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Emerging data suggest COVID-19 is driving up hunger in vulnerable countries

01 July 20204 min reading

The world stands on the brink of a food crisis worse than any seen for at least 50 years, the UN has warned as it urged governments to act swiftly to avoid disaster.

Initial and ongoing assessments by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) provide strong indications that the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts are driving up hunger in countries that were already experiencing high levels of food insecurity prior to the disease's outbreak. "The COVID-19 pandemic poses a clear and present danger to food security and nutrition, especially to the world's most vulnerable communities" FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said at the opening of a high-level UN event on humanitarian action.

The Director-General told the virtual event that while assessments were taking place at country level as ongoing agricultural seasons unfolded, the impact of COVID-19 was already being seen in some of the world's food crisis hotspots.

Recent data from the FAO-hosted Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) initiative indicates that in Afghanistan, food insecurity -- already alarmingly high -- has now been aggravated by the impact of coronavirus. The latest estimates show that 10.3 million people there are now dealing with crisis levels of acute hunger or worse. The trend is similar in the Central African Republic, where about 2.4 million people are now facing crisis or worse levels of acute food insecurity -- an 11 percent increase compared with pre-pandemic times, according to the IPC. In Somalia, 3.5 million people are projected to face crisis or worse in the coming months - three times the number at the start of the year.

"We risk a looming food crisis unless measures are taken fast to protect the most vulnerable, keep the global agricultural supply chains alive, and mitigate the pandemic's impacts across the food system," the FAO Director-General said.

ANOTHER 183 MILLION AT RISK OF BEING PUSHED INTO EXTREME HUNGER FAO and other UN agencies are concerned that COVID-19's multiple impacts on economic activity and supply chains are limiting people's ability to access food,  increasingly restricting the cash liquidity of farmers, and handicapping farmers' ability to produce and market food -- which in the longer term could seriously degrade their livelihoods.

Before the pandemic, 135 million people worldwide were already coping with acute hunger caused by conflict, climate shocks, and economic downturns, according to the 2020 edition of the Global Report on Food Crises, produced by FAO, the European Union and 13 other partners. Another 183 million were at risk of being pushed into extreme hunger if faced with an additional stressor.

Maximo Torero, the chief economist of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, said the world’s food systems were under threat as never before in recent times, as the pandemic and lockdowns 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.”

LOCKDOWNS ARE SLOWING HARVESTS Harvests are healthy and supplies of staple foods such as grains are “robust”, according to the UN report on the impact of Covid-19 on food security and nutrition. But most people get their food from local markets, which are vulnerable to disruption from lockdowns. Increasing unemployment and the loss of income associated with lockdowns are also putting food out of reach for many struggling people. Though global markets have remained steady, the price of basic foods has begun to rise in some countries.

Lockdowns are slowing harvests, while millions of seasonal labourers are unable to work. Food waste has reached damaging levels, with farmers forced to dump perishable produce as the result of supply chain problems, and in the meat industry plants have been forced to close in some countries.

Even before the lockdowns, the global food system was failing in many areas, according to the UN. The report pointed to conflict, natural disasters, the climate crisis, and the arrival of pests and plant and animal plagues as existing problems. East Africa, for instance, is facing the worst swarms of locusts for decades, while heavy rain is hampering relief efforts.The additional impact of the coronavirus crisis and lockdowns, and the resulting recession, would compound the damage and tip millions into dire hunger, experts warned.

As part of the revised UN Humanitarian Appeal for COVID-19, FAO has asked for $350 million to support a range of activities aimed at helping poor farmers continue to operate, safeguard the continuity of food supply chains and markets, and prevent the food sector from being a vector of transmission for the disease.

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