Trade in food and agricultural products has been more resilient than trade in other products during the first part of this year, according to new research by the World Trade Organization (WTO).

In a note titled Covid-19 and agriculture: A story of resilience, the WTO says that although global trade overall has slumped as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and related lockdown measures, agricultural and food exports grew by 2.5% year on year in Q1, largely reflecting the essential nature of food, as well as the fact that trade in goods such as cereals and oilseeds takes place in bulk marine shipments that have not been subject to major disruptions.

A closer look into the figures shows the extent to which initial panic buying and increased home-based food consumption changed the face of agricultural trade flows during the initial months of the pandemic. Trade in non-edible products, such as raw furskins, wool, and live plants, fell back sharply during the first quarter, with declines of as much as 56%. Meanwhile, meat, sugar and dairy products were among the biggest gainers.

“Agricultural trade flows changed significantly, due notably to a sudden change in consumption patterns triggered by the measures put in place,” the report says.

The picture also varies across regions, with agricultural exports from Asia falling during Q1, while European and North American exports held firm until April, largely mirroring the spread of the virus as well as the impact of policy measures including new sanitary and phytosanitary measures and tariff reductions, as well as export restrictions.

“While many governments have gradually relaxed lockdown measures, removed several export restrictions, and introduced domestic support measures to support the agricultural sector, the pandemic continues to spread in different parts of the world and is expected to continue to influence the demand for and supply of agricultural products,” the WTO says in the report, adding that it is vital that governments ensure that any trade-related measures in response to the crisis do not disrupt food supply chains.

“By contributing to the availability and affordability of food, trade remains a crucial part of the solution to countries’ food security concerns – particularly at a moment when people’s incomes are under pressure,” the WTO says. “It is therefore critical to keep trade flows open, and to ensure that food supply chains stay operational.”