Among the many consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, beyond the devastating impacts of the virus itself, is the effect it has had on global food security. Although high-income countries have also been affected, middle- and particularly low-income countries have seen dramatic increases in food insecurity.
The Global Network Against Food Crises has been publishing annual reports since 2017 and 39 countries have consistently experienced food crises. The 2021 edition, released in early May, outlined the alarming increase of food insecurity during the pandemic. In 2020, 155 million people in 55 countries were in acute food security crisis, the highest number in the report’s five-year history. In Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Yemen, 133,000 people were suffering from famine and 28 million people in 38 countries were one step away from famine. African countries are disproportionately affected by food crises and they accounted for two-thirds of the people who faced acute food insecurity in 2020.
The report also identified the main drivers behind food insecurity. Economic shocks replaced weather events as the second largest cause, affecting 40 million people in 17 countries, compared to 2019 with 24 million in 8 countries. This increase is largely due to the addition of COVID-19 economic consequences on pre-existing inequalities. Conflict was still the main driver in 2020, pushing almost 100 million people into acute food insecurity. Conflict will remain the main cause in 2021 but COVID-19 consequences and extreme weather events will continue to worsen food crises as well. In the report’s foreword, UN Secretary General António Guterres explained that “conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing.” Conflict is the main driver for food crises and food insecurity can also cause violence, meaning hunger cannot be solved without also addressing conflict. This is a complex cycle that has yet to be broken.
In a joint statement, the Global Network and USAID said “the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the fragility of the global food system” and that our global agricultural structure needs “a radical transformation” to address food insecurity. Our agricultural system is too vulnerable to environmental, economic and social trends. It is unable to withstand shocks from conflict, climate change and most recently from the effects of COVID-19. But we do have the ability to feed the world; the hunger crisis is preventable.
In a conversation with Global Citizen, Paul Newnham, the director of the SDG2 Advocacy Hub, explained that we currently produce enough food to feed 10 billion people but our waste is massive. Newnham explained that distribution is a major challenge to our current agri-food system, highlighted by the pandemic, as lockdowns, school closures and preventative measures complicated distribution. Our entire food system needs to change, from the source to consumers. Countries must invest in sustainable farming to protect against climate change and increase the production of healthy food. Consumers must be encouraged to make sustainable decisions, which is only possible if healthy food choices become available to more people.
For its efforts at combatting hunger, the World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize despite facing many challenges. Budget issues forced the WFP to cut some aid during the pandemic and they faced increased distribution problems. The WFP and other organizations are crucial to addressing global food insecurity, but with the added effects of COVID-19 and worsening crises placing more people in need, they require greater capacity. To conduct their essential work, the WFP needs substantial funding, but this is expected to be a challenge in 2021. Steve Travella, a WFP spokesperson, said the WFP expects to raise only half of the 15 billion USD it estimates it will need in 2021, while the WFP expects it will need to serve 142 million people who will be in crisis this year.
The WFP conducts life-saving work which is only possible with financial support and state cooperation. Organizations and governments must work together to create a more stable agricultural system which can withstand shocks like COVID-19, equally and efficiently distribute food and support sustainable practices. This is a problem we can fix but it requires both global cooperation and individual action.