Global Food Insecurity set to rise because of COVID-19

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The latest ‘State of Food Security and Nutrition report of 2020’ released by the FAO indicates that the number of undernourished persons in the world has increased by around 60 million in the last 6 years. The UN also estimates that the number of people facing acute food insecurity is set to double in 2020, because of COVID-19 if adequate & swift corrective measures are not taken. 

In 2015, the member states of the United Nations accepted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals which act as a blueprint for achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. This is to be done by addressing the global challenges the world is faced with including poverty, malnutrition, and food security. Despite such a goal in place, the number of hungry people globally has been increasing since 2014 even if slightly. 

More than a quarter of world’s population already faces some level of food insecurity 

The number of undernourished persons in the world rose to 687.8 million in 2019 which is 8.9% of the world population. The number is approximately 60 million more compared to 2014, reveals the State of Food Security and Nutrition report of 2020, released recently by the Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).   If this trend persists, the FAO has projected that by 2030, the number of undernourished persons would rise to over 841 million persons, which would be a number greater than that in 2005. It has to be noted that these projections were made without taking into consideration the setback caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. People may go hungry or reduce their intake of food in the wake of the crisis. In 2019, around 2 billion people, almost 26% of the world’s population, experienced hunger or lacked access to nutritious and sufficient food as per the report. 

In 2020, COVID-19 coupled with the locust infestation is expected to exacerbate food insecurity

The previous editions of the report cited that conflict, climate variability, and economic slowdowns acted as hindrances on the path to achieve the global target. COVID-19 pandemic is expected to only aggravate this problem. Desert Locust outbreaks in Eastern Africa, Arabian Peninsula, and parts of South Asia, especially amidst the pandemic, has only exacerbated the situation. What’s even worse is that these regions are among ones with a higher prevalence of undernourishment. 

Source: SOFI, 2020

Acute food insecurity likely to double in 2020 due to COVID-19

The pandemic has brought about a setback to the years of progress achieved in this area. Without doubt, COVID-19 will result in more people getting exposed to food insecurity. FAO’s report projects that an additional 83 to 132 million persons will be pushed to the undernourished category because of COVID-19. Meanwhile, according to the UN World Food Programme, the number of people facing acute food insecurity is all set to rise to 265 million in 2020, up from 135 million in 2019, all due to COVID-19. Acute food insecurity refers to food insecurity as a consequence of unprecedented events. However, the severity and future of the pandemic is still uncertain, to make further projections. 

Disruption in demand and supply of food crops witnessed

Both demand and supply of food have been disrupted because of the pandemic. The production of major food crops such as wheat, rice, maize, etc. is anticipated to be above average in 2020 by FAO. However, measures adopted to contain the coronavirus restricts labour mobility- affecting availability of migrant labour, access to markets, and transportation of the food produce. 

Access to food and economic problems due to lockdowns imposed across the world is expected to impede the demand. The economically backward and vulnerable groups will be most affected as per the report. The low- and middle-income countries which are already suffering will face a major blow to their food security. Even countries where food security was not a problem are likely to encounter food insecurity now. 

Healthcare services for maternal and infant health hindered due to pandemic

Healthcare centers have been overwhelmed because of the pandemic and this has affected their ability to extend childcare and antenatal care. Moreover, in developing countries, infectious diseases such as malaria, diarrhoea, tuberculosis, etc. are still prevalent and quality nutrition intake is a must. Lack of nutrient rich food further weakens their immunity which will increase their vulnerability to contract the viral infection. In India, school going children lack access to mid-day meals since education institutions are closed. In many countries,  community level activities intended to spread awareness on health and nutrition have also been suspended due to the pandemic. 

Nutritional status of people to be affected 

Due to limited mobility, women, children, and persons with disability will be more susceptible as they already lag behind in terms of accessing economic and financial resources. Nonetheless, the movement restriction will make it more difficult for persons to access food even if they are economically sound. Diet quality is also anticipated to deteriorate since people may tend to buy food with long shelf life which are generally processed and high in salt and sugar content. 

These myriad socio-economic factors are expected to result in a fall of the population’s nutritional status. As of 2019, around 144 million (21.3%) children worldwide under five years of age were estimated to be stunted, 47 million (6.9%) wasted and 38.3 million (5.6%) were overweight, while a minimum of 340 million children suffered from micronutrient deficiencies. 

Food prices are expected to increase compromising people’s ability to afford nutritious food

Countries that are heavily dependent on imported food as staples will be at a higher risk due to border closures. The World Bank has forecasted the deepest recession since World War – II due to the pandemic. The decreased economic activity because of the pandemic will result in high variation of food prices across and within countries. In order to avert increase in food prices, it is necessary that timely corrective interventions are taken by governments. For this, it is necessary that trade channels be allowed to stay open. 

Policy recommendations to prevent increase in food price and ensure access to healthy diet at affordable price

In its report, the FAO has listed out a few policy recommendations to prevent increase in the cost of nutritious food and to ensure access to healthy affordable diet. These include 

  • Emergency food assistance and social protection programs to ensure access to nutritious food for the poor and the vulnerable. 
  • Provision of life saving humanitarian assistance to prevent famine
  • Trade and tax policies should be such that global trade is open
  • Focus on key logistics bottlenecks to avoid unnecessary price hikes
  • Extend direct support to smallholders to help them enhance productivity- reducing pre and post-harvest losses, ensure access to food markets, and opening up e-commerce channels
  • Taking up double duty actions to reduce the pandemic’s impact on food security and nutrition, that is, addressing multiple aspects through common interventions. For example, breastfeeding promotion, maternal nutrition and antenatal care programs, etc.
  • Initiate food fortification programs (ensure intake of micronutrients)
  • Economic stimulus measures to help people cope with decreased purchasing power and unemployment
  • Installation of Food Safety Management Systems in the food industry to prevent food contamination

The progress of various countries has been seriously affected not only in the areas of poverty, malnutrition, and food security, but also in few other Sustainable Development Goals. It will be difficult for countries, especially the developing countries to get back on track to achieve the 2030 targets because of resource reallocation and the shifting of entire focus to strengthening healthcare systems. The pandemic has exposed a fragile interconnected system that calls for urgent repair.

Featured Image: Global Food Insecurity

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