Global food supply chain slows due to trucking bottlenecks

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(Bloomberg) – Truckers transporting food are facing delays around the world in the latest supply chain disruption scolded by the coronavirus pandemic.

They face long wait times in Europe due to restrictions imposed to control the spread of the virus. In South America, local laws sometimes conflict with national ordinances which consider the transportation of food as an essential service, sometimes leaving supplies blocked. In some parts of Africa, blocking public transport means that drivers are not even able to get to work. And huge spikes in demand have resulted in loading delays at some US warehouses.

Drivers everywhere have access to essential services that have been reduced or even cut. It is becoming more and more difficult to find places to eat with closed restaurants and platforms that are too large to pass by drive-thru lanes. A decent place to sleep, shower, even use a clean toilet becomes difficult to find.

Faced with these difficulties, some truckers in places like Brazil, one of the world’s largest food exporters, have even refused to make new trips in recent weeks.

The problems highlight the vulnerability of the complex process required to get goods from farm to table. Almost all food and agricultural products are transported by road at some point, be it from a field to a grain terminal, from a processing plant to a port, or from a wholesaler to a store.

“We’ve never had anything of this magnitude and magnitude,” said Derek Leathers, president and CEO of Werner Enterprises, one of the top five truckers in the United States, referring to the constraints of the trucking system. “But we are open to business, and we must remain so. “

Bob Stanton, a 62-year-old truck driver with three underlying health conditions, said he was afraid of catching Covid-19 and had only half a can of disinfectant spray left. He does not know where to go for testing if he should develop symptoms, and he is afraid of being taken away from his Illinois home if he becomes ill. Despite this, he pushed back the idea of ​​using vacation time to weather the virus storm.

“If I take a few weeks of vacation, you will all starve to death,” he said. The 20-year-old trucking veteran had just transported sugar to Memphis, grain to Chicago and was waiting to be loaded in Batavia, Illinois, before the shipment would be shipped to a Walmart Inc. distribution center in Hopkinsville, Kentucky.

“I’m here to try to feed you. “

The severity of the problem depends on where you are in the world.

In the United States, pressures on drivers have taken their toll, but for the most part, the supply chain is fluid, just with small pockets of slowdowns. Trucks crossing the border between Germany and Poland had wait times of 10 hours or more, which means that the meat would arrive on the market over time, pushing back the “best before” dates, although some delays are mitigated. In India, vegetable oils are stuck in ports due to a shortage of trucks entering.

Many drivers in Uganda depend on public transport to get to their place of work. This transport was closed as part of the country’s lockdown measures. Mary Kamugisha runs the Step supermarket in Buwate, a suburb of the capital, Kampala. It now largely depends on motorcycle taxis, called bodabodas, for deliveries.

“Supplies are running out,” she said. “Suppliers’ deliveries are not made because their drivers cannot access their workplaces. “

Some of the disruptions have already started to ease as governments strive to ensure that the transportation of food is covered by lock-in allowances for essential businesses and policymakers are doing more to help truck drivers. Pennsylvania reopened truck stops after closing them briefly throughout the state. The European Commission has worked to create “greenway” crossings during border controls to minimize delays. Special lanes for truckers have also been used in parts of Malaysia.

Another example of progress is Argentina, the world’s leading exporter of soybean meal. While federal regulations considered food transportation to be an essential service, local mayors imposed restrictions. They blocked access to roads, fearing that truckers would spread the virus in their cities. The problem was serious in agricultural regions, preventing grain terminals from delivering supplies to ports. Marcelo Torresi, who manages a 5,000-ton lift in Bustinza, in the province of Santa Fe, said that these problems had started to go away and that trucks to the port were now loading.

Companies are also working to help truckers. Some customers provide drivers with bottled water and snacks to help ease the shock of restaurant closings, said Steve Wells, chief operating officer of Baltimore’s trucking company, Cowan Systems.

In the United States, traffic is light, with most people staying at home. With few passenger cars, trucks actually speed up transit times, which helps reduce loading and unloading times.

Some problems may be more lasting.

Canadian carriers are driving empty trucks to the United States to pick up food for transportation to the north, said Stephen Laskowski, President of the Canadian Trucking Alliance. Normally, they would be full of Canadian manufactured goods for delivery to the United States, but that need has diminished, he said.

The problem of one-way transportation has also arisen in parts of the United States, Europe and Asia, and this increases the cost of transporting food. With the slowdown in manufacturing, it is unclear how long before this is resolved.

In the United States, demand for trucks has increased, while efficiency has declined due to long distances traveled and empty one-way transportation. This prompted farm groups to request a loosening of the rules that limit driving hours and weights.

In addition to this, there is also the risk that drivers who travel hundreds of kilometers in a single day may be exposed to the virus and may become ill, triggering the possibility of labor shortages.

Charles Stallings, 46, continues to drive his regular Iowa-California race. But his routine has changed. He wears a mask and puts on gloves when he leaves his taxi to refuel. He uses his own pen to sign the documents and does not touch the one chained to the clipboard. When he returns to the cabin, he disinfects everything, including his hands, the steering wheel and the seat.

“As long as I’m here in my truck and in my world, I’m safe,” he said. “I really focused on the minute I get out of this truck and what I touch and how I touch things.”

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