COVID-19 risks triggering a global food crisis

United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned that hundreds of millions of people around the world could be facing a “global food emergency” as the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening global food supply chains.

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres warns that an additional 49 million people may fall into extreme poverty this year due to COVID-19.
Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres warns that an additional 49 million people may fall into extreme poverty this year due to COVID-19.

Currently, more than 820 million people worldwide do not get enough to eat, while some 144 million children under the age of five, or over 20% of the world’s children, are stunted as a result. It is predicted that this year, an additional 49 million people will fall into extreme poverty due to the impact of the novel coronavirus disease.

The UN World Food Programme (WFP) recently warned that COVID-19 threatens to increase the number of people with food insecurity by nearly two-fold from 135 million in 2019 to 265 million in late 2020. According to the WFP, emergency food insecurity is a food shortage that puts a person’s life or livelihood in immediate danger. This is more serious than long-term food shortage, a concept defining that a person does not consume enough food to maintain a normal way of life.

The WFP predicted that the number of people living in “severe food insecurity” in Latin America and the Caribbean could even increase by four times from 3.4 million in 2019 to 13.7 million later this year due to the negative impact of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Action Against Hunger (AAH), a non-governmental organisation, raised an alert that the disease could push an additional 29 million Latin American people into poverty this year. “In a region where one in every three people was living in a state of food insecurity even before the COVID-19 outbreak, the economic recession rate of 5% and an 11% increase in unemployment due to the impact of the pandemic will plunge the region into the largest-scale crisis in the last century,” an AAH official stated.

A World Bank report released on June 9 assessed that the world economy could recover by 4% in 2021, but the number of people living in extreme poverty will remain unchanged. Accordingly, the number of people falling into extreme poverty may expand from 70 million to 100 million this year due to the economic impact of COVID-19, compared with an estimated 40-60 million in April. Such an increase threatens to eliminate the poverty relief progress in recent years and may undermine the goal of ending extreme poverty by 2030. The report noted that Nigeria, India and DR Congo are the three countries that the WB believes account for more than 30% of the world’s poorest people.

Many countries in the Middle East and Africa are also facing the risk of a serious food crisis. Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab recently warned of the risk of COVID-19 not only causing a food security emergency in Lebanon but also on a global scale. He stressed the need to oppose attempts to restrict food export, and called on the UN and the European Union to set up an emergency fund to help the Middle East avoid a humanitarian disaster. According to him, without timely measures, starvation may spark a new migration flow to Europe and further destabilise the Middle Eastern region.

Yemen, which has been pushed to the brink of famine due to a five-year war, now has about 80% of its population living on relief and tens of millions of people are facing of starvation. The UN said that Yemen is among the most vulnerable countries in the Middle East in terms of food security, along with Syria and Sudan. Lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have seriously affected humanitarian supply chains in the region.

Unless the world takes immediate actions, a global food emergency will possibly cause long-term consequences for hundreds of millions of people, including children. To push back the risk of famine, the international community needs to exert urgent efforts to maintain a smoothly operating global food supply chain. Governments of countries, especially of underdeveloped nations, should implement social welfare policies and food distribution to ensure the people’s lives. On the other hand, the international community needs to further accelerate social aid and food relief initiatives for people in poor countries which have been plunged into difficulties since the outbreak of the disease. Governments should also make prompt investments in agricultural production while encouraging the private sector to support agricultural processing companies.