Reuters) -United States land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least June 21, the U.S. and Canadian governments said on Thursday.

The restrictions were first imposed in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and have been extended in 30-day increments.

“We’re working closely with Canada & Mexico to safely ease restrictions as conditions improve,” the U.S. Homeland Security Department said on Twitter.

It remains unclear whether restrictions will be lifted before the busy summer travel season. U.S. officials are also weighing whether to loosen air travel restrictions that prevent much of the world’s population from visiting.

Border towns and businesses have been hit hard by a lack of cross-border traffic. Many U.S. lawmakers have urged loosening the restrictions or providing a timetable for resuming normalized travel. They say Americans who own property in Canada cannot maintain their homes.

U.S. officials said discussions with Canada and Mexico had been unable to win agreement on ending the restrictions.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said on Tuesday he hoped that U.S.-Mexican border restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus pandemic would be lifted before summer ends in September.

Canada has also been requiring air passengers arriving in Canada to be tested for COVID-19 before a hotel quarantine period.

Canada lags the United States on vaccinations against the coronavirus, and much of the country has been fighting a third wave of the pandemic with school and business closures, though matters have improved in recent weeks.

Air travelers to Canada are required to have had a test within three days of departure, and then again on arrival. If the airport text comes back negative, they can finish a 14-day quarantine at home.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Steve Scherer in Ottawa; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

U.S. to bolster public health workforce to fight COVID-19, future pandemics

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration is releasing $7.4 billion to bolster the nation’s healthcare workforce amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for future epidemics and health challenges, the White House said in a statement on Thursday.

The funds, allocated as part of the $1.9 trillion aid package pushed by President Joe Biden and passed by Congress in March, will be used to recruit and hire a range of healthcare workers to help with vaccinations, testing and contact tracing, it said.

Of the $7.4 billion, $4.4 billion will go to states and local public health departments to address disease outbreaks and hire school nurses. It will also be used to expand the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s ability to track outbreaks and to create a service corps dedicated to public health. The remaining $3 billion will boost local public health workforces ahead of future challenges, with an emphasis on recruiting diverse candidates, the White House said.

The United States is making progress in its efforts to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, which shut down much of the country last year and roiled the economy, with more than 582,000 deaths to date.

After a winter spike in COVID-19 infections, new cases have fallen for four straight weeks and deaths have also dropped as more than one-third of the country has been vaccinated. Warmer weather has also helped to curtain the spread of the virus.

Nearly 154 million people in the United States had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, U.S. officials said. The pace of vaccinations, however, has slowed and U.S. health officials have said variants such as the one emerging from India could still pose a threat.

Public health experts for years have decried a lack of funding for the CDC and other areas and have warned about the potential devastating impact from epidemics of SARS, Ebola, swine flu and other diseases.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Susan Heavey; Editing by Paul Simao)

Five EU countries say focus should be on vaccine production, not patents

By John Chalmers and Marine Strauss

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -Five European Union countries distanced themselves on Friday from the idea of waiving patent rights on coronavirus vaccines, saying the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic was making more vaccines quickly.

Leaders of the 27-nation bloc were to discuss the suggestion, backed by U.S. President Joe Biden, at a two-day summit that opened in the Portuguese city of Porto on Friday, but are divided about its usefulness.

Experts say waivers could take years to negotiate, and would not address the immediate need to manufacture more doses fast.

“What is the current issue? It is not really about intellectual property. Can you give intellectual property to laboratories that do not know how to produce and will not produce tomorrow?” French President Emmanuel Macron said on entering the talks.

“The main issue for solidarity is the distribution of doses,” he said, adding that France was working hand in hand with Germany on the issue. Berlin expressed its opposition to the idea on Thursday.

Biden on Wednesday backed a call from India and South Africa to waive patent protection for COVID-19 vaccines, responding to pressure from Democratic lawmakers and more than 100 other countries, but angering pharmaceutical companies.

Some EU officials argue that it could take two years to agree on the waivers in the World Trade Organization (WTO), most likely making it irrelevant to the current pandemic.

DIFFICULT PROCESS

The EU leaders are likely to hear advice from the bloc’s executive, the European Commission, that a waiver would not help to boost production, especially in poorer countries, as the manufacturing process requires advanced technologies and facilities, officials said.

The U.S. firm Moderna waived patent rights in October on its vaccine, which uses using the latest mRNA technology, but no other firm has yet announced that it will try to copy the shot.

Germany, home to BioNTech, which owns a patent on another mRNA vaccine developed jointly with Pfizer of the United States, opposes waivers, while Italy supports them, EU officials said.

While the pandemic rages, the chances are high that even more dangerous new variants of the coronavirus will emerge.

The pharmaceutical industry argues that the most expedient approach is to overcome existing production bottlenecks, and sell or donate vaccines to countries around the world.

“No one we will be safe until we all are. If vaccination takes place only in developed countries, our victory over COVID-19 will only be short-lived. We are seeing how quickly the virus is mutating, creating new variants that entail new challenges,” the leaders of Belgium, Sweden, France, Denmark and Spain said in a joint letter to the Commission.

