The world is on the brink of a global food emergency on a scale unseen for more than half a century as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a UN policy report published on 9 June. The UN has issued a stark warning that the “impending global food emergency” could affect hundreds of millions of people, with the food security of 135 million people at crisis level or worse.
In a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that recessions could place basic nutrition out of reach for many. “Our food systems are failing, and the Covid-19 pandemic is making things worse”, he said. “We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic”.
The coronavirus crisis threatens to reverse years of progress made on lifting people out of extreme poverty. At present, more than 820 million people are hungry. This year, some 50 million additional people may fall into extreme poverty due to the Covid-19 crisis, the UN chief warned.
Worse still, malnutrition has lifelong consequences from stunted growth – one in five children around the world are stunted in their growth by the age of five – to chronic health problems that put pressure on overburdened healthcare systems.
Before COVID-19, the global food system was already strained due to conflict, natural disasters, and climate change, as well as the arrival of new pests and plant and animal diseases. This damage will only be compounded by the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the current crisis differs from previous food crises, experts warn. Harvests are healthy and supplies of staple foods such as grains are “robust”, according to the report. Instead, the pandemic is interfering with the ability to gather and buy and sell food since most people buy their food at local markets, which are being disrupted by lockdowns.
In addition, unemployment and loss of income associated with lockdowns are putting basic nutrition out of reach for many. Harvesting has slowed as seasonal workers are unable to travel, disruptions to farm supply chains are leading to massive food wastage, and in certain countries, meat factories have been forced to close.
“The Covid-19 crisis is attacking us at every angle. 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”, said Agnes Kalibata, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for the 2021 food systems summit.
Despite increased unemployment and loss of income, the coronavirus outbreak has led to food price hikes in some regions. For instance, the number of cases is rapidly increasing in Brazil as food prices rise due to a weakened economy and disrupted supply chains, said Kalibata.
The UN policy brief has outlined a three-point plan to address the hunger crisis:
- Focus aid on the worst-stricken areas to avoid immediate disaster,
- Improve social safety nets so children, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers along with other at-risk group receive adequate nutrition
- Invest in healthy and sustainable food systems and supply chains for the future
Although troubling, the crisis presents an opportunity to improve food systems, said Kalibata, echoing the closing remarks of Guterres:
“Let us rebalance the relationship between food systems and the natural environment by transforming them to work better with nature and for the climate.”
“We cannot forget that food systems contribute up to 29 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, including 44 per cent of methane, and are having a negative impact on biodiversity.”
“If we do these things and more… we can avoid some of the worst impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security and nutrition – and we can do so in a way that supports the green transition that we need to make”.