Beyond the questions surrounding the availability, effectiveness and safety of a vaccine, the Covid-19 pandemic has led us to question where our food is coming from and whether we will have enough.
According to a United Nations World Food Program (WFP) report, Covid-19 might have left up to 265 million people with acute food shortages in 2020. The combined effect of the pandemic and the emerging global recession “could, without large-scale coordinated action, disrupt the functioning of food systems,” which would “result in consequences for health and nutrition of a severity and scale unseen for more than half a century,” states another UN report.
In the United States, “food insecurity has doubled overall, and tripled among households with children” because of the pandemic, states a June 2020 report by the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) at Northwestern University, which relied on data provided by the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
In a recent interview with CBS News, IPR director Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach warned that these statistics would likely “continue to hold,” with the numbers indicating particularly dramatic rises in food insecurity among black and Hispanic families.
Globally, the effects of Covid-19 on food security are equally, if not more, severe. According to a CBS News report, WFP director David Beasley told the UN Security Council in April 2020 that the world is on “the brink of a hunger pandemic.”
He added, “In a worst-case scenario, we could be looking at famine in about three dozen countries, and in fact, in 10 of these countries we already have more than 1 million people per country who are on the verge of starvation.”
Mark Lowcock, the undersecretary general and emergency relief coordinator at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and Axel van Trotsenburg, managing director of operations at the World Bank, wrote: “The number of chronically hungry people increased by an estimated 130 million last year, to more than 800 million –about eight times the total number of Covid-19 cases to date.
“Countries affected by conflict and climate change are particularly vulnerable to food insecurity. Empty stomachs can stunt whole generations.”
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) warns that climate change “is likely to diminish continued progress on global food security through production disruptions that lead to local availability limitations and price increases, interrupted transport conduits, and diminished food safety.”
The same might be said about the pandemic, which has made it abundantly clear: Climate resilience, food security and global health are closely intertwined.
In terms of food security, another major concern is the pandemic-related school closures that have occurred across the globe, with UNICEF reporting that more than 1.6 billion children and young people have been affected.
Schools provide a food lifeline for children; for many, that is where they get their only nutritious meal of the day. In January, the UNICEF Office of Research–Innocenti and WFP released a new report that found that more than 39 billion in-school meals have been missed worldwide since the pandemic began, with 370 million children worldwide having missed 40% of in-school meals.
In early 2020, when Covid-19 was still a looming specter rather than the potentially deadly virus we’re more familiar with today, the threat of food insecurity was a practical problem. Scenes of shoppers descending on aisles to stock up on supplies were a common sight. As CNN reported in March 2020, supermarkets around the world rationed food and other products such as toilet paper and cleaning supplies, in an effort to curb stockpiling.
As the pandemic continues to upend lives across the world, it has impacted the entire food supply chain. With factory and supermarket workers being highly susceptible to Covid-19, there has been a concomitant decline in food production and a rise in prices.
As Scott Faber, senior vice-president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), reported, farmers in the US were already facing labor shortages prior to the pandemic, and with tightened immigration as well as the heightened risk and poor compensation associated with these jobs, “food processors and farm labor contractors may struggle to find other workers willing to risk their lives to work in meat plants, packing sheds or produce fields.”
The pandemic has exposed the weakness of the industrialized global food system, which depends on long, complex transportation chains and cross-border travel.
“The monstrous and unsustainable food industry known as Big Ag … relies on the horrendous treatment of laborers, a wasteful allocation of resources, worldwide environmental devastation – and in a pinch, can quickly devolve into near-collapse of the entire system, as evidenced by the delays, shortages and pressure during the Covid-19 pandemic, and the deepening hunger crisis in America,” April M Short, a fellow at the Independent Media Institute, recently wrote in Salon.
“Among the many necessary systemic changes 2020 has illuminated is the need to majorly restructure the way we cultivate and access food in our communities.”
It didn’t take the pandemic to reveal the inefficiency and injustice of our food system: globally, a third of all food is wasted, while nearly 690 million people were undernourished in 2019 – almost 60 million more people than in 2014.
But the pandemic has underscored the matter: According to OCHA, “the number of acutely food insecure people could increase to 270 million due to Covid-19, representing an 82% increase compared [with] the number of acutely food insecure people pre-Covid-19.”
And the disruption of transportation has shown that the long distances it normally takes for food to get from one place to another can be a serious liability during a crisis.
China, which was the first country to be hit by the virus that causes Covid-19, offers insight into the prolonged impact of the pandemic on transportation and food systems. The lockdown in Hubei province, which is home to 66 million people, led to a shortage in delivery of animal feed as well as refrigerated containers full of imported vegetables, fruit and frozen meat in February 2020, according to an article in The Conversation.
Food insecurity has long been a pressing issue, particularly for developing countries. However, as Mir Ashrafun Nahar, a research associate at the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling, explained in a Financial Express article, “the Covid-19 pandemic has made it more acute.”
In response, Nahar argues for a policy-based approach that includes “subsidy based transportation systems for agriculture” to support supply chains, as well as policies aimed at cutting down on agricultural production costs in order to help farmers recover from the effects of the pandemic.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental economic group with 37 member countries, said that the pandemic “has laid bare pre-existing gaps in social protection systems” in a report published in June 2020.
“While the impacts of Covid-19 are still unfolding, experience so far shows the importance of an open and predictable international trade environment to ensure food can move to where it is needed,” the OECD report states. “The biggest risk for food security is not with food availability but with consumers’ access to food: safety nets are essential to avoid an increase in hunger and food insecurity.”
Another problem is the lack of media coverage about the food insecurity being witnessed around the world, particularly during the Covid-19 era. As The Economist recently pointed out, journalists in 2020 “wrote more than 50,000 articles about the canceled Eurovision song contest, but only around 2,000 about drought and hunger in Zambia.”
For meaningful reform to the food system to occur, change is going to have to happen at every level: from national, state and local governments, to Big Ag, small farmers and everyday consumers.
With the future looking ever more uncertain due to the climate crisis, adapting to new ways of producing and transporting food will be key to our survival.