“Vaccines have become security policy and the EU cannot afford to lag behind; to this end, an increased European production capacity will be a key priority,” they said.

The EU, which is among the biggest producers of vaccines in the world, is also the main exporter, with 200 million doses already shipped outside the bloc. The United States and Britain have not exported any of the vaccines they have made.

(Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski, Phil Blenkinsop, Francesco Guarasio and Gabriela Baczynska; Writing by Jan Strupczewski; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Global COVID-19 death toll more than double official estimates – IHME

(Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly 6.9 million deaths across the world, more than double the number officially recorded, a new analysis from the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) estimated.

Deaths go unreported as most countries only record those that occur in hospitals or of patients with a confirmed infection, the report showed.

The IHME is an independent health research organization that provides comparable measurement of the world’s health problems and has been cited in the past by the White House and its reports are watched closely by public health officials.

The reported COVID-19 mortality is strongly related to the levels of testing in a country, the IHME said.

“If you don’t test very much, you’re most likely to miss COVID deaths,” Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said in a briefing call with journalists.

IHME estimated total COVID-19 deaths by comparing anticipated deaths from all causes based on pre-pandemic trends with the actual number of all deaths caused during the pandemic.

In the United States, the analysis estimated COVID-19 related deaths of more than 905,000. Official figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday estimated 575,491 deaths due to the novel coronavirus.

The CDC did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on the report.

The report only includes deaths caused directly by the virus, not deaths caused by the pandemic’s disruption to healthcare systems and communities.

“Many countries have devoted exceptional effort to measuring the pandemic’s toll, but our analysis shows how difficult it is to accurately track a new and rapidly spreading infectious disease,” Murray said.

(Reporting by Dania Nadeem in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila)

Pandas a respite from pandemic for Madrid care home residents

By Elena Rodriguez and Michael Gore

MADRID (Reuters) -Elderly residents from a nursing home outside Madrid relished the fresh air and freedom of a guided tour around the city’s zoo on Wednesday, delighting in particular at the sight of Bing-Xing the giant panda.

Around 50 residents and staff from the Casaverde home, all of them vaccinated, were whisked through the zoo’s leafy trails on a miniature train and introduced to some of the park’s most charismatic inhabitants, in their first organized excursion since the COVID-19 pandemic struck last spring.

“It’s great to leave, to get out of the monotony of the nursing home, especially as we have been confined to it for so long,” said Manuel Roman, one of the residents.

Mariano Valdera, 80, was thrilled to see a wide range of animals, from pandas and elephants to birds.

“Here I feel just like I used to years ago in my village, in the middle of nature, listening to the birds, which I haven’t heard for such a long time,” he said.

Nearly 43,000 elderly people in Spanish nursing homes died of COVID-19 or a suspected infection during the first wave of the pandemic.

After such a devastating loss, authorities prioritized the vaccination of people who work and live in care homes, achieving nearly total coverage by the end of February.

Cristina Bravo, director of the Casaverde home, stressed the importance of being able to return to some semblance of normality: “Today was a very exciting day, they were really looking forward to going outside again…Today we have forgotten about the pain.”

(Reporting by Elena Rodriguez, Michael Gore and Susana Vera;Writing by Nathan Allen;Editing by Andrei Khalip, Alexandra Hudson)

High anxiety: World’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge opens in Portugal

By Catarina Demony and Miguel Pereira

AROUCA, Portugal (Reuters) – Hugo Xavier became one of the first people to cross the world’s longest pedestrian suspension bridge when it opened on Thursday near his tiny hometown of Arouca in northern Portugal.

“Oh…here we go!,” the 42-year-old said anxiously as he gathered enough courage to step onto the see-through metal grid pathway of the 516-metre-long (1693-ft) bridge alongside his equally jittery partner and a tour guide.

Hidden between rock-strewn mountains covered with lush greenery and yellow flowers inside the UNESCO-recognized Arouca Geopark, the bridge hangs 175 meters above the fast-flowing River Paiva.

The landscape is calm, but the crossing is not for the faint-hearted. Held up by steel cables and two massive towers on each side, it wobbles a little with every step.

“I was a little afraid, but it was so worth it,” a relieved Xavier said already on the other side. “It was extraordinary, a unique experience, an adrenaline rush.”

The bridge opened only to local residents on Thursday, but from Monday everyone can book a visit.

Locals hope the attraction, which cost about 2.3 million euros ($2.8 million) and took around two years to build, will help revive the region, especially after the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a breath of fresh air for our land because it will attract more investment, more people,” said tour guide Emanuel, adding that the region was rapidly ageing as many young people moved to big cities. “It will bring a new dynamic to Arouca.”

Standing on the bridge, the mayor of Arouca, Margarida Belem, said the bridge was part of a wider strategy to encourage more people to move and stay in the region.

“There were many challenges that we had to overcome… but we did it,” the visibly proud mayor told Reuters. “There’s no other bridge like this one in the world.”

($1 = 0.8254 euros)

(Reporting by Catarina Demony, Miguel Pereira and Violeta Moura; Editing by Andrei Khalip and Raissa Kasolowsky)