Food Insecurity In An Uncertain Time

According to the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, 690 million people were hungry in 2019 and COVID-19 may add a further 83 – 132 million people to this number by the end of the year. The annual report published by multiple United Nations agencies last week estimates the extent of hunger, food insecurity, and malnutrition around the world in 2020.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, 8.9 percent of the world population, or 690 million people, were hungry, and nearly one in ten people were exposed to severe levels of food insecurity. In 2019, considering the total affected by moderate or severe food insecurity, “nearly 2 billion people in the world did not have regular access to safe, nutritious, and sufficient food.” The estimates confirm a worrying trend as the number of people affected by hunger has been on the rise since 2014.

Globally, malnutrition remains a challenge. According to the report, “21.3% (144 million) of children under the age of 5 were stunted, 6.9% (47 million) wasted, and 5.6% (38.3 million) overweight.” Even without accounting for the negative effects that COVID-19 will have on hunger, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 2 – Zero Hunger by 2030, is not on track to be met. As this current trend and the coronavirus outbreak continues, the number of people affected by hunger could easily surpass 840 million by 2030.

The nutritional status and food security of the most vulnerable population groups will further deteriorate due to the health and socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. A preliminary assessment suggests the pandemic may add at least 83 to 132 million people to the total number of undernourished in the world by the end of 2020. Depending on the global economic growth scenario, national coronavirus response measures, and uncertainty surrounding the full extent of the devastation that COVID-19 will cause, the number could be much higher. Beyond hunger, a growing number of people have had to reduce the quality and quantity of the food they consume. Experts state that during the pandemic a myriad of factors, including “reduced access to high-value foods, higher food prices, and the higher consumption of ultra-processed foods,” has led to declining dietary quality globally.

Additionally, there are new gigantic locust swarms ravaging lands across Africa and Asia. These swarms can swell to 70 billion insects – enough to blanket New York City more than once and can destroy 136,000 tonnes of crops in a single day. This is the worst ‘upsurge’ – the category of intensity below ‘plague’ – of locusts experienced in over 25-100 years in certain regions. As the swarms grow, management and mitigation efforts are highly complicated due to coronavirus. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates food shortages in regions already suffering from severe food insecurity, with up to 25 million East Africans alone suffering from food shortages this year.

Various UN agencies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Food Programme have called for large transformations in food systems and supply chains for individual countries, stating there is ‘no one-size-fits-all solution’, especially during the current pandemic. The UN report suggests, “countries will need a rebalancing of agricultural policies and incentives towards more nutrition-sensitive investment and policy actions all along the food supply chain to reduce food losses and enhance efficiencies at all stages.” Additionally, along with funding and aid to food sectors, “nutrition-sensitive social protection policies will also be central for them to increase the purchasing power and affordability of healthy diets of the most vulnerable populations. Policies that more generally foster behavioural change towards healthy diets will also be needed.”

It is unacceptable that, in a world that produces enough food to feed its entire population, more than 1.5 billion people cannot afford a diet that meets the required levels of essential nutrients and over 3 billion people cannot even afford the cheapest healthy diet. With much uncertainty surrounding the future, it is essential for the most vulnerable groups to have food security and to collectively be able to rebuild the global economy without the worry of starvation.

For the full report by the UN agencies:

Zaryab Makhdoom