The world stands on the brink of the worst food crisis ever seen for at least 50 years; the UN has warned as it urged governments to act rapidly to avoid disaster, including recession caused by the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said on Tuesday, this urgently needed better social protections for poor people as the looming recession following the coronavirus pandemic may put basic nutrition beyond their reach.
“Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults,” he said. “We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic.”
The worst of the pandemic impacts and emerging recession are yet to be felt, although harvests of staple crops are holding up, and the export bans and protectionism that experts feared have largely been avoided so far. Guterres warned: “Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruption in the food supply chain.”
This year, about 50 million people risk falling into extreme poverty owing to the pandemic, the long-term effects of which will be even worse, as poor nutrition in childhood causes lifelong suffering. Currently, one in five children globally are stunted in their growth by the age of five, and if poverty rates soar, millions more are likely to suffer the same fate.
A three-point plan laid out by Guterres to repair the world’s ailing food systems and prevent further harm. These are: to focus aid on the worst-stricken regions to stave off immediate disaster, and for governments to prioritize food supply chains; to strengthen social protections so that young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women and other at-risk groups – including children who are not receiving school meals in lockdown – receive adequate nutrition; and to invest in the future, by building a global recovery from the pandemic that prioritizes healthy and environmentally sustainable food systems.
According to Maximo Torero, the chief economist of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the world’s food systems were under threat never before, as in recent times, due to the pandemic and lockdowns that hampered people’s ability to harvest and buy and sell food. “We need to be careful,” he said. “This is a very different food crisis than the ones we have seen.”
The UN report on the impact of Covid-19 on food security and nutrition, published on Tuesday disclosed harvests are healthy and supplies of staple foods such as grains are “robust.” However, as most people get their food from local markets, those are vulnerable to disruption from lockdowns.
The lockdown driven unemployment and the loss of income at an increasing rate are also putting food out of reach for many struggling people. Though global markets have remained steady, some countries have started facing a rise in the price of basic foods.
As millions of seasonal laborers are unable to work due to lockdowns, harvests are slowing down. As farmers are forced to dump perishable produce due to the result of supply chain problems, food waste has also reached damaging levels, and in some countries, the meat industry plants have been forced to close.
The global food system was failing even before the lockdowns, in many areas, according to the UN. As the report pointed, existing problems include conflict, natural disasters, the climate crisis, and the arrival of pests and plant and animal plagues. East Africa, for instance, is facing the worst swarms of locusts for decades, while heavy rain is hindering relief efforts.
The experts warned that additional impact of the coronavirus crisis and lockdowns, and recession resulting from that would compound the damage and tip millions into dire hunger.
“The Covid-19 crisis is attacking us at every angle,” said Agnes Kalibata, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for the 2021 food systems summit. “It has exposed dangerous deficiencies in our food systems and actively threatens the lives and livelihoods of people around the world, especially the more than 1 billion people who have employment in the various industries in food systems.”
Latin America and the Caribbean, She pointed, where one-third of the population already lives in a precarious state of food insecurity, and Brazil is fast becoming a hotspot for coronavirus cases. “Across the region, the pandemic has weakened economies and disrupted supply chains, leading to food price hikes,” she warned.
The pandemic risks reversing the progress that has been made in recent decades on uplifting people out of poverty and improving their accessibility to healthy food, the UN found.
The climate emergency, which is strongly linked to the world’s food systems, must also be the target of any remedies, said Elwyn Grainger-Jones, the executive director of the CGIAR System Organization, a global agricultural research body. “Solutions need to be science-based and coordinated across sectors to provide immediate response and assistance for those most in need, ongoing and inclusive support in recovery and – perhaps most importantly – future resilience to all shocks, including climate extremes.”
Kalibata said countries should take this as an opportunity to improve food systems alongside reducing poverty and also increasing global resilience to shocks.
“Food has always brought people together and it can again if we build back better as it relates to our food systems,” she said.