Coronavirus threatens to worsen global food crisis, UN warns

The coronavirus pandemic could leave the world with a food crisis worse than anything we’ve seen for over 50 years, according to the United Nations.

The economic recession threatens the ability of the world’s poorest to meet basic nutrition needs, and only with drastic action can we avoid this crisis, officials warned.

The pandemic is threatning global food security, the UN says. Image credits: Wikipedia Commons

The pandemic could push nearly 50 million more people into extreme poverty but the long-term effects could be worse, as poor nutrition in childhood leads to lifelong suffering, the UN warned. One in five children (144 million) around the world is now stunted in their growth by the age of five due to food shortages.

“Unless immediate action is taken, it is increasingly clear that there is an impending global food emergency that could have long-term impacts on hundreds of millions of children and adults,” the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. “We need to act now to avoid the worst impacts of our efforts to control the pandemic.”

Guterres warned that the worst effects of the pandemic and the economic recession are still yet to be felt, despite the fact that the harvest of staple crops are stable and protectionism fears have been mostly avoided. “Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruption in the food supply chain,” he argued.

A recent policy brief by the UN said that harvests remain healthy and supplies of food are robust but that’s not the case of local markets, from which most people get their food and that have seen disruptions. At the same time, a higher unemployment is affecting the possibilities of many to access basic food.

The report argued that lockdowns are slowing down harvests, as seasonal workers can’t go to work in full force. Food waste is also reaching damaging levels, with farmers forced to dump perishable fruits and vegetables as the result of supply chain problems. In the meat industry plants have been forced to close in some countries.

Maximo Torero, the chief economist of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, told The Guardian that the world’s food systems are under threat as never before in recent times. The pandemic and lockdowns hampered people’s ability to harvest and buy and sell food. “We need to be careful,” he said.

Action plan

Seeking to act fast, the UN laid out a set of recommendations geared towards saving lives and livelihoods, which also support the transition to a greener future. Countries need to designate food and nutrition services as essential, guaranteeing that those workers in the sector have the necessary protections.

At the same time, authorities have to scale up support for food processing, transport and local markets, and to ensure food systems can continue to function by keeping trade corridors open. The stimulus packages should be targeted to the most, vulnerable, especially small-scale farmers.

Guterres highlighted governments have to improve social protection systems for nutrition. This includes providing sufficient support for the children across the world that can’t access school feeding programs due to the suspension of classes. “Countries need to safeguard access to safe, nutritious foods, particularly for young children, pregnant and breastfeeding women,” he said.

No matter the disruptions currently brought by the pandemic, the UN said the global food system was already having troubles in many areas – such as conflicts, climate change, and pests and plagues. For example, East Africa is now dealing with one of the worst swarms of locusts it has seen for decades.

“The Covid-19 crisis is attacking us at every angle,” Agnes Kalibata, the UN secretary general’s special envoy for the 2021 food systems summit, told The Guardian. “It has exposed dangerous deficiencies in our food systems and actively threatens the lives and livelihoods of people around the world.”

It’s a reminder that the challenge from the coronavirus pandemic is still far from over, and we still have multiple challenges to overcome — in terms of public health, economy, and also feeding the planet.

